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Do Americans speak English?

When the chief editor of the venerated Oxford English Dictionaries hears the word "hypnotism" pronounced "hypmotism," "input" become "input," and the term "hang gliding" come out "hand gliding," he tries not to listen.

"I've got a kind of register which goes all the way from a whimper to a sob," Robert W. Burchfield confesses. "But they're all silent whimpers and all silent sobs. There is a great deal of misuse of the English language about. That I'm agreeing with. But there isn't any more misuse about than there has been for the last 1,200 years."

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Linguistically speaking, "the condition we're in is satisfactory," he reports. "It's not worse than it's been at any time since 740 AD. And you can't go back earlier than that, because that's the first record of English" (found, incidentally, in three documents from the north of England now enshrined in the British Museum).

From his exalted vantage point -- he's been jocularly dubbed "the chief justice of the supreme linquistic court" -- the language of the English-speaking world, as he sees it, is alive, kicking, and growing at space-age speed.

Some 60,000 new words and meanings have already been added in a supplement, now growing to four volumes, to the original 10-volume Oxford English Dictionary , which was issued a volume at a time between 1884 and 1928.

In fact, before 1945 foreign words were more often sneaking into the hospitable Anglo-Saxon tongue than the other way around. Today English words are invading other languages, producing Franglais, Japlish, and Chinglish.

In the musical comedy "My Fair Lady," when Eliza Doolittle is charged with "the cold-blooded murder of the English tonque," lyricist Alan Jay Lerner insists that "there even are places where English completely disappears. In America they haven't used it for years."

On the contrary, it is rumored that in America's backwoods mountains the purest remnant of Elizabethan English can still be heard.

"That's eyewash," Mr. Burchfield retorts, a word defined in the OED as "bunkum, claptrap, nonsense.

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But the Myth, he explains, is based upon a shred of truth: Some 17th-century features of English have endured in certain parts of the United States.

For example, in the 1600s "got" and "gotten" were used in free variation on both sides of the Atlantic.

"In certain circumstances," he says, "you could say, 'I have gotten' and in others, 'I have got.' You, here in the States are still doing that. In Britain we've canceled 'gotten.'"

Since when? Since the 17th century. "We were all the same then. The first pilgrims who came here brought over that feature of Elizabeth English, and it's never changed in the US."

But there are words that have gone the opposite way. Take "shall" and "will." In the 1600s they were clearly distinguished in Britain: "I shall see you on Tuesday, come what may" (simple future). "I will see you on Tuesday, come what may" (determination).

"That is still the case in Britain," says chief editor Burchfield. "It is not true in the United States." "Similarly," he adds, "and this is a phonetic point I'm about to make: If you get the letter 't' between two vowels, as in the word 'metaphysical,' in the 17th century the 't' was pronounced as a 't.' And it is still pronounced as a 't' in Britain. In the United States it is not pronounced as a 't' but as something very close to if not exactly the same as a 'd' -- 'medaphysical.'" Perhaps the best example of a language feature abandoned in Britain but still rolling in North America is the letter "r."

In 17th-century England, in words like "port" and "more" where "r" appears in the middle or at the end, it was fully pronounced, as it still is by most Americans save for Southerners, some blacks, and Yankees from Bah Hahbah and elsewhere "Down Maine." In standard British English the medial and final "r" has receded into uttah silence.

"It cannot be said that either British English or American English is closer to Elizabethan English. The notion of purity is totally fallacious. And anyway ," Mr. Burchfield asks, "who wants to be like Elizabethan English?"

His recent lecture tour that brought him to Boston's English Speaking Union and to other podiums throughout the United States was not to sound out lingering similarities to the Queen's English but to launch the Oxford American Dictionary.

As the latest of a whole family of Oxford dictionaries that range from the original great-grandfather OED, edited by the late Sir James Murray, down to the handy Pocket Oxford Dictionary, children's dictionary, and numerous b-lingual dictionaries -- all under Mr. Burchfield's eagle eye -- the new OAD is the first major dictionary the Oxford University Press has ever published in America.

