If you primarily read novels written in English, have you ever wondered how writers decide which English to use? What do I mean ‘which’ English? And what’s with the weird spelling of ‘defense’ in the heading?
All of us grow up speaking not just a mother tongue (or possibly several!) but a variety of that language. In my case, I grew up speaking English, started learning Japanese as a child, and then tried my hand at French in later life before dabbling with some other languages – living and dead.
The variety of English I grew up speaking is Australian English – and more specifically, South Australian English. In this post, I want to share with you why I decided to write my debut novel in Australian English – and what that actually means.
Australian English differs from British or American varieties in a number of ways. There are differences in pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, and spelling, among others. In some ways, Standard Australian English is more similar to British English. In others, it shares more in common with American English. And then, there are features that are unique to Australian English.
Most of us know what stereotypical Australian, British, and American accents sound like. But unless you’re a linguist (that is, someone who studies language), you might not be as aware of the other differences. Such as vocabulary.
Australian English has its own distinct words, like ‘dinkum’ and ‘outback’, as well as borrowings from Australian Aboriginal languages like ‘yakka’ (which means work) and ‘kangaroo’ (which means… kangaroo).
Where British and American English differ, Australian English sometimes uses the American term (e.g. ‘truck’ instead of ‘lorry’), and sometimes prefers the British term (e.g. ‘bonnet’ instead of ‘hood’). But other times, we have a totally different word. Like ‘footpath’ instead of ‘sidewalk’ or ‘pavement’. Or ‘icy pole’ instead of ‘popsicle’ or ‘ice lolly’.
In drafting the above paragraph, my word processor automatically replaced ‘sidewalk’ with ‘pavement’. This is bizzare to me – why would I type ‘sidewalk’ if what I wanted to write was ‘pavement’? Certainly not to save effort – both words have eight letters and require the same number of keystrokes. What’s worse, I have my language set to ‘English (Australia)’. If it’s going to replace ‘sidewalk’ with anything, surely it should be ‘footpath’! (Another eight-letter word!)
There are other terms which both British and American English share, but which aren’t common in Australian English – like ‘pickup truck’ (which we call a ‘ute’) and flip-flops (which we call ‘thongs’. Yes. I know).
Additionally, we tend to use the word ‘overseas’ instead of ‘abroad’. I suspect we don’t need to use the word ‘abroad’ to refer to visiting a foreign country, since all foreign countries are overseas to us. (Brits can visit Scotland or Wales by land, and Americans have Canada and Mexico as neighbours. Or should that be ‘neighbors’?)
Other times, we use words to mean different things. ‘Biscuit’, like in the UK, to us means what ‘cookie’ means in the US. What those in the UK call ‘crisps’ and what those in the US call ‘fries’, we call ‘chips’. (Yes. Both types. Hot chips and… not hot chips. It is not at all confusing).
We use ‘football’ to refer to Australian Rules Football. UK ‘football’ is ‘soccer’ to Australians, and US ‘football’ is ‘gridiron’.
We call the edible crustaceans ‘prawns’ regardless of size (I’ve never heard an Australian call them ‘shrimp’ except Paul Hogan in that 1980s ad designed to appeal to Americans). And of course, like Britain (and in fact, the entire world except for the US, Myanmar, and Liberia) we use the metric system.
Like American English, but unlike British English, collective nouns are almost always treated as singular in Australian English – ‘the government was unable to decide’ rather than ‘the government were unable to decide. One notable exception is ‘staff’ – ‘the staff was unable to decide might be common in US English, but it sounds very strange to me.
Like British English, Australian English uses a lot of irregular past tense and past participles of verbs that have been omitted in American English – ‘learnt’ ‘smelt’ and ‘spelt’ for instance.
Speaking of spelling, Australian English tends to be closer to British than American spelling. Where US spelling has omitted the letter ‘u’ in words like colour, labour, and – noteworthy for me – humour, Australian spelling, like British spelling, retains them.
Additionally, we generally use ‘re’ instead of ‘er’ in words like ‘theatre’ ‘centre’ and ‘manoeuvre’. (All of which now have red squiggly lines under them as I type them into WordPress).
While US spelling favours ‘-ize’, UK spelling allows for both ‘-ise’ and ‘-ize’ endings in words like ‘realise’ and ‘organise’, with the OED favouring ‘-ize’ (‘-ise’ is listed as a variant). In Australian spelling, however, ‘-ise’ is very much the standard. (And, like most English-speaking countries, we call the letter ‘z’ ‘zed’ – a throwback to its derivation from the Greek ‘zeta‘. The American English ‘zee’ comes from a late 17thC English dialect).
