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LANGUAGE and IDENTITY: Editor's Note

Michael T. Kaufman

WHEN GEORGE SCHOPFLIN SUBMITTED THIS article, there was little to suggest a contretemps was in the making. The article, like all articles, was turned over for routine editing. In large measure, that involved altering certain words and phrases to conform with Transition's house style, which, for better or worse, has evolved largely from North American English usage, drawing its rules and conventions from The Chicago Manual of Style and The Associated Press Stylebook. As Schopflin was quick to point out, he thinks and writes in another variant of the same language, British English. Where he would automatically use words such as "lorry," "boot," and "lift," Transition would just as automatically change them to "truck," "trunk," and "elevator."

After the changes were made and the manuscript was sent back, Schopflin's response revealed the intimate attachment to one's own language that he describes in his article. "Here it is again," he wrote to the editor, "the language war in the pages of Transition, but this time not over Ruritanian, but over English. American English and British English are diverging. Of course, we still understand each other, but certainly I bridle whenever I see my style changed by the imposition of Americanisms in the name of 'house style' and the editor's right to edit. Then I think, wait a minute, this is more than just editing for comprehension, this is translating my writing into something that I didn't write and, for that matter, something that I don't like. The solution, as far as I'm concerned, is simple. Recognise that both British and American English are legitimate variants (as are Hibernian or Australian or Indian English) and that the American criteria of linguistic right and wrong cannot be applied across the board, and vice-versa. If you were to say, 'But look, all you are doing is expressing a kind of cultural chauvinism;
does it matter whether the English is American or British? It's the end result that counts,' I would then have to reply, yes, at the end of the day it does, because we do come from different cultures, we do approach problems differently, and in consequence we bring dif-ferent insights to bear in our analysis. Long live pluralism and down with mindless uniformity!"

In ensuing telephone conversations, it was pointed out to Schopflin that no journal could cede total control to contributors in the name of some anarchic spirit of self-expression. Were there no limits in his defense of pluralism? Beyond Hibernian, what about pidgin, argot, "Valley speak"? The conversation proceeded some-what along the lines of "You say tomayto and I say tomahto," inching irrevocably toward paradox, impasse, and possibly prideful showdowns.

What was to be done? Could the writer in such circumstances honorably permit his language to be altered when the very article he had submitted was defending the coexistence of multiple languages? And could the editor relinquish the dominance of a house style, only in this instance, without sacrificing the consistency and integrity of the journal or opening the door to even more variants of usage that future contributors would offer in the name of self-expression?

Before the conversation reached the looming refrain of "Let's call the whole thing off," a compromise was negotiated. In light of the subject matter, Schopflin's article would be published verbatim, exactly as he wrote it, in British English - though that was not to serve as precedent for any other articles. At the same time, it was decided to append this note to the article, explaining the difference of views and pointing out along the way that passions over language are not limited to minorities or newly ascendant peoples.