This blog in English. ONLY in English (Part 7)

We thought we’d wrap up this examination of English, only English today but as we went through the newsroom folder that contains examples of those of the experiences we have had or pieces we’ve read, we came across this one that we have to pass along.

One of the most difficult decisions for reporters to make, whether their medium is print or electronic, is what to excerpt from a statement or an interview that adds illumination to a story. There has always been, to our knowledge, the ethical question of how much any quotation can be edited. Is it okay to edit a comment as long as the meaning is not altered? In print, three periods within a quote indicate some words have been left out. Perhaps it results from a person beginning a statement and then wandering far afield before coming back to the concluding point. Reading the entire quote would likely confuse the reader, so ellipses (the three periods) are used. Sometimes on television you see a slight visual jump that indicates a bite has been edited. In radio it’s harder to determine although sometimes a slight change in voice inflection is a cue.

Here is an example of the kind of statement that gives reporters headaches, spoken by someone you might expect should be able to use the English language well—a candidate for high state office. The name is not revealed to protect the guilty. It was during a campaign several years ago when a candidate for state treasurer was asked, “Should all of the state government’s money be deposited in state banks?” The question was asked because some of the state’s idle funds had been placed in out-of-state banks that offered better interest rates than Missouri banks offered. Here’s the answer.

“You need to have some type, some type of flexibility there and when you look at the amount of money that… incumbent treasurer _________ raised last year, especially in the overnight, you know, the, uh, repurchase agreements and the stuff in the New York money market, that’s a lot of money, you know, sixty million dollars is a lot of money and if and if, uh, his staff that has been there a while feel that that is the best place to put that money then until a better system is devised then I’m sure it has worked well for him. He is, uh, needless to say, that is an influx of money that is sorely needed in the state coffers and I think that it would be, it’s really silly to throw a whole lot of rocks at that.

“We’re looking for issues and when you look at the constitution and when you look at the state statutes it tells you that the state treasurer should keep Missouri’s money working for the best overall good of the state so your immediate reaction is why is that money going out in repurchase agreements and New York money market and I guess we both, both, uh, kind of looked at that and said maybe there’s a, ummmm, better way to run the railroad, but, uh, overall and especially some of the findings of this commission is that, is that, uh, I think probably (a former treasurer) did the massive overhaul and I think that (the incumbent) has probably been a good administrator and the only, (another former treasurer) has given him glowing remarks, glowing marks rather, and we, we, we’re just gonna have to wait and get in and see and, and, uh, but I think it’s always good like the two things we talked about downstairs before, it’s good to have that kind of leeway just in case, you know, I don’t know, I don’t like to make promises or make pledges until I get down and see how something operates.”

Honest to God, that’s his answer, English word for English word, to a twelve-word question. Perhaps it’s a great example of why drivers license exams are multiple choice, not essay form. Of course the legislature could change that and require English-only essay responses. And why not? As years go by we could find a way to use the answers to gauge whether the MAP tests given our elementary and secondary students actually measure skills that are useful in adulthood.

The drivers license testing bill is in the Senate now. We’ll let you know how seriously the senators want to address the issue of “whose English” will be used.

This blog in English. ONLY in English (Part 6)

We’ve had some fun (don’t know about you, but we’ve enjoyed it) in the last few days discussing what kind of English should be the official English of the proposed law saying drivers license tests should be given in English only. We’re going to wrap up this exercise in another blog or two but we wanted to pass on another form of English because it’s an intriguing story we came across more than fifteen years ago. We think it is unlikely that the legislature will adopt this kind of English as the state’s Official English, but we wanted to include it in the mix because of its historical and cultural value. We have not put our tongue in our cheek today.

Slave English.

American English is an amalgam of Englishes, the product of multi-cultural dialects that interpret words and phrases differently. You don’t have to travel much to know that Ozarks English varies from Texas English varies from St. Louis English varies from Valley English varies from Minnesota English, varies from Georgia English.

Associated Press writer Bruce Smith wrote in 1994 that the American Bible Society had published the Gospel of Luke in “the language spoken by slaves and their descendants for centuries along the Southeast Coast.” He reported estimates that 250,000 people from North Carolina to Florida could speak this kind of English called Gullah, and that Gullah was the primary language of 20,000 of those people. The first complete volume to use Gullah was called DE GOOD NYEWS BOUT JEDUS CHRIST WA LUKE WRITE. Luke 2:7 reads:

“She habe boychile, e fusbon. E wrop um op een clothe wa been teah eenta leetle strip an lay un een a trough, de box weh feed de cow and oda animal. Cause Mary and Joseph beena stay weh de animal sleep. Dey ain’t been no room fa dem eeenside debodin house.”