In other ways, Australian English shares commonalities with American English. One famous example is the Australian Labor Party, one of the two major political parties in Australia, which is said to have chosen the American-style spelling in an attempt at modernisation (or should that be ‘modernization’ with a ‘zee’?)
A 19thC pamphlet argued for spelling reform in Australian English along the lines of ‘American Spelling’, including the deletion of ‘u’ in words like ‘labor’ and ‘honor’. There are also some Australian place names, like Victor Harbor which follow this tradition (and which the spellchecker on my wordprocessor now tells me is incorrect, but WordPress disagrees).
These spellings (which today are considered ‘Americanisms’) were popular throughout Australia in the 19th and 20thC, and were endorsed by at least one state department of education until the 1970s. But they were certainly not endorsed by the time I was a student, decades later. I remember my year one teacher (that’s ‘first grade’) passing out a worksheet on colours she had photocopied from a US book, after painstakingly re-adding the ‘u’ to ever instance of the word ‘color’.
There are punctuation differences, too – Australians use both single and double quotation makes, and generally conform to what is called ‘logical punctuation’ (a.k.a. ‘British style’). This permits the placement of punctuation that is not part of the original quote outside of the quotation marks (e.g. if quoting ‘I wanted to get three apples and four bananas’ it would be preferable to write ‘”I wanted to get three apples“, she said “and four bananas” rather than “I wanted to get three apples,” she said “and four bananas”‘ – which implies a pause that the original did not contain.)
Yet, there are exceptions to the rule. The British style guide Butchers Copy-Editing recommends American-style punctuation of speech in fiction. Conversely, in my own academic field of linguistics, precise writing about language requires strictly logical quotation, with extraneous punctuation place outside the (often single) quotation marks – even in North American publications.
In contrast to its use of more British styles of quotation, like American and Canadian English, Australian English uses both spaced and unspaced em-dashes. And computer keyboards marketed in Australia use the US format (which has dollars but no pounds, euro or negation symbols, as on UK keyboards). Yet, like Britain (and most of the world, except for the US and the Philippines), we order dates either as DD/MM/YYYY or YYYY/MM/DD. (The system which places the medium unit first never fails to confuse me!)
What English should authors use?
As the above demonstrates, Australian English, just like British English or American English – or, for that matter, Indian English or Malaysian English or Fijian English – has its own rules and variations, its own rich vocabulary that refers to concepts and items that are significant in Australian culture, or which have their own history, and its own aspects of punctuation and grammar which reflect and/or influence how we organise our thoughts.
Changing a book from ‘Australian English’ (or any other variety) to ‘American English’ is, therefore, not a simple matter of adding a few ‘zees’ and cutting out a few ‘u’s. The differences between Australian and American varieties of English are far more extensive than a few changes in accent and spelling.
So many Englishes to choose from
We’ve established that there is more than one English. But which should authors use? Which is the ‘right’ one?
Is it the English spoken in England? But there are dozens of English dialects in England.
Is it the ‘Queen’s English’ then? Even though it’s one of the best known English accents, that variety is only spoken by a tiny minority of people.
So is it American English?
A variety which has 225 million speakers?
When I was a student in Japan and helped out reading English dialogues, our teacher asked me to use an ‘American accent’ so my classmates, who were learning ostensibly ‘American English’ could understand me more easily.
Choosing which English to teach is an important question for language teachers. Teaching American English usually means utilising American books and American TV shows and American films. Teaching British English might mean using resources from the BBC and English novels.
In other words, it influences the culture that students are exposed to as well.
But yet again, we still have to ask which American English?
Although I have referred to Australian, American, and British English above, in reality, there is lots of variety within these varieties.
Do we mean African American English? Chicano English? Yyeshevia English? Appalachian English? Boston English?
And what would make us choose the language of one people, or one location, above others? Prestige? Population? Comprehensibility?
What about International English, then? The vast majority of English speakers are not what we might think of as ‘native speakers’ (which is a problematic term in itself), but are people who have acquired or learned English as a second language. Every day, English is spoken and used (in reports and correspondence etc.) as a ‘lingua franca‘ between people for whom English is neither of their first languages.
Linguistic imperialism and language death
The English language spread throughout the world in large part as a product of colonialism, and later, as a result of economic globalisation. People were forced or incentivised to use English, often at the expense of other tongues, which resulted in the death of many languages. In linguistics, this is known as ‘linguicide’.
In the 2000s, there were estimated to be around 7,000 languages in existence. By, 2100, it is predicted that 90% of them will be lost.
