George Bernard Shaw remarked that Great Britain and the United States were two countries divided by a common language. I'm reminded of this most when an English English speaker (or in some cases an Australian English speaker) living in the U.S. tells me that Americans don't know how to speak "proper" English. This happens to me with strangers and non-strangers alike. Most notable among my experiences was a British librarian working in our local public library who told me she was suffering from not having enough good things to read in this country, while she stood surrounded by thousands and thousands of books. (I asked her if she had read any Doris Lessing lately. "No," she replied. "I'm not familiar with her.")
Having been told again, just last week, how "horrible" American English is, I've been giving the subject of multiple Englishes more thought than usual. It's a topic I like thinking about, one that usually makes me smile inside. First, I wonder if the people who tell me that Americans don't speak "properly," have any idea how awful we Americans would sound if we tried to master those far-ranging, wide-open vowels of yours, or that wide span of clipped or lilting cadences? You would beg us to go back to speaking "American," I'm afraid. Second, the differences are so much fun, I wouldn't want to lose them. It stretches my mind to think of a word as soft as lorry serving for the one-syllable punch of truck. And fun to think of the loo as the lieu where, well, you know. And the cue for a line in a play that sounds like the queue that is the line stretching out the door of the theater--or the theatre. On the other hand, to my American ears, bloke seems a harsh-sounding thing to call a fellow or even a "guy," and I cannot figure out why, in a BBC newscast full of soft, round ah-sounds and impeccable enunciation, the anchorman reporting on the Middle East suddenly pronounces Hamas as Ham-ass.
We have the British to thank, though, for not instituting an official Academy of the Language à la France. Perhaps we needed one, as Jonathan Swift believed. But, as Samuel Johnson wrote, "Sounds are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints; to enchain syllables and to lash the wind are equally the undertakings of pride." English remains rebellious, rich, rocking and soothing, wherever it is spoken or written. It remains the only language in the world that actually sounds good when spoken with a foreign accent. Such flexibility translates into great linguistic power. Such flexibility breeds freedom.
As one small effort to make the case for our two Englishes, I turn to two Emilies, Brontë and Dickinson, masters each of their respective English tongues.
Brontë's poetry is as light and full as a dappled grey cloud sailing across the moors. She adds whatever is needed--syllable, cadence, or rhyme--to keep her poem's story rolling, propelled in a way that feels oceanic or wind-driven. Yet her addition is not overdo but artistry, linguistic music, a flourish that feeds. American English has repeatedly done away with this tradition of addition, decade by decade, sometimes to our loss.
Dickinson's poetry is also light, but sharp, with a presence at once classical and contemporary. Whether she aimed to do so or not, she introduced a native American Haiku-ness into English language poetry in a way never done before or since. Not an imitation of Haiku, not syllable counting, but diving into the pared-down, core-of-the-heart-and-mind character that hides beneath the surface in English. She avoids addition and lays things bare, but with craft and skill.
One adds and builds, one pares and strips. Both arrive at meaning and beauty. Take a look at their work, and tell me, would you trade one for the other? Neither would I!
Vive les différences--all those differences that remind us of the rich treasure-full language that we share, that great, old, new language that continues to be bigger than all of us.
Emily Jane Brontë, 1818-1848. Yorkshire, England
I gazed upon the cloudless moon,
And loved her all the night,
Till morning came and radiant noon
And I forgot her light--
No, not forgot--eternally
Remains its memory dear;
But could the day seem dark to me
Because the night was fair?
Fair sinks the summer evening now
in softened glory round my home;
The sky upon its holy brow
Wears not a cloud that speaks of gloom.
The old tower, shrined in golden light,
Looks down on the descending sun--
So gently evening blends with night,
You scarce can say that day is done.
Aye, there it is! It wakes to-night
Sweet thoughts that will not die
And feeling's fires flash all as bright
As in the years gone by!
And I can tell by thine altered cheek
And by thy kindled gaze
And by the words thou scarce dost speak,
How wildly fancy plays.
Yes, I could swear that glorious wind
Has swept the world aside,
Has dashed its memory from thy mind
Like foam-bells from the tide--
And thou art now a spirit pouring
Thy presence into all--
The essence of the Tempest's roaring
And of the Tempest's fall--
A universal influence
From Thine own influence free;
A principle of life, intense,
Lost to mortality.
Thus truly when that breast is cold
Thy prisoned soul shall rise,
The dungeon mingle with the mould--
The captive with the skies.
Emily Elizabeth Dickinson, 1830-1886. Amherst, Massachussetts
The Hills in Purple syllables
The Day's Adventures tell
To little Groups of Continents
Just going Home from School.
"Nature" is what we see --
The Hill -- the Afternoon --
Squirrel -- Eclipse -- the Bumble bee
Nay -- Nature is Heaven --
Nature is what we hear --
The Bobolink -- the Sea --
Thunder -- the Cricket --
Nay--Nature is Harmony--
Nature is what we know --
Yet have no art to say --
So impotent our Wisdom is
To her Simplicity
Danger is not at first,
for then we are unconscious,
but in the after--slower--Days--
Love is its own rescue,
for we--at our supremest,
are but its trembling Emblems--
Sources: The Complete Poems of Emily Jane Brontë. Columbia University Press, 1941, C.W. Hatfield, ed. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Little Brown and Company, 1960. Thomas H. Johnson, Ed. New Poems of Emily Dickinson. The University of North Carolina Press, 1993. William H. Shurr, Anna Dunlap, Emily Grey Shurr, eds. Post copyright Ysabel de la Rosa, 2006.