Tag Archives: Latin

How English nearly got a language academy

Tim Hankins helps maintain All Saints Church in Aldwincle, England. Poet John Dryden was born in Aldwincle and baptized in the church. (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Tim Hankins helps maintain All Saints Church in Aldwincle, England. Poet John Dryden was born in Aldwincle and baptized in the church. (Photo: Patrick Cox)

In the tiny village of Aldwincle in the flat center of England, farmer Tim Hankins helps look after the village’s most famous building.

Today, he’s showing me around All Saints Church. Strictly speaking, it’s no longer a place of worship; it’s overseen by an organization known as the Redundant Churches Commission.

It’s a shell inside, almost empty. But on the wall, there’s a plaque that explains the significance of All Saints: this was the place where John Dryden, former poet laureate of England, was baptized.

Dryden was born 1631, 15 years after Shakespeare died. Tough act to follow.

Dryden’s poems and plays were nothing like Shakespeare’s. Where Shakespeare was evocative and inventive, Dryden was precise and refined.

Portrait of John Dryden by James Maubert, circa 1695 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Portrait of John Dryden by James Maubert, circa 1695 (via Wikimedia Commons)

John Dryden was a man of many opinions. Foremost among them was that English — like a naughty schoolboy — was behaving badly. He thought that Shakespeare and his contemporaries were not — as we think now — the leading lights in a golden age of English literature, but a bunch of punks who reveled in showy, linguistic chaos.

English was crying out for rules, Dryden thought. And if English didn’t possess those rules, it should import them. From Latin.

“He held Latin to be the superior language, the language par excellence,” says David Crystal, who has co-authored a book about places of significance to the evolution of English.

“The best thing English could do,” he said, “is to follow the elegance, the clarity, the diction, the style of the great Latin authors.”

Here’s one Latin-inspired idea: You should never end a sentence with a preposition. “It’s Dryden who thinks up this rule,” says Crystal.

It is a rule that, even today, some people insist on. Dryden thought that most of his rules, though, wouldn’t stick unless they could be enforced.

The best thing to do, thought Dryden, was to follow the example of the French and institute a language academy.

The Académie française had just come into being, on order from King Louis XIII, to “give exact rules to our language.”

A committee chaired by Dryden got together and started to plan for an English academy that would try to control the language, in the way that the French had tried to control theirs.

David Crystal, for one, thinks it’s just as well that Dryden failed. For one thing, he says, academies tend to create a kind of linguistic snobbery.

“If you have an academy, you have a centralizing force and a single variety of the language is held up as being the one that everybody should use,” says Crystal. “This means that if you speak or write the language differently, according to that view, there’s something a bit inferior about that — and you certainly don’t like it if some other part of the world takes your language and tries to change it some way.”

Of course, you don’t need a language academy for that — people all by themselves will decide that they speak the Queen’s whatever, and others don’t. But an academy can intensify snobbish attitudes. It can also alienate those don’t speak the “right” way, making the language potentially less popular over time.

Academies can do good, too, says Crystal. Some produce dictionaries and fund research. But for those academies, whose main goal is to control language, well, Crystal thinks they’re doomed to failure. He says Dryden’s conception of an English academy was misguided then, and were it to exist today, it would be ignored.

“In Britain, for the most part, people say if the Americans want to talk like that, let them talk like that — anyway what could we do about it?” says Crystal. “When you think of English as a global language spoken in every country in the world either as a first or second language, or a privileged foreign language, what chance would there be of the entire population of the United States respecting the views of that academy? Or the other two billion people in the world who speak English as a global language?”

That linguistic cat is indeed out of the bag. And frankly, it was never really in the bag. English has been unruly and full of dialects from its beginnings.

So why did John Dryden’s English language academy never come into being?

As it turned out, his timing was terrible. Just when he was trying to hold meetings and drum up support for his idea, the Great Plague struck London, followed a year later by the Great Fire. There was a mass exodus from the capital. And that was that.

Today, Dryden is remembered mainly for his creative writing. And the church that baptized him has been transformed into a sort of village cultural center.

“It’s open to the public to use,” says Tim Hankins. “We’ve had people come and do art exhibitions in here. And we’d had plays down here.”

Hankins tells me of another activity at the church: champing.

I ask him what that is; I’ve never heard of champing.

Hankins says that is staying overnight in the church. A combination of church and camping.

“It’s a new thing,” he says. “I hadn’t heard of it until yesterday.”

A new thing, and a new word. John Dryden might not have approved. But people use the word, and that’s enough to call it English.