Every time a language is lost, we lose a whole way of understanding the world.
Some, such as Robert Phillipson, have described the dominance of English as a form of imperialism. If one wants to use ‘correct’ English, one is in an impossible position. Do I use American English? British English? Or another, less known, ‘standard’ form, like Australian or Canadian or Scottish English?
Whether you’re a teacher, a student of English, or a novelist, whatever English you choose, someone will think the way you are writing is ‘wrong’.
To this end, many advocate the recognition of ‘Englishes’ – the fact that there are multiple forms of English around the world, spoken by different people in different contexts, and none of them are wrong.
Not wrong. Different.
In the 1960s and 1970s, linguists including William Labov conducted extensive research on the distinctive features of African American Vernacular English. Before this work was carried out, many believed that AAVE to be grammatically ‘simple’ or ‘sloppy’, when in reality, like all dialects, it shows consistent internal logic and grammatical complexity.
Traditionally, teachers attempted to eliminate AAVE use, perceiving it as ‘defective’. But in 1979, one judge ordered the Ann Arbor School District to find a way to identify AAVE speakers and help them leverage that knowledge in learning to read ‘Standard [American] English’.
AAVE speakers have also faced difficulties in the legal system. Because interpreters are only routinely available for speakers of a language other than English, jurors, stenographers, and others who lack familiarity with the dialect can sometimes misunderstand AAVE speakers. In one tragic case, the testimony of a witness in a murder trial was dismissed as ‘incomprehensible’ and therefore ‘not credible’ by a jury.
In Australia, too, speakers of Australian Aboriginal English varieties have encountered discrimination in educational and legal settings, to name but a few.
Many years ago, when I was an exchange student in Japan, the leader of our exchange told us that differences between cultures don’t necessarily mean that one is ‘right’ and one is ‘wrong’. They can simply be different. The same is true of language.
At least, that’s what a linguist would tell you.
But what about when it comes to writing fiction?
What should authors do?
If Standard American English is the variety you feel most comfortable with, congratulations. You don’t need to worry about what kind of spelling, grammar, punctuation, dialogue, vocabulary, date format, measurements etc. etc. to use.
But if, like me, and the vast majority of English speakers, you primarily use another variety of English, you’ve got some decisions to make.
Just as Butcher’s, the British style guide, recommends using American-style punctuation in fiction, Australian publishing expert and author Euan Mitchell suggests that, unless there is a compelling reason to do otherwise, authors should use US standards when it comes to spelling etc.
Why? Is it because US standards are inherently superior? More… standard? (That’s definitely not the case!)
No. It’s because US-based readers tend to be less aware of, and ultimately less tolerant of, styles of English that differ to their own.
Exposure and tolerance
It’s not surprising, really. The US is a prolific producer of books, TV shows, and movies. It is perfectly possible for a US-based reader to source all or almost all of their entertainment in their preferred variety of English and remain a part of the global discussion.
An Australian would struggle to find a radio or television station that broadcasts mostly Australian content. In fact, as in many other smaller nations, the government has implemented minimum quotas. Without them, broadcasters would find it cheaper and easier to simply purchase media from overseas. Last year, 33 films were made in Australia – not bad for a country of our size, but it certainly doesn’t give film buffs a lot of choice.
And of course, if you were to restrict your listening and viewing and reading to Australian media, you would also be restricting your participation in the global discussion about media, which, in English-speaking circles at least, is largely dominated by US culture.
Of course, as large as it is geographically, Australia is a tiny country, population-wise. We can’t expect Australian media to play as important a role on the global stage as American media.
What about British media, then? British television shows, for instance, are often wildly popular in Australia. So what about in the US?
Not so much. America tends to favour remaking media for local audiences rather than rebroadcasting the original. Sometimes, this process adds a lot of original content or makes substantial changes to ensure the show will appeal to US audiences. Other times, the original script is used verbatim – suggesting the producers believed the content would appeal to an American audience as is, but would be made more palatable with familiar American faces, in a familiar American setting, and with those lines delivered in a familiar American accent.
In spite of the large number of British shows remade for American TV, there are relatively few American shows remade for British television. Is that because Brits don’t enjoy American programs?
Again, that’s not the case. British audiences are very accepting of American originals. In fact, they appear to prefer them to remakes, with attempts at remaking programs like ‘The Golden Girls’ having limited success compared to their originals. The only American shows to actually be remade instead of repeated tend to be game shows. (After all, we all want to hold on to the illusion that one day, we might win. And if every single contestant is in another country to us, that illusion evaporates pretty quickly!)
