April 9, 2014 5:02 pm

Eurish has developed a grammar of its own

European business people usually turn to English to communicate but often with lexical quirks

When slave traders shipped their human cargo to the Caribbean and to the American coast, they mixed people of different languages together to head off any rebellion, David Crystal says in his book The English Language .

The captives and sailors developed a pidgin English, which, with the next generation, became a creole, which turned into the forms that characterise the language in the Caribbean and among some groups of African-Americans today, with their varying degrees of distance from standard English.

West Indian English speakers, Crystal wrote, “often do not mark plurals (three book) or possessives (that man house) [and] verbs do not use the -s ending (he see me)”.

I frequently observe another group of people with different mother tongues thrown together and required to talk. Free-born and wealthy, they are European business people who speak French, German, Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish or Polish at home but, when they get together, almost invariably turn to English.

I listen to them on conference panels, in meetings and at trade shows. I marvel at their competence and confidence, particularly in discussions on stage, under bright lights, when they cannot rely on prepared scripts.

Business people all over the world speak English when dealing with companies in other countries, of course. But the language is not used as intensively as it is in Europe, where many people, at all levels, exchange emails and participate in meetings, telephone calls and Skype conferences in English, often throughout the day.

In spite of their admirable fluency, these business people often say things that native English speakers would regard as wrong. Sometimes these grammatical and lexical quirks are clearly carried over from their own languages. (This is another significant difference between these business people and the descendants of slaves: the Europeans retain their own languages.)

But I began to notice common grammatical tics that transcended mother tongues and united speakers of Romance and Germanic languages. Were we, I wondered, witnessing the development of a new English dialect? Could we call it Eurish?

Realising that attending European meetings and conferences gave me a seat in one of the world’s most fascinating linguistic laboratories, I began to take notes and watch online videos of panel discussions.

There are academic researchers doing the same, noting real-life business conversations and examining the collocations and grammatical changes. My sample size may be smaller. But here are variations I have noticed. Some of these may be specific to Europe. Others are, no doubt, happening around the world.

The dropping of the “s” in the third person singular (“it remind me”) is quite common, but most continental European speakers of English have had formal lessons in the language and know that, in conventional grammar, the “s” is required. Those who leave it out sometimes remember it in the next sentence.

More frequent is “I will answer to your question” – rather than the native speaker’s “answer your question”– which I have heard from speakers of several languages.

Another common feature of Eurish is the plural uncountable noun. In native-speaker English, uncountable, or mass, nouns are singular. I often hear non-native speakers use them as plurals: “This is showing potentials”; “contractual informations”; “We can accept criticisms”; “We need good infrastructures”. This is not unique to Europe. On Indian government English-language websites, there are references to “legislations”.

Another frequent variation is the use of the “to” form where native speakers use “-ing”. I have noted: “We are looking forward to see you”; “We have experience to deliver this”; “This addiction to feel sorry for ourselves”; “We spend hours to complain”.

Many native speakers will say these are just mistakes. People who learn English properly do not make them. But most of these conversations happen without any native English speakers there.

When Britons, Americans or other native speakers appear at conferences, they are often in a minority and, with their overuse of figurative language, are frequently the least comprehensible people in the room. Eurish is developing behind their backs.

michael.skapinker@ft.com
Twitter: @Skapinker

Letter in response to this column:

Keep Eurish out of serious written communication / From Mr Stephen Reynolds

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