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Some people have re-imagined English as Anglish, with no words derived from French or Latin

Tom Rowsell examines a replica of an Anglo-Saxon helmet

Tom Rowsell examines a replica of an Anglo-Saxon helmet


Here’s a guest post from Tom Rowsell.

It’s common knowledge that languages are fluid things which merge into one another and evolve to become new languages. But the way they change isn’t necessarily natural or arbitrary. The changes that occur to languages are often the result of wars, genocides, mass migrations, political meddling and religious taboos. The point of any language is to make oneself understood and this fact has meant that geography maintains the distinct character of different languages so that they remain intelligible to those inhabiting a certain area.

Linguistic purism is usually about preserving a language and protecting it from being corrupted by the introduction of foreign words. But Anglish is a bit different from other types of linguistic purism because it isn’t intended to preserve the English language as it is spoken now, nor as it has ever been spoken. Instead Anglish is a form of English stripped clean of the last 1000 years of non-Germanic influence, while also being brought up to date in terms of modern syntax, grammar and spelling.

So words like love, which is derived from the Old English word lufian, remain as they are in Anglish, while words like horticulture, the first part of which is derived from the Latin hortus meaning garden, have to be altered. The Anglish translation of horticulture is wortcraft, which is a compound of wort, meaning plant, and craft, meaning work.

Anglish speakers are a fringe movement of linguistic purists who want to streamline the English language and rid it of words of un-Anglo-Saxon origin. They don’t speak Old English as it was, because they keep the modern versions of words derived from Old English ones, but they replace words derived from French or Latin with what they consider to be the most appropriate Germanic English equivalents.

Anglish speakers haven’t had to invent an entire language as such, because most of the normal English words we use in daily conversation are of Old English origin. But although spoken English is primarily Germanic, the vast majority of words in the English language are of non Germanic origin, and this is where Anglish purists have had to be inventive. The words they have created are quite charming but confusing at times. Fortunately the Anglish Moot have provided an online Anglish Wordbook (wordbook is Anglish for dictionary) to help you learn the lingo.

In many cases you can guess what is meant because Anglish is quite intuitive. “Expand” is replaced by swell while “edit” is replaced by bework. The Anglish movement has roots way back in the late 1800s when Elias Molee advocated an English purged of its Romance components. He made his case in two books; “Pure Saxon English” and “Plea for an American Language, or Germanic-English”. He proposed a language similar to Anglish called Tutonish, which was intended to be a “union tongue” for all the Germanic-language speaking peoples, with a schematised English syntax and a largely German- and Scandinavian-based vocabulary.

In 1989 Poul Anderson wrote a short text about atomic theory in a version of English free from Romance elements. The text entitled “Uncleftish Beholding” is seen as the blueprint for the modern Anglish movement and what it can achieve. These opening paragraphs give you a feel for how Anderson made scientific speech seem more accessible and almost folksy.

    “For most of its being, mankind did not know what things are made
    of, but could only guess. With the growth of worldken, we began
    to learn, and today we have a beholding of stuff and work that
    watching bears out, both in the workstead and in daily life.
    The underlying kinds of stuff are the *firststuffs*, which link
    together in sundry ways to give rise to the rest. Formerly we
    knew of ninety-two firststuffs, from waterstuff, the lightest and
    barest, to ymirstuff, the heaviest. Now we have made more, such
    as aegirstuff and helstuff.”

The compound words like ymirstuff and aegirstuff reference figures from Nordic mythology, like the primordial giant of creation Ymir and the God of the sea Aegir, in order to describe the base elements of the universe in a Germanic context. Anderson also borrowed from German words to create “waterstuff” and “sourstuff”, coming from Wasserstoff (hydrogen) and Sauerstoff (oxygen).

It is unlikely that the Anglish dialect being created by linguistic enthusiasts will ever become widespread, but it is not without value. One thing about Anglish words is that they are more consistent and easier to understand if you have never heard them before. This is a great lesson for journalists, poets and authors struggling with vocabulary. Language is after all, a means of making oneself understood. If we endeavour to express the more complicated concepts of life and science with the most basic Anglo-Saxon language possible, then we may find the language is not only easier to understand but also sounds better.

Tom Rowsell is a professional writer and the director of “From Runes to Ruins”, a documentary film about Anglo-Saxon history. He is currently employed by the translation and interpreting company, EmpowerLingua.


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To Change or Not to Change Script: Turkish vs Persian

Sign outside the Ottoman Research Foundation in Istanbul, with Ottoman Turkish above the door. (Photo: Ashley Cleek)

Sign outside the Ottoman Research Foundation in Istanbul, with Ottoman Turkish above the door. (Photo: Ashley Cleek)

Here’s a guest post from reporter Ashley Cleek

On a Wednesday afternoon, seven students sit in a darkened classroom on the campus of Bosporus University in Istanbul. They squint up at a projection of a 100-year-old, handwritten letter.

