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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Forget the Queen's English

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President Vladimir Putin recently designated 2007 the Year of the Russian Language, with festivities planned here and in 76 countries abroad. High time, too: For some years now, declining numbers of people have been using Russian worldwide, while declining numbers of Russians have been producing people to pick up the slack.

In contrast, the spread of English in Russia and elsewhere continues apace. You won't see anybody staging a Year of the English Language any time soon for the simple reason that, well, every year already is. During the last century, French lost its unique status as the language of international diplomacy and the well-intentioned Esperanto secured itself an international niche as a nice hobby. In short, English won the contest to become the primary functional international language, and the rest of the world (outside of France) got used to it.

English won partly because its building blocks are simple: Nouns don't decline and verbs hardly conjugate; the rest is detail. True, the gap between spelling and pronunciation can be a darn big detail: Some students of English visibly cringe approaching the "-ough" combination, which is pronounced five different ways; others complain testily that the vowel sound in "word," "curd," "bird," and "nerd" is the same, though the vowels themselves obviously aren't.

Orthographic curiosities notwithstanding, the victory of English was inevitable: With its simple mechanics backed by two powerful propellers -- globetrotting armies (British and American) and irresistible popular culture (Hollywood, Elvis, the Beatles, the Internet and so on) -- the language of Shakespeare (no small asset himself) was a shoo-in. Et voila, so to speak: We're number one.

But who's we? In the mid-1990s, strolling through the provincial city of Yaroslavl, I saw a sign for a newly opened foreign language school offering instruction in English, French, German, Spanish and ... American! Hmm, I wondered, did I miss another meeting? Resisting an urge to make some pointed inquiries on the spot ("Are your teachers really native 'American' speakers? Remember, the Bronx doesn't count!"), I began collecting references to English and "American" as different languages.

In a loosely jocular sense they are, of course: Significant differences between British and American spelling, usage and even grammar have long been evident, with the classic indicative quip attributed to both Mark Twain and George Bernard Shaw: "England and America are two nations divided by a common language." To most serious people, in any case, notions of a separate American "language" are just that -- notions. Americans in fact speak a dialect (or rather various dialects) of the English language, as do most British Commonwealth and British citizens, including the English themselves – whose version has naturally been dubbed "English English."

The question Russians must thus ask themselves is not whether to study English, but which variant. A good case for the U.S. version as the sensible, forward-looking choice can be made by citing (and what better source?) an authoritative Brit: Welshman David Crystal

In his admirable "Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language," Crystal points out to prospective English dialect shoppers that a uniform "World Standard English" might be the global future, and concedes that "American English already seems to have made considerable progress in this direction." Sheer numbers will continue to work in the United States' favor: "The U.S.A. contains nearly four times as many English mother-tongue speakers [EMT] as the next most important EMT nation (the UK) ... giving the Americans a controlling interest in the way the language is likely to develop." Briefly put, "British English ... is changing under the influence of American English," and the staid British variant is becoming, in Crystal's sober estimation, "increasingly a minor dialect of World English."

But what of "classical purity" and "historic tradition?" Even Shakespeare is retroactively riding the U.S. wave. Today, the pure Elizabethan tones of the Bard echo less in Stratford than in certain "Tidewater" accents of the United States' Chesapeake Bay area. These U.S. variants, Crystal related, may be considered "the closest we will ever get to the sound of Shakespearean English."

So what should Russians study, in the end? While there is, admittedly, a very powerful 2 1/2 word argument against the otherwise-relentless advance of American English -- George W. Bush -- it is hard not to conclude that in their separate ways, both David Crystal and the Yaroslavl Yanks are on to something.

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.