The work, edited by three dinstinguished American lexicographers and only one staff editor of the OED in Oxford, features American spelling, pronunciation, usage, and idioms. It even includes the names of all 38 Presidents. Unlike the New Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary that came out in July, inadvertently but, as it turned out, accurately including the name of Ronald Reagan, the election came too close to press time for the OAD to include Mr. Reagan.

Rather than try to break into the market of American collegiate dictionaries, all six of which, Mr. Burchfield concedes, "are equally good, we thought we'd see if we couldn't to better than these with one just a little smaller for everybody's quick use."

Definitions are simple and straightforward. Its new pronunciation system, he claims, is easier to use than those in American dictionaries. The editors believe the new OAD is being published at just the right time to reduce the fog brought on by the enormous change in language in recent years -- to clear up confusion about what some words mean and how they should be used.

As, for forces that change language, it is Mr. Burchfield's view that the dominant influence on language is local -- not movies, TV, radio, or even science and technology.

"I'll give you an example. Just think of the redisue left in tha language from 50 years of cowboy-and-Indian films. One knows something about the leather garments that cowboys wore on their haunches. A few words like, 'How,' when you greet a person, And the names of a few characters like Tom Mix. But the effect on the languange has been less than trivial, almost nil.

Where language happens is out there in the streets. Language changes in its spoken form, not in its written form."

Even before there were streets in the Colonies, it was the American Indian who was enriching English with such all-American words as "skunk," "squaw," "wigwam," and "pemmican." That movement, which began in the 17th century, is clearly over, Mr. Burchfield notes.

Had the Indian belted out jazz on his tomtom, his influence might have been more profound. "Popular music is adored by the young," Mr. Burchfield observes.He believes that the important influence of black power on English is being exerted mostly through popular music.

"Jellyroll," "jive," and "jukebox" -- black American words like these eased into white American English through such kings of jazz as Louis (Satchmo) Armstrong. "The Deep South black music, coming up to soul music, spread right through the American community and into Britain, France, and other European countries as well," Mr. Burchfield recounts. "It's a movement of tremendous social importance. There has been a lot of linguistic residue from it. and it is still going on."

The ones to watch now, he says, are the Hispanics. At the moment they are just introducing individual words. "Canyon" is an oldie. "Pinon" and "duende" are newer words he has noticed.

"But the influence of the Spanish-speaking people, particularly in and near California, is going to be the next wave, the most important wave of influence on American English for the rest of this century and beyond. Black English will fade and the Hispanic influence will take its place, because Spanish-speaking people in the US are now so numerous and increasing."

"Insofar as people instinctively fear language change," Mr. Burchfield cautions, "they'd best tighten their belts and brace themselves, because there is going to be a lot of it."

Thoughtful people are worried by the buffeting of what he calls the "late Mayflower" type of American English that has been going on all this century.

"This produces a sense of uneasiness in Americans who themselves are not immigrants but. . . who speak English and are trying to persuade the immigrants to speak exactly the same way -- and not winning at the moment."

This defender of English, a native New Zealander who became a Rhodes scholar and stayed on at Oxford University to teach English language, is strongly opposed to bilingualism. The issue has been allowed to develop in the US quite mistakenly, in his view. He thinks it will take another 50 years to settle.

"I'm not arguing about anything else but language. . . . I'm simply arguing that people who do not speak the English language in the way that is customary in the district they choose to live in should be encouraged to learn it. There shouldn't be any yielding on that point. I don't care how they pronounce it, but when they write it down as part of their lessons, they should be required to write it in the traditional form of the district in which they're living."

Science and technology have greatly changed modern life, he concedes. But he sees the spillover of technical jargon into the general language as inconsequential. Linguistically speaking, even the space program is out of this world, Mr. Burchfield reports. "People concerned withthe space industry have now turned into conservatives. They've stopped forming new words. The terminology of the space industry has settled down and now it's really quite old hat, like the language of coal mining and of the oil industry."

The new wave, says this arbiter of words, is the microchip revolution.

"I perpetually come back to the argument," he says, "that things happen in waves and then settle down and retreat. But all the time the great English language goes on absorbing what it wants and rejecting what it doesn't want. And in the meantime, you are not to get too worried about 'impact' being used as a verb."

