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Ersatz English

English in the twenty-first century is veritably the global lingua franca, the universal medium of linguistic communication between people whose native language is not English; and between people in situations where only some of the interlocutors have English as a native (or “near-native”) language. This sometimes leads to the psychologically interesting phenomenon when a person imagines that he/she is speaking English, but in fact the version of English being produced is defective grammatically as well as phonetically, and can (only at best) be called something like “ersatz English,” the meaning of ersatz being ‘a substitute or imitation (usually, an inferior article instead of the real thing)’. This sort of faux English is often heard, for instance, in interviews with African and Asian speakers on the BBC World Service––in a phonetic rendering, moreover, that is so impenetrable as to be barely recognizable and hardly comprehensible even by professional linguists.

Unfortunately, this kind of ungrammatical patois can now be found in written form as well. In an era when book publishing is in retreat and economically less and less viable, publishing houses leave the written form of English unedited to its authors and routinely offer books for sale that are rife with grammatical and stylistic errors. This species of ersatz English is especially to be found in publications by authors whose native language is Spanish or one of the Germanic tongues. Thus some Scandinavian and Dutch authors, having studied and heard English from early childhood on, have obviously been lulled into thinking that they have a command of the language that is error-free and adequate to the demands of scholarly discourse, when in fact what they say and write is grossly short of the mark. The loss in some global sense redounds to the great English language itself as a cultural institution, whose native speakers must often suffer in silence while being assaulted by speech (written and oral) that is only a specious simulacrum of the norm.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

2 Responses to “Ersatz English”

  • Ben Udell says:

    Hi, Michael. Years ago I happened on a website Majority English run by one Joel Miller about English as spoken by non-native speakers. It seemed a pleasant Website for non-native speakers interested in the ins and outs of English-language usage. It’s gone from the regular Internet but still at the Wayback Machine:

    https://web.archive.org/web/20090919034101/http://www.bentarz.se/

    He produced a regular bulletin, some of which is preserved at the Wayback Machine:

    https://web.archive.org/web/*/http://www.bentarz.se/me/*

    (That Wayback Machine page doesn’t show titles, but unfortunately Miller’s own page of links to the bulletins used Javascript in a way that doesn’t work in the Wayback Machine.) The titles of the bulletins include “Escorting,” “Thanks Giving,” “Hungry Police,” “Criminal Words,” “Chaosing the Mind,” and so on.

  • beneficii says:

    >The loss in some global sense redounds to the great English language itself as a cultural institution, whose native speakers must often suffer in silence while being assaulted by speech (written and oral) that is only a specious simulacrum of the norm.

    This is the cost, I suppose, of having your native language be the lingua franca of the world. Vivian Cook argues that English isn’t just the language of native English speakers anymore, but the language of the world, so non-native speakers should not be judged by how close they are to native speakers.

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