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Saturday, October 07, 2006 


#50: Whilst

The joy of being a PhD student in the midst of writing is that I have several people correcting my work. Several British people. Northern to be specific. They'll give me quite a hard time when I lapse into American spelling ("what is this characteriZation? What's the zed doing there? What is this word?"). What I find is that they love to change my "while"s into "whilst"s!

We have this word, whilst, in America, I'm sure we do. I just don't think I've come across it in anything written since the turn of the century. It's so old-school sounding. People here use it all the time, in place of "while." Dictionary.com lists them both as conjuctions but with "while" as the Archaic one!

So who knows? I hear arguments all the time about which English is more correct, I tend to think it must be the British English, but I hear compelling reasoning American English too. I'm not a linguist or whomever would know this, do you?

And whilst we are at it, what's up with "Zed"? (#51) No one ever says, "zee." How did that come about?

great blog. and whilst i'm here, quite the impressive win for the wolfpack the other night.

Nothing wrong with calling it Zed. In fact calling it Zee is just plain wrong and not what we're taught at school. Besides, I thnk you'll find the alphabet in use in England a long time before yanks were even thought about!

There is nothing wrong with 'Zee' it was in use in England long before we even knew that there were whole continents on the other side of the Atlantic. For reference other dialectic variants are zad, zard, ezed, ezod, and izod.

Yes I guess it depends if you say ZEEbra or ZEDbra. I've heard both actually. But what about zenith, zepplin, zest?? Surely the English don't call them Led Zedpplin?

How about W. Is there a word where it's pronounced as "dubble you"?

do you say zeeplin?

Now look what you've started.

Linguists recognise American English as a separate language from British English so one is no more correct than the other, just as German is no more incorrect than French.

The letter 'zed' is derived from the Greek letter 'zeta' and is pronounced 'zed' in French, 'zeta' in Italian, 'seta' in Spanish and 'tset' in German. The American pronunciation 'zee' may have been a concoction of Noah Webster, who sought to underline the independence of the nascent USA by deliberately distancing American spelling from its English parent, eg color, theater, traveler. He felt that the language of a modern America should not demand a knowledge of Latin, Greek or Norman French.
Some aspects of British English have migrated towards American English, eg the word 'gaol' (from the old French) has now been replaced by 'jail'; 'waggon' is now usually 'wagon'.
As someone born and brought up in northern England (Liverpool) and now living in London, I enjoy the historical traces in the spelling of British English but I would never seek to impose these on someone whose first language is American English. Were I doing a PhD in the USA, however, I would strive to write it in American English, even though it would involve countering a lifetime of conditioning.

I think the differences between American English and English are fascinating. I always had the presumption that American English had moved away from the purer original English, but this is not the case. In Trollope and Dickens you get the word 'gotten' which is still in American but we've dropped it (except in forgotten) and I learnt recently that 'I guess' used to be used here too, whereas we now say 'I think'. Apparently some changes were deliberate, such as dropping the 'u' from Colour etc. Ones that annoy me; we are increasingly using 'train station' instead of 'railway station' (and this in The Times and on the BBC!) and I get quite upset at the American use of Alternate for Alternative. American DVDs have alternate endings, which to us means there are only two, and they must be watched in order (ie alternately) but we would say alternative endings, meaning there may be two or more, and you can choose which one to watch. I use the 'zed' by the way - another bit of older english retained by America whilst we have moved on the 's'.

Through numerous emails zipped between myself and a fair lady in Texas, I came to notice we approached 'British English irregular' verbs differently. Learn, burn, dream, spoil; all words which, when refered to in the past tense, made me feel and sound old fashioned. But to add 'ed' to them, to me, just sounds plain wrong.

I think people forget language is OUR slave, and not vice versa, and people created it to serve their purposes. Therefore, the Americans, Aussies, or whoever, are free to adapt it as they see fit. I would have to agree with the words of Mr. Whittaker and say that as US English is an accepted form of English in itself it is no superior or inferior to any other form of English. However, when in a 'foreign' English environment, it is only polite to adapt to suit your surroundings, the same as you would try to alter your language if you were in a non-English speaking country (or not, in the case of many pointing-and-shouting Brits abroad).

That said, spelling bottom with a donkey will always be wrong.

The English language is nice in that way, French language is very strict, they have their own council to make sure new words arn't created. But English speaking people are forever making up and borrowing new words.


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