By Holly Mickelson
One evening a few weeks ago, my husband asked for my help deciphering the meaning of an email. His multi-national team is scattered across the globe, and the lingua franca is English. Occasionally language goes a bit wonky, and as a non-native speaker himself, he finds a second opinion doesn’t hurt. In this case, in response to a long summary regarding progress on a new project, he got a one-word reply with no punctuation:
I have to admit, I had to think about what the answer ultimately meant. Was the writer playing oracle – Yes, No, Maybe? Was the writer trying to be hyper-efficient through brevity? In the end, I decided the writer was simply displaying his southern Californian roots.
Language is learned behavior
My customers often request copy written either in British English or American English; occasionally they ask for international English. Sometimes it’s difficult to pin down what exactly each of those choices (especially international English) includes and – perhaps more importantly – what the customer stands to gain by choosing that variant. After all, the differences are not defined just by spelling and grammar.
I’m not a language snob, exactly, but I am perhaps somewhat more aware of what is going on behind the scenes of language than your average Joe. Obviously, what country you grow up in flavors the way you speak, write, and think – but sometimes even smaller subdivisions play a role, such as the part of the country you or your parents grew up in.
A current project at Cambridge University, the Cambridge Online Survey of World Englishes, illustrates this beautifully. The aim of the project is to map out differences in language use via a series of targeted questions. The result is a color-coded map of dialect. In some cases, the differences between word choice or pronunciation is extreme; in others, it’s much harder to pinpoint.
For instance, I grew up in Seattle. As a kid, whenever I ordered a fizzy drink at a restaurant, I would ask what kinds of “pop” they had. My cousin, who grew up in Minnesota, always asked for “soda.” We meant the same thing, but simply had different primary words for it. This had nothing to do with class or privilege – this was purely geographical. It is also a specific language marker that, if you’re in the know, tells you a great deal about the person speaking.
If you google it, you’ll find lots of studies about dialect and work that consider topics such as the disadvantages non-native speakers or speakers of dialect encounter during job interviews. But what happens when words that have taken on a specific geographical usage infiltrate the rest of the country? How does that influence business?
Awesome = terrific?
Let’s back up a bit. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary definition of “awesome” focuses on its traditional meaning – that something is awe-inspiring or extraordinary. An exploding volcano is awesome. The birth of one’s child is awesome. In recent years, “awesome” has lost some of its glamour, because it has become a catch-all for Americans in general (and Californians in particular) and can be applied to any situation with varying degrees of awesomeness:
- What an awesome day!
- Your presentation was awesome!
- Rome is so awesome!
In other words (and specifically, in the words of Lego Movie), for some people, “everything is awesome.” What was once surfer jargon has grown up and landed a job. It has even left home and resettled in other parts of the country. And in case you’re not sure, awesome can be changed out by a nearly endless list of adjectives indicating a fluctuating degree of fabulousness – cool, great, terrific, fantastic, magnificent.
Awesome = supercalifragilisticexpialidocious?
Having lived in California for a few years, I understand what “awesome” means. But what about someone like my husband, a non-native speaker of English, who surely learned the word with its traditional meaning – when the response to his detailed report on the status of a new project is one somewhat overblown adjective and no punctuation, how is my husband likely to interpret it?
- Great job. Thanks for the info.
- You inspire me to be a better person.
- I’m impressed that you managed to do/communicate/write all that. Next time, keep it brief.
So, which answer is correct? You tell me.
Language changes all the time, and words take on or shed meanings regularly. Meanings also diverge from one country (or part of a country) to another. Consider corporate speak, for example – acronyms and jargon creep in and take hold, sometimes to the point that outsiders can’t understand a conversation between two employees in the know.
Actually, that’s part of what I like about language. Unlike numbers and math, words and their values simply refuse to hold still. They adapt fluidly to a situation and sometimes that new meaning spills over. That was the case with “awesome.” “Amazing” is another one. Even so, in my opinion neither one belongs in a business email. I’d just as likely start off an email with “dear dudes and dudettes.”
Sometimes the problem crosses oceans. Another example I’ve wrestled with here in the office is the lovely verb to reckon. Traditionally, to reckon means to calculate or estimate. British English uses it all the time, and it’s a perfectly acceptable word in academia or business. American English, on the other hand, rarely uses it this way. Instead, it tends to mean “I suppose” and is chiefly used in rural parts of the South – which is why it almost never appears in corporate communication written in American English.
Is there a simple trick for avoiding these linguistic pitfalls? Sadly, no. I’m fortunate to have colleagues who read my work and question my word choices: Brits, Americans, Germans. I’m sure I’ve blundered here and there. And I’m told Seattleites have an accent. Funny, I hadn’t noticed.