The letter is written in Ottoman Turkish—that is, Turkish in the Arabic alphabet. Slowly, the students read the script aloud from right to left. When they get stuck, Professor Edhem Eldem writes the word on a chalkboard.
It takes the class an hour and a half to read four pages.

Ottoman Turkish looks nothing like today’s Turkish. In the Arabic script, vowels are not marked. That’s confusing enough in Turkish. But Arabic script doesn’t differentiate between consonant sounds like G and K. “You can write something in Ottoman Turkish that can be read gel, which means come or kel, meaning bald,” says Eldem.

And there are hundreds of examples like this: different words, written exactly the same in the old script.

With the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk decreed an alphabetic revolution. The Arabic script of Ottoman Turkish was banned. And a new Turkish alphabet was invented based on Latin letters. Turkey’s population was mostly illiterate, and the story goes that Ataturk traveled the countryside with a chalkboard teaching villages to read this new Turkish.

The new alphabet is so phonetically correct that, “If it is written properly there is no where you can go wrong when reading a Turkish word,” says Eldem.

Literacy skyrocketted. But Ataturk’s alphabet revolution brought on a symbolic shift. “Arabic is the East and the Latin script is the West,” says Eldem. “It is artificial, but…people believe in it.”

Eldem says that while his rational side supports the Latin script, he also feels the cultural loss: “I am in a position to see to what extent the loss of that script has dispossessed Turks, especially students of history, with some kind of a contact with the past.”

A fountain outside of the Egyptian Bazar in Istanbul. This is one of the hundreds of Ottoman fountains around Istanbul. Only those who have learned Ottoman Turkish can read the inscriptions (Photo: Ashley Cleek)


It’s true. Unless they study Ottoman Turkish, educated Turks cannot read the inscriptions on their great grandfathers’ headstones.

What Turkey did was radical. It was not just a script change. It was a cultural shift. Only a handful of countries have attempted to remake their alphabet. Most have stuck with the script they have. Iran, for example.

This is one of the dozen or so YouTube videos explaining what Persian would look like written in the Latin alphabet. Some websites have even transliterated Persian poems into a Latin-based script.

Persian, like Ottoman Turkish, is written in a slightly modified Arabic script, adopted around the 9th century when Persia converted to Islam. And like Turkish, some say it’s not the best fit.

Vowels are not marked. There are two letters for the sound T. Three letters for S and four for Z.

As a university student in Tehran in the 1970s and 80s, Hossein Samei dreamed of revolution. He and his classmates argued for the adoption of the Latin script.

“We wanted to change the world and because we were students of linguistics, we wanted to do it in language,” Samei says, smiling.

Today, Samei is a lecturer in Persian at Emory University in Atlanta. With a soft salt and pepper mustache and a worn orange polo shirt, he doesn’t look much like a revolutionary anymore. Those were youthful ideas, Samei says. Now he thinks the Persian alphabet is fine just how it is.

The script, says Samei, links Iran east to Afghanistan and south to India. It’s a connection to history, to literature and art. Changing the script would not just mean reprinting books, it would place a barrier between the present and the past.

“We like our culture. We like our literature. We want to change, but we believe more in reform,” says Samei. “Even this recent election shows that.”

Instead, Samei says, he sees authors and bloggers reforming the Persian language. Some writers mark vowels to indicate the sound. Some add an extra letter to make a word more legible. Still it’s a real struggle to reading in Turkish. Especially for those outside Iran.

Fariz Piruzpey teaches her daughter, Wyana, to read in Persian

Every evening at their home in New Zealand, Fariz and Medio Azadi sit with their daughter, Wyana and help her sound out words in Persian. Persian is Wyana’s native tongue, but her dad says she has a hard time reading. “She’s still struggling, that’s my observation, she is struggling with connecting the words,” Medio Azadi says.

Azadi is a linguist. He’s frustrated with the Persian script. But he also sees it as an expression of national character.
“It’s like the doctors writing a prescription, it looks mysterious,” he says. “If you are able to read the text, you are an insider. If you’re not able to read it, you’re an outsider.”

Azadi wishes Iranians would get behind a few small reforms that would make the script clearer. That way, his daughter would be more likely to master it.



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The Historical Twists and Turns of Spanish

Julie Barlow (Photo: Veronica Louis)

The Spanish that’s spoken here in the United States is a far cry from the language that came into being on the Iberian Peninsula after the Roman invasion.

Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau wanted to trace that Point-A-to-Point-Z history. So they moved from their native Canada to the United States, and began researching the book that became The Story of Spanish.

They found a language in flux—not just now, in the US, but in flux since its beginnings. No language, of course, ever stops changing, but Spanish has been a faster mover than many. History decided that. The Iberian Peninsula took in wave upon wave of invasion—from the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Visigoths, the Moors. When large-scale migration into Spain ended, Spanish-speakers migrated away, mainly to what became Latin America. There, the language was pushed and pulled in many directions—in most places it was spoken only by a minority elite. Only after independence in countries like Mexico and Peru did Spanish become a lingua franca.

Alfonso X of Castile (Photo via Wikipedia)

As Julie Barlow told me, Arabic in particular had a huge influence on Spanish. Not just through loanwords, though Spanish has many of them. (Albaricoque: Apricot. From Arabic al-barqouq (البرقوق) meaning plum or early-ripe; ojalá: I hope, I wish that… From law šha’ allāh: God willing.) Moorish rule over Spain was waning by the time King Alfonso Tenth of Castile decided that he’d use language to forge power.

Afonso—who later became known as Alfonso The Wise—decided to incentivize people into speaking Spanish. He wanted make Spanish prestigious and interesting. But when he looked around for what was prestigious and interesting in Spain, it was all in Arabic. So, Alfonso launched a huge project of translating Arabic classics into Spanish—which meant the rules of the language had to be defined, so that the translators had coherency and consistency.

“It becomes a trend in Spanish to define the language, the vocabulary and the spelling rules,” said Barlow. That was “very avant-garde in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries.”

Excerpt from "Epitafio épico del Cid," circa 1400 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Excerpt from “Epitafio épico del Cid,” circa 1400 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Barlow and Nadeau are language history veterans. They previously co-authored a book called The Story of French. So it’s no surprise they often compare Spanish to French, two romance languages that took very different paths.

“French is a language that is controlled by one country. Paris sets the rules,” said Barlow. “Spanish is completely different. Spain was overcome by its own empire and it very quickly in its history learned to share control of the language.” So the Royal Academy in Madrid has created standards for the Spanish language by taking into account consideration all the Spanish that’s spoken throughout the Spanish-speaking world. “It’s very much a language about sharing control and diversity.”

Barlow and Nadeau’s experience of United States comes very much from a Canadian perspective. They lived in Phoenix, Arizona where they enrolled their daughters in predominantly Hispanic schools. They observed the widespread phenomenon in the US of non-native English-speaking parents urging their kids to learn English and forget their Spanish.

“It’s like a zero-sum game,” said Barlow. These immigrants “are convinced that they can’t teach their kids Spanish of they won’t make it in the English United States. This was eye-opening for us, because it’s the opposite in Canada. Everybody wants to learn French—French is an officially recognized language and it will get you a job in the government. In the United States, there’s a similar idea among white people who want their kids to learn Spanish. But the perfectly bilingual Spanish-speaking kids are hearing from the parents. ‘English, English, English! Forget your Spanish.’”

Here’s a report on The Story of French from an previous podcast:


In the pod, I mentioned PRI’s Global Reporting Fund. Here’s where you can contribute.



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The Pope’s Big News Came in…Latin

Pope Benedict’s decision to resign has taken many people by surprise—and not just because of what he said. How he said it also raised eyebrows.

He delivered the speech in Latin. Now, Latin is far from being a dead language on the page, but spoken Latin is barely living.

“I find it extremely moving and exciting,” said Harry Mount, author of ‘Carpe Diem: Put a Little Latin in Your Life.’ “He clearly can speak Latin in a way that very few people can. Lots of people study it but they can’t actually speak it.”

Mount says that at the cardinals’ conference at which the pope announced his resignation, “quite a lot of the cardinals didn’t understand” what he was saying.

That’s quite a moment to miss out on, the first papal resignation in almost 600 years. It flew over the heads of most reporters there too. They tend to wait for the Vatican press office to translate the pontiff’s words.

But one reporter did understand what the pope was saying—Giovanna Chirri of the Italian news agency, ANSA.

“I understood but I didn’t want to believe,” said Chirri, a fan of Pope Benedict. But despite not wanting to believe the words, Giovanna Chirri did her job: she broke the news, and in so doing became part of the story.

Giovanna Chirri is no spring chicken. She’s often described as a veteran Vaticanista. She said the pope’s Latin is easy to understand. But her high school Latin must have stayed with her. “Boy, she knew her stuff,” said Harry Mount.

