America Misunderstood by Ralph Rewes - HTML preview

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Why people abroad have this frightening image of us?  We export equivocated “foreign” culture.

You may be surprised to find out how often and why “AMERICA” is so misunderstood by so many people around the world. Misunderstandings result from the peculiar way we see the world and from the peculiar way the world sees us. “How come?” you may say, “American films, books, and television programs are well known all over the world.” Exactly, the fact that we downpour our culture on so many peoples creates most of those misunderstandings!

The causes for misinterpretation vary. However, we provide almost all of them. The world sees us through fun-house mirrors provided by us. Through similar mirrors we see the world and even ourselves in a peculiar way, too. The most noticeable of these fun-house mirrors is our language.

After listening to claims and complaints from people all over the world, I found out that English, our English, causes most of these misunderstandings. “But English is almost universally spoken!” you may say. Basic English yes! English, no. In fact, most English speakers do not believe that those who are not native to the language will ever get to learn it well. Furthermore, being a language, which is not mutually intelligible with any other, English instills in us a sense of alienation characteristic to such languages.

England created the English language, but the USA was the nation that turned it into the richest language on earth and a formidable communication tool. It was our nation, open to changes, immigration, new mores and new ideas that made English universal. We have ethnic groups from every corner of the world and each of them has contributed to make English what it is today.

Nevertheless, absorption has been too fast sometimes, leaving no room for analysis. Once the majority accepts a simple word or phrase, that word — or phrase — freezes, allowing no correction or adjustment in spelling, meaning or pronunciation. Rectification rarely happens in English.

This inability to rectify and correct words is the dark side of the English language. The expression “coining” clearly describes what usage does to a new word or phrase: it makes it metal solid. Incorrigible usage gave us a multitude of traditional errors nailed them so deeply into our minds that no one can hammer them out of our heads.

Contrary to most European languages, English develops rather freely under the suggestions of a few dictionaries. Other European languages follow the dictates of official language institutions or “academies” to cleanse usage periodically. The Royal Academy of the Spanish Language, for instance, controls Spanish. This institution has affiliates in every Spanish-speaking country in the world (including the U.S.A.). Consequently, it takes decades for European academies to accept a new word, and even longer to include its acceptation in their official dictionaries. In fact, by the time their Academicians allow a new word in their dictionaries the word in question might have fallen in disuse.

English, on the contrary, keeps on adding words to its already enormous list. But the absorption of words from other languages is so fast that seldom the original spelling changes (façade, cañón, marijuana). In some instances, those dictionaries don’t copy the spelling of a foreign word correctly. However, once usage sanctions a word, no matter how wrong its spelling or its meaning may be, no further change can done.

The fact that English seldom tolerates spelling changes, regardless of how much they are needed, became historical when Theodore Roosevelt wanted government documents printed with a simplified spelling. For that purpose, he suggested a list of words with simplified spelling proposed by scholar Brander Matthews. Roosevelt got in serious trouble with Congress and finally, he had to give up his quest for a more logical approach to spelling or else. All he wanted was to simplify the tuf spelling of a few of words.

Teddy Roosevelt gave up his dreams of seeing words like knife, tough and laugh, spelled nife, tuf and laf. However, not all the words in Matthews’s list were lost. Theater and center, are universally accepted today. Thru, nite and rite are words often seen on highway billboards and printed ads, however, never in formal written English. They all belong to that notorious list written by a man who wanted logic to prevail upon usage.

Too-fast absorption and reluctance to change accepted usage are not only linguistic habits. They can also be applied to our handling ideas, classifications and other pieces of knowledge.

Years and years of contact with other cultures (please notice that I didn’t say foreign cultures) gave me this idea of listing the most common misinterpretations that exist between the world and us. This list will help you understand why people you don’t even know, or people who don’t know you may be nasty to you, just because you happen to be — American.

The word America itself is the best example. You may find this surprising, but the fact that you call yourself American bothers a lot of people — especially those who share the same hemisphere (America) with you. Why? Because they think you stole the name “American” from them, descendants of the discoverers and conquistadors of America (the whole continent, not only our country).