Similar trends are visible when it comes to film: while in the UK, foreign films are wildly consumed, with subtitles rather than dubbing (which s generally only used for media aimed at children), in the US, foreign films are more likely to be dubbed, or even entirely remade (e.g. ‘The Ring’, ‘Ghost in the Shell’) for mainstream audiences.
In short, audiences in the US have relatively limited exposure to non-US varieties of English. It is perfectly possible to ignore films and TV programs made in Australia, or South Africa, or New Zealand, and still take part in day-to-day conversations.
Audiences in the UK and smaller countries like Australia have far more exposure to US-English. In part because the populations of these nations is so much smaller. Quite aside from the cultural prestige of US productions, remaking American television and movies for local audiences would be prohibitively expensive, and come at the cost of local content, so it simply isn’t frequently done outside of game and reality shows. Australians (and Brits) etc. are used to American accents, place names, and actors in part because we don’t really have a choice. Ignoring the latest trends in Hollywood or HBO is a quick ticket to cutting yourself off from much of the Anglosphere.
What does this have to do with books?
Because Australians are so used to American content, I cannot imagine an Australian reader complaining that an American author should have had their character eating an icy pole and wearing a pair of thongs on a hot 10th of February. (Unless, of course, the book is set in Australia and a purportedly accurate portrayal!)
But, I can imagine American readers complaining about the use of Australian English in books written by Australian authors and set in Australia because it’s happened to me.
So, why would I choose to ignore Mitchell’s very sensible advice, and write in Australian English anyway?
From a commercial point of view, his advice is sound. Most, if not all, Australians (and users of non-US Englishes) will still read a book that uses US linguistic conventions. But at least some Americans will not read (or will criticise) a book that uses non-US spelling, grammar, or vocabulary items.
And to be fair, it is harder for Americans. Firstly, because of the lack of exposure US citizens get to other varieties of English in their media, relative to the exposure the rest of us get to American English. Language learning depends heavily on input, and the same is true of becoming comfortable with a variety of language. Secondly, because for all non-US citizens, the main variety of English to understand or cater for is fairly obvious: US English. But for US citizens? There are so many Englishes to try and learn about.
Why I write in Australian English
In spite of the impact this choice may have on a novel’s popularity, I choose to write in Australian English when I am writing about Australian characters in Australian settings. Why?
Firstly, I strongly believe that linguistic accuracy is an important part of capturing a setting. An American reader would (rightly) object to a book in which a Wild West cowboy spoke Singaporean cabdriver English. So why wouldn’t we expect an Australian politician to speak (and think) an educated variety of Australian English? Why would the airport officials in a country in which English is not the primary language speak like Americans?
Secondly, I believe linguistic pluralism, or the recognition of more than one language is important – and the same goes for varieties of languages too.
Readers who want to read books in American English already have a plethora of choices. The same is true of songs, TV shows, and movies. But a speaker of Australian English must really look to find culture they can consume in their own language.
Personally, I have no desire to read only books written by my compatriots. I try to read as widely as I can – across both space and time. I try to read as many translated works as possible – although translation is its own complex can of worms. And I even try to read novels in my second language (as much of a struggle as it is!)
But as widely as I like to read, I also enjoy being able to pick up a book that speaks my language – as infrequently as this occurs. In addition to ensuring my writing reflects the language of the people and places it depicts, I also want to contribute to the richness and variety of English. I want others who speak Australian English to have an option in their language – and I want others who don’t to be able to experience the sense of transportation I do when I read novels in Englishes other than my own. I for one am glad that Douglas Adams and PG Wodehouse, for example, wrote in their very British manner, and I would be saddened to see all differences flattened to the point that American and Australian and Antiguan novels are interchangable.
Creative writing is meant, at its heart, to be creative, and creativity comes, in large part, from the meeting and exchange of different ideas.
I believe there are two kinds of reading we do: reading to grow and transform and become better people, either by learning some concrete lesson, or by gaining some measure of understanding of what it would be like to be someone else. And reading to comfort, to curl up with the familiar and feel as if we’re being enveloped in a warm hug. These aren’t just differences of genre, but differences of language and setting and culture, too.
To ensure these experiences remain available to us all, we need writing in languages other than English (including in translation), and writing in Englishes other than US English. US English speakers need to be able to discover new ways of approaching the world. To be challenged and jolted from the familiar at times – which is less likely to happen if all books are written in US English and set in white middle class US homes. And non-US readers also need to be able to seek solace and find a home in literature. To find role models that are similar to them, and not have to stretch quite so much every time they read to understand and translate what is going on.
Variety truly is the spice of life.