Can You Speak Your Readers’ Language?

By Michael

Face it, we English speakers (which presumably includes you, since you’re reading this) don’t always read and write the same language, even if we all call it English. Sure, someone trying to communicate in a language that isn’t their native language may have a harder time being understood. But we understand that and make allowances for it. I talk more slowly (usually) when I’m not speaking English, and my listeners don’t expect me to speak perfectly.

From my perspective as an American Southerner, it seems that US Americans and Canadians are the only English speakers who don’t sound at all like someone from England. To me, Australians and Kiwis (New Zealanders) speak with a British accent. The English of an educated South Asian or West African is also derived more directly from England than my English.

A few decades ago, even we North Americans weren’t so proud and independent in our language. Noah Webster may have produced the first distinctive US American dictionary way back in 1828, but whenever we wanted to sound more cultured, our speech became more British. They call it a mid-Atlantic accent, somewhere between British and American.

Sometimes native English speakers from different countries have more trouble communicating with each other than non-native speakers. That’s because we are all convinced that the English we speak is the “real” English. If we believe that real English must always be spoken rapidly, we can’t make ourselves slow down even when our listener doesn’t understand us. The English spoken by people of our own country becomes our model for proper English. Unfortunately, the English spoken by people of our listener’s country becomes their model for proper English, and they may resent it when we don’t understand that.

What does this have to do with writing?

Whether writing or speaking, if you want your message to be understood, something’s got to give. And that something is always you. Your readership determines what kind of English you use. An advertising copywriter never says, “Learn to talk and think like me so you can buy my product.” Rather, every copywriter learns to write in the language of his or her readers. That goes beyond national differences.

When I write for British or Canadian readers, of course I will write “honour” and not “honor.” But every region, every generation, every sub-group speaks and thinks differently, even almost imperceptibly. Even the word “honor” communicates better with some people than others. A different group of people might prefer a different word for the same concept. And I must not cling to language that I appreciate and understand if my reader doesn’t understand and appreciate it too.

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6 Responses to “Can You Speak Your Readers’ Language?”

  • Joy-Mari Cloete

    That is such a pertinent point. It is illustrated very well here in South Africa, where our population is mostly made up of black people, who speak the Nguni languages.

    This is a big problem/challenge to copywriters, as the marketing companies want to reach out to this group by speaking to them in their respective languages. Problem is that there are very few black copywriters who are able to write in their mother tongue!

    Oops. I think I went slightly off-topic!

  • Alan

    Perhaps to an outside anything not American-English sounds /British/, but even within England we have a plethora of accents and idioms. Not all of them mutually intelligible, too; I can’t understand Geordies (Northern England), or many of my Scottish relatives.

    I suppose by ‘English’, you meant Received Pronunciation, though? (Also the Queen’s English, or BBC English.)

  • kimberment

    Well I’m from New Zealand and I want to say that I more often talk with an American slur, thus sounding more American than British. It’s all that darn American television we’re feed! But I like the sound of Americans talking more than British, because it sounds softer and more rounded and lot as low. But as my sister says it’s hard to take Americans seriously but easier to take Bristish people seriously, as the american accent is to nice and friendly sounding I guess and the british more harsh. Well thats my 2 cents anyway.

  • temp-

    I’m proudly representing spanglish comments! 😀

    really guys, i’m so glad i found this site, thanks for helping us to talk/write better.

  • Michael

    Actually, I can detect regional accents from England, though I can’t always place them. I do remember hearing a BBC announcer who sounded almost American to me, but I think he was Irish or Scots. We Americans tend to give more respect to anyone with a British accent, but I suppose that’s especially true if they’re using Received Pronunciation.

    As far as copywriting, the ideal ad would be written for an audience of one person. But since companies can’t afford to produce several billion ads for every product, they have to target groups rather than individuals. I’m always delighted when companies do that correctly – when it seems that they really understand the small regional or linguistic subgroup they’re writing for. I remember when I was in Luxembourg in 1976, Coca-Cola had billboards in their local dialect, but I couldn’t buy a newspaper published in it.

  • Aline

    It’s not only the English that suffers with the whole regional trouble; all colonial languages are like that. I’ve learned that Spanish in Chile, in Argentina, in Mexico and in Spain are really different from each other, and even my own native language, Portuguese, sounds way different in Brazil than it sounds in most other places, like Portugal and Angola. And Latin itself can be considered one of those, as the language which is most similar to Latin isn’t Italian, which is its country of origin, but Romania; and it’s extremely difficult to understand to most other people who speak Latin-derived languages.

    So, I guess the problem here doesn’t really have a solution, as most languages change due to different cultures and traditions that this country may develop, compared to the ones where the original language came from.

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