One of the things English rejected that it didn't want was the "Eng" in England. Sometime during the 13th century certain words beginning with "eng" started sounding like "ing." No one knows why, they just did, Mr. Burchfield says. and Engla land, the land of the Engles or the English, has been "Ingland" ever since.

The etymology of the Americanism "OK" shows that one offspring of a daughter tongue has made it around the globe. "It's the only word that I know that's used and recognized by every person in the world," Mr. Burchfield says.

The first printed record of it dates back to 1837, when the expression "all correct" was being written with tongue in cheek as "Orl Korrekt." In 1838 the presidential candidate from Old Kinderhook, N.Y., was Martin Van Buren. he was played up in the campaign as the "OK candidate." The combination of Orl Korrekt and Old Kinderhook produced the letters that everybody now associates with "all right," and whose popular derivative is "okey-dokey."

The Oxford English Dictionaries have numerous assistant editors. But when controversies arise over pronunciation and usage, it is the chief editor who issues the final verdict. Far from shrinking from so awesome a task, Mr. Burchfield, one of the world's leading authorities on the English language, attacks it with relish.

"I am," he declares with vigor, "absolutely against usage panels," such as the American Heritage Dictionary employed to elicit a cross section of opinion from leading figures in various fields.

"It is not the function of the chief editor to . . . lean on the shoulders of 50 or 60 people who really have not thought the problems through. all that is needed is for the editor himself in these small number of controversial words to impose his own character, beliefts, experience, and views on the dictionary."

Of course, he adds, "you have to give your credentials for making judgments. But if these include working for about a quarter of a century on words as your main activity, and if you have down in your basement 3 million quotations and illustrations of how words are actually being used throughout the English- speaking world, and if you have analyzed spoken English as well as written English, then you're in a position to make a judgment. And that judgment is, in my view, more important than the off-the-cuff judgments of educated people who are using words for purposes other than putting them in dictionaries."

His short answer to the question "Should dictionaries play referre by indicating preferences in meaning and usage?" is capital Y, capital E, capital S. Unlike most dictionaries today, the Oxford American has some 600 preferences covering such tricky words as "infer" as against "imply"; etc.

In researching the history of pronunciation, Mr. Burchfield has discovered to his amazement what he calls a new law: "That it takes 50 years for a word to move from its original pronunciation to its new one.

Take "gynecology." Until 1920s everybody soft "g." During the 1920s it began to change to a hard "g." By the late '20s it had settled down to being a hard "g." And now nobody -- even in Britain -- even remembers gynecology with a soft "g."

"Armada" went through the same cycle. For 50 years after the Spanish fleet set sail for England, people were calling it the Spanish "Armayda." "And then it was all over," Mr. Burchfield said. "Armahda" has survived as the only pronunciation."

In Mr. Burchfield's educated view, when it comes to word heroes, Dr. Johnson rates second by any count to Sir James Murray, first editor of the monumental original OED.

A largely self-educated boy from a small village in Scotland, Murray left school at the age of 14 and taught himself foreign languages, including Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit. His lifework became the OED.

In those early days, collecting words was a job for volunteers. By the time it was completed in 1928, a supplement was needed to update it. In 1975 Mr. Burchfield was selected to head up this task. What was expected to be one volume, taking 10 years to produce with a staff of six, is turning into a four-volume work with a staff of 30. Volume I and II are out. Volume III is sceduled for 1981, and Volume IV is expected in 1984.

Nowadays the OED hires about 20 professional word collectors scattered around the English-speaking world. Most are academics. but "one of our best readers," Mr. Burchfield says, "is an American who at the moment is in McAllen, Texas, in a camper van with her husban. When the spirit moves them, they move on to another state. She was recently in Arizona. She sends me clippings from local newspapers."

Newspapers, this dictionary man says, are the most useful source of new words and new uses of words.

But even menus, he says, are good soil for word mining. "If you beg or steal a menu from every restaurant you go to for the next 12 months, you'd get a very remarkable set of words, wouldn't you?"

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