English has won the battle for paramount global language. But whose English?
There’s national honor - or honour - at stake, and also money. English-language instruction is a multibillion-dollar business.
In most of continental Europe, the British version prevails - students learn to write “theatre” and “offence,” not “theater” and “offense.”
In Japan and most of Latin America, American style has the edge. Each style has its strongholds in Southeast Asia.
Canada has its own distinct, sometimes confused style that employs both U.S. and British usage. Just look at the 1995-96 pre-season guidebook put out by the Toronto Raptors of the National Basketball Association. It mixed “centre” and “center” and “favorite” and “favourite.” One player, Dwayne Whitfield, was described as having won college MVP “honors” his junior year and MVP “honours” the next.
If there’s a trend, experts say, it’s probably in favor of the U.S. style. American usage dominates on the Internet and other on-line networks, and multinational corporations tend to use U.S. spellings.
“In sheer numbers, there are more Americans, America is a bigger economic machine, so people tend to gravitate in that direction,” said Ronald Butters, a Duke University professor who is an expert on the American dialect.
However, the British aren’t ready to take a back seat in promoting their own language. The government-supported British Council, which runs 90 language schools worldwide, has launched a global program called English 2000 to defend and increase Britain’s share of the market for English-language instruction - British English, that is.
Jane Moyo, a council spokeswoman in London, insists the British are making inroads into the Americans’ back yard in Latin America and the Pacific Rim.
In Brazil, American English holds a slight edge - it’s preferred for movie subtitles, advertising and instruction manuals. But in schools, the split is roughly 50-50, and about 120,000 people study at a British-run network of schools called Cultura Inglesa.
Donald Occhiuzzo, academic director of an English-language institute in Sao Paulo, said younger Brazilians tend to get British English first, partly because the British are better prepared to teach English as a second language. As students progress, the demand for American English increases, he said.
In Japan, occupied by U.S. troops for seven years after World War II, American usage dominates, and the British Council there is realistic.
“The more people who speak English of any variety, the better for us,” said Dr. Martin Philipps, deputy director of the council for Japan. “That being said, we do seek to promote the study of modern British culture, including British English.”
Germans who study English at school are taught British spellings, but are made aware of American usages.
Vivien Campbell, a Scottish woman who teaches at a German high school, said she points out, for example, that Americans say “sidewalk” while the British say “pavement.”
But students are less interested in grammar and spelling differences than in American films, music and other aspects of U.S. culture, she said. “They are more interested in America than in England. They think America is great.”
British English is dominant among older Russians and in formal settings like universities, in part because of old teaching materials. But in everyday life, especially among younger people, American English tends to prevail.
Canada has a split personality when it comes to English. Proud of its British heritage, yet pragmatic about the pervasive influence of its American neighbor, it borrows spelling styles from each culture.
The result: constant inconsistency. The prevalent Canadian style favors the British “theatre” over the American “theater,” but the American “program” over the British “programme.” “Organization” is spelled with the American “z” rather than British “s,” but “defence” gets the British “c.”
The Canadian government’s style book calls for use of the British “-our” endings in such words as labour and honour. The Canadian Press, the national news agency that sets the style for many newspapers, opts for labor and honor.
The British concede American style dominates on the Internet and other global computer networks, but the British Council is developing British English lessons to be taught on line.
“Obviously it is the medium for the future,” Moyo, the council spokeswoman, said. “American usage is dominant - for the moment.”