This is one of those languages that has been spoken for hundreds of years but has not been put into written form. The researchers who compiled this volume worked with hundreds of Gullah speakers and then had the speakers carefully check the written versions of the words to make sure the record is accurate.

You and I are unlikely to know anyone who speaks that kind of English as their everyday tongue. But there are people who do, maybe more than speak the English of King James as their everyday communication and certainly more than use the English of Chaucer.

But is IS English. We’ll watch our legislators to see if any of those who want to stop using the ten or eleven “foreign” languages for drivers license examinations are interested in offering the tests in different, perhaps even “foreign” kinds of English.

This blog in English. ONLY English (Part 5)

The Missouri Senate faces a grave responsibility when it returns from its spring break on the 28th. It will be facing the bill passed by the House earlier this month that says all drivers license examinations will be given in English and only in English. The senate is proud of its heritage as a deliberative body that makes sure our laws are written properly.. It has long been said in the Senate, “The House passes the bills; the Senate makes the laws.”

The House has passed the bill but it appears to have left a gaping hole in it by not specifying the kind of English that will be used. That is an important issue in a state where people say Missourah and where others say Missouree. After 190 years of statehood we still have not designated how to pronounce this one word in the English language Lawmakers who have avoided for almost two centuries determining how to pronounce this single word derived from Native Americans now must figure out an entire language to be used for English-only drivers tests.

Today we offer a new suggestion for the kind of English that might be appropriate. Jock English, the language of the player, the words of the stars admired by so many, the expressions of those whose position in society commands salaries greater than the winnings of most lottery winners, the utterances of those adults and children alike see as role models. Surely these people have the credentials to guide our lawmakers in defining the kind of English that will be used for English-only drivers license examinations. Or for any other English-only laws.

Here’s a University of Missouri football player from several years ago when Missouri was, well, pretty darned awful. The Tigers had just beaten a ranked team for the first time in almost a decade. After the game this star player explained how the Tigers became motivated enough to gain the victory:

“Well, you know, we was kinda down, you know, because we just got, you know, beat pretty bad by _____,you know, and you know, everyone’s thinking you know we want to play Saturday, you know, instead, you know, of working through it, you know, so we just, you know, waited for Saturday, you know, and eventually it got here.”

Wait. He’s not done.

“You know, last night we had a good meeting, you know. Coach _______ told us some stuff, you know, and it sunk in and we just said, ‘Hey, we’re gonna go out there and play well.'”

Well, of course.

“Well, you know, beatin’ a top-ranked team, you know, you feel you know you can beat, you know, you play against them, you know, you can play against anyone, you know, because they’re top-ranked and they’re in the top 20. So we just goin’ in there thinking, you know, and play ball and not be denied again.”

The comment lasted thirty seconds. He averaged two “you knows”—or more accurately ‘y’knows”–every three seconds.

Football should not be the only sport to demonstrate this kind of facility with the English language. Here’s a baseball player after his team lost and fell farther behind in the pennant race:

“Oh, yeah, there’s always hope. Anything can happen, you know. I mean, you know, we, we got a good club and all, and we have to do, you know, is just get it, get it together offensively, you know, and score some runs, put some pressure on the opposition and, uh, you know, get, get, uh, get, get our, you know, pitchin’ together and get our bullpen strong and, you know, and, and we can, uh, you know, we can be right back in it, you know. It don’t take that long either.”

That was a much more concise use of the English language to express optimism in team sports. It lasted twenty seconds and improved the “y’know” rate to about one every 2.2 seconds.

The Revenue Department has its guide to the drivers exams online. We picked out a sample question and offer it in the way it might appear on a test if Jock English is the language choice state lawmakers prefer for English-only drivers exams.

18. Well, when, y’know, you are approaching a railroad, y’know, crossing you should:

  1. y’know, slow down
  2. look for a, like a, uh, train
  3. get it together, and be, y’know, be ready to stop
  4. just, you know, thinkin’ all of the above

English, as she is spoke, comes in a wide variety of forms. We’ll be monitoring our lawmakers as they deliberate to decide the correct English to be used.