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English for all of us

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Dali S. Naga
Over the years, Tarumanagara University is striving to have excellent English in its campus. Academic staffs and students are requested to promote their mastery of the English language. Several credits of English are inserted into its crowded curriculum while extracurricular English is encouraged through English Club as well as through this bulletin. English is for all of us. It is therefore interesting to look into some aspects of English.

Linguistically, we distinguish English into Old English and Modern English. While culturally, we encounter varieties of English. Beside King’s or Queen’s English, there are American English, Australian English, Canadian English, Indian English, Singaporean English, Philippines English, African English, the Pidgin and Creole English, and we may now add, Indonesian English. In many occasions, those varieties of English are distinguishable from hearing the accents of their speakers. The American English goes even so far as to have quite a lot of different spellings and different words. And there is only one qualification here for the Pidgin English, it is terrible.

Let’s begin from the Old English. Just to give us a feeling of how different Old English is from the Modern English, let us look into a passage of English dated from about 500 years ago.
Masstresse, thow be so that I, unaqweyntyd with yow as yet, tak up on me to be thus bold as to wryght on to yow with ought your knowlage and leve, yet, mastress, for syche pore servyse as I now in my mynd owe yow, purposying, ye not dyspleasyd, durying my lyff to contenu the same, I beseche yow to pardon my boldness, and not to dysdeyn, but to accepte thys sympyll byll to recommand me to yow in syche wyse as I best can or may imagyn to your most plesure.
This passage is quoted from the letter written by John Paston and addressed to Margery Brews about 500 years ago. Although it is different from Modern English but it is still comprehensible. Now let us look into another passage dated from about 1000 years ago. It was written in the year 994.
An. DCCCCXCIIII. Her on pisum eare com Anlaf and Swezen to Lundenbyriz on Nativitas Sancte Marie mid IIII and hundnizontizum scipum, and hi pa on pa buhr festlice feohtende waeron …
It is indeed incomprehensible except perhaps the word Londun for London. The words are already too old for us. The passage actually means ‘Here in this year came Olaf and Svein to London town on the Nativity of St. Mary with four and ninety ships, and they then the town continuously attacking were …

The Modern English is a blend of 35% French, 25% Anglo-Saxon, 16% Latin, 14% Greek, and 10% all others. It is perhaps surprising and beyond our imagination that in reality French is the biggest component in the formation of Modern English while Latin and Greek together comes next. There are many languages in the all others including Chinese, Indian, Arabic, and even Malays. The word ‘run amok or amuck’ came from amuk and the word ‘mandarin’ came from menteri.

In its written form, English adopts the Latin character. In many circumstances each of the character has more than one sound. Disregarding the differences in phonology, the characters are used in various frequencies. In descending order of frequencies the characters are respectively e, t, a, followed by o, I, n, s, with equal frequencies, and followed by h, r, d, l, u, c, m, f, w, y, p, v, b, g, k, q, j, x, and z.

Several decades ago, the Indonesian students did learn English. It was the King’s or the Queen’s English. It was the English from England or London. But nowadays, the English in Indonesia is a mixture of Queen’s English and particularly American English. In some cases, the American predominates, that it is proper to call it American rather than English.

After about 300 years of separation, English in America evolves in different direction and creates spellings and words apart from England English. Aside of the differences in spellings, for certain objects, there exist different words between English and American. Let us see some of them. The English words followed by its equivalent in American in the parenthesis are as follows.

Colour (color), honour (honor), centre (center), organization (organization), tyre (tire), speciality (specialty), labour (labor), humour (humor), odour (odor), behaviour (behavior), licence (license), pretence (pretense), analyse (analyze), aeroplane (airplane), billion (trillion), autumn (fall), corn (wheat), maize (corn), lift (elevator), sweets (candy) wind screen (windshield), biscuit (cracker), prawn (shrimp), barrister (lawyer), pavement (sidewalk), torch (flashlight), petrol (gasoline), goal (jail), tin (can), public school (private school), council school (public school), black-coated (white collar), dust bin (garbage can), book shop (book store).

There are more words in American which can not be found in English and vice versa. But the above example is quite enough to show the differences between them.

Now let us turn to Pidgin English. In Pidgin English, the English words are combined with native grammar and phonology. A passage from Melanesian Pidgin English is like the following.

Oltagedar maen en i-kam bung, nau papa bilong meri, mama bilong em i-mekim bigfela kaikai tumach, nau maen i-laik kichim meri, I slipim trifela ring, mau faivfela ring long bilum, em i-kartim i-kam long ples bilong bilong meri … maen i-tok “disfela meri em i-samting bilong mi, em i-kartim pikinini, kukim kaikai, plaetim taro, wokim oltagedar samting bilong meri” …
In English, this passage is: All the men and women assemble. Then the woman’s parents make a very big feast. Then the man who wishes to take the woman lays three or five rings in a net-bag. He carries them to the woman’s village … The man says, “This woman is something of mine. She bears children, cooks food, plants taros, does everything pertaining to women” … Look at the context papa bilong meri. Meri means girl and hence it means papa belongs to meri or meri’s papa.

No further comment is needed for this Pidgin English. Resembling this Pidgin English is the Creole English which also needs no comment here.

Then there is the idiom. Idiom is used to enrich the language. They are the spices of speeches or essays. But some idioms are culture bound such that we might get wrong spices for the dishes of our English. Should we take such idioms for granted? Is it appropriate for us to invent new idioms for our Indonesian English? Let us take a look at two of them: take a French leave, and sitting below the salt.

To take a French leave is to go away surreptitiously without announcement. How on earth the English got this idea? Was it related to the history of conquer and invasion between the countries? To sit below the salt is to be in lower position. When the kings and queens of the ancient times invited guests to lunch or dinner, they put the salt at the centre of the table. Those higher ranking guests were sat above the salt while those in minor positions were sat below the salt.

Now it comes to Tarumanagara. If English is for all of us in this campus, then which English should we adopt? Definitely and absolutely, it is not the Old English or the Pidgin English. It has to be Modern Proper English. And then we face two varieties of English, the King’s or Queen’s English and the American English? It seems wise for us to learn both of them. When we meet English people then we use the King’s or Queen’s English. When in another opportunity we meet American citizens, then we use American English. Of course there is always a possibility of mixing them up. Then that is the risk that we have to learn to avoid.

And finally what should we do about the idioms? It seems that that we have to be selective in absorbing idioms. English as it is, it seems more appropriate to leave out those idioms which are too culture bound especially when such culture is too alien to us. It is easy for us to take for granted, for instance, the idiom the movers and shakers quoted from the poem of Sir Arthur Eddington from his book, The Nature of the Physical World, but it is quite a different thing to quote such idiom as taking a French leave.

Notes: The passage of Old English and Pidgin English are quoted from Franklin C. Southworth and Chader J. Deswani, Foundations of Linguistics, New York: The Free Press, 1974. And some of the American words and the components of English language are quoted from Frank Colby, The Practical Handbook of Better English, New York: Grosset & Dunlap Publishers, 1947.
Mimbar Bahasa, Volume 2 Number 1, February 1998

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