Locally-invented Idiolects at Work

by Doreen Simmons

Once again kindly Aunt Eva is here to cluck over your problems and give you a shoulder to cry on. You take her advice at your own risk, of course; only you can gauge your own situation.


Dear Aunt Eva,

My native tongue is U.K.ish, not U.S.ian—that much I will grant. But after fifteen years in Japan, nine of them spent working for an American company, I consider myself to have a reasonable knowledge of what is and what is not standard American English. Why, then—WHY?—must I be told, by Japanese colleagues who would be hard pressed to respond when asked the time of day by an American, that if I find the slightest fault with their English it must be because my pitiful knowledge of the language does not extend to such “American English” phrases as “keep to do this” and “we are abling”?

I.M. Braundorf

Aunt Eva replies:

You meet this attitude at all levels.  The food demonstrator in the supermarket who was offering samples to foreigners with a cheery, “Here, you!” explained that she had lived three years in the States with her married daughter,  and that’s what everyone said to her. When a British person at an academic study group complained that there was bad English on nearly every page of a new cookery book, the moderator assured the nit-picker that as the author was a Japanese woman who had been living in the States for twenty years, the book was probably full of American idioms which a Briton would be unable to understand. Judge for yourself: ‘This potato and egg dish have as lovely taste to everyone as it is eye-appealing.’
I’m sure we have all met people like this, and it’s as much a problem for the Japanese who really do know their English as it is for the educated native speakers.  Do we turn a blind eye, or do we fight to the last drop of blood in our bodies? It depends on who will be affected by our action or inaction, and what will be the likely result. In defending a Japanese who is right against another Japanese who is wrong, our duty is clear; only the choice of method is open to debate. Defending ourselves is a lot fuzzier. Many foreigners in Japan make their living by raining on other people’s parades. We should consider why so many Japanese believe their English is better than ours. A person claiming the linguistic high ground may have once spent a dreadful two weeks in a home stay program and never understood a word of what was being said around her; or sat through years of rip-off night school classes with a succession of ‘native speakers’ babbling on at him. Such people need to have something to show for all this pain. Indeed, they may have got their present jobs because of their presumed language skills. Take this from them, and what do they have left?

First, ask yourself this: is the over-confident person beyond correction? too important to be shown up, or too nice to be upset? In this case, either give up, or try to intercept the offending passage when nobody is looking. Above all, keep a low profile. In other cases, whenever you are dealing with colleagues who are not language specialists and whose self-confidence is unjustified, Aunt Eva’s advice is: prove your point. Never argue or protest; produce authorities. Amass a battery of style books and clipping files. In this situation, the negative is more important than the positive: collect American authorities who condemn the more common mistakes. This will not help with locally invented idiolects that would never occur to the mind of a native speaker, but you see the point?

A final tip: try hard to say that your critic is correct to some extent. Introduce the concept, often novel, that two or more forms may both be correct, but that there is an order of preference. Agree that a rule quoted is valid, but point out that a more important rule takes precedence. A hierarchy of rules, and correctness expressed as a percentage, are concepts that may allow you to make your point without alienating your colleague. Cooperation, not confrontation, wins friends and, in extreme cases, keeps you employed.

Eva Hartupp

From Newsletter Number 73 (December 1996)