The pope appears to know his stuff too. As well as his speeches in Latin, he has re-introduced the Latin mass, and he even now tweets in Latin (or someone at the Vatican does).

Younger people are also helping revive the language. Several countries report that more school kids are studying Latin.

But you may still wonder what the point is of studying a language that perhaps just a few hundred people speak fluently.

“In English, two-thirds of English words are Latinate,” said Mount. “If you know that, you can swop between Latinate and Anglo-Saxon registers and you just understand the language, like someone who knows the rules of football or golf. You can play around with the language more because you know how it was constructed.”

There’s now an additional reason to study Latin: you may wind up breaking some big news.

Want more Latin? Here’s a previous podcast on the origins of everyone’s favorite dummy text, Lorem Ipsum.



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The staying power of English, and Shakespeare in Shona

Top five language stories this month with Patrick and cartoon queen Carol Hills:

5. Multi-lingual Shakespeare. All of Shakespeare’s 38 plays will be performed next year in London, each in a different language. Hosting this 6-week season — part of London’s 2012 Cultural Olympiad —  is the reconstructed Globe Theater. The environs may be authentically Elizabethan, but no-one back in the 16th century would have seen Titus Andronicus in Cantonese, The Tempest in Arabic, Love’s Labour’s Lost in British Sign Language, or The Taming of the Shrew in Urdu.

Given the diversity of languages and, presumably, styles of stagecraft, it’s surprising the Globe isn’t presenting these plays at a diversity of venues. Putting on plays at the Globe is all about conjuring up a specific time and place in English history. This season of plays seems designed to do the opposite. Think of all Shakespeare-inspired foreign language movies, like Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood — based on Macbeth — that transport you worlds away. That’s when you get a sense of the universality of Shakespeare. I’m not sure if the setting of Globe for all these plays will convey that.

4. Texting surprises. Two new studies on texting are out. The first focusses on literacy acquisition, and the scond on the texting habits of Australians. In the first, a group of children in the UK were given mobile phones to text to their hearts’ content. Their literacy acquisition skills — reading and spelling — did not suffer as a result. In the second,  Austalians, and men in particular, expressed disatisfaction with texting shorthand (even the Aussie-specific stuff like totes (totally) and redic (ridiculous). Also — this is really surprising — more than 75% of  Australians age 65 years and older send at least one text a day. Those elderly Australians are totes techno. Redic!

3. Eliminating an unwanted language. In these times of language disappearance,  it’s not often you hear of an effort to willfully eliminate a language. That, though, it what’s happening in South African. The language in question is more like pidgin. It’s called Fanagalo, and it’s like a simplified version of Zulu, with some Xhosa, Afrikaans and English thrown in.  During colonial times, it was used as a language of instruction in the mines. Colonial bosses would issue orders to workers in Fanagalo. Over the years, it acquired quite a few technical mining phrases and so it is still used today. Now, there’s a debate in South Africa over its usefulness, even as there’s widely-held distaste for the way in which it came into being. The National Union of Mineworkers is pushing to have Fanagalo abolished — which has set South Africa’s Chamber of Mines thinking about how exactly to do that.

2. Keeping Russian and Chinese pure. Efforts are underway to keep Russian and Chinese free of English words and acronyms. Here are two languages that developed largely in isolation during large parts of the 20th century.  Now that Russia and China are more connected,  Russian and Chinese are having trouble incorporating (or resisting) Anglicisms. Some new Russian words include steyk-kholdery (stakeholders), autsorsing (outsourcing), riteyl (retail) and franchayz (franchise). New Chinese words often derive from English-language acronyms: NBA, CPI, WTO, GDP.

Both countries are taking ham-fisted approaches: Russia’s anti-monopoly service penalized a Japanese sushi chain which displayed a billboard saying Happy New Menu. It also took action against a sportswear store  using the expression new collection. China’s General Administration of Press and Publication issued an edict barring Chinese newspapers, books and websites from using English words and phrases. Neither approach seems likely to work.

1. New book sparks a debate about the staying power of English. Nicholas Ostler’s The Last Lingua Franca makes the argument that one day in the distant future English will cease to be a global language, that most English speakers will be native speakers (right now, an estimated 30% of English speakers are native speakers).  Not only that, but it won’t be replaced by any other lingua francas. The world won’t need a common tongue, says Ostler, because we’ll all be able to speak in our own native tongues, and communicate via translation devices. Not surprisingly, Ostler’s theory/prediction has been roundly criticized, by champions of English as well as by techno-skeptics. Still, one of Ostler’s main points, that history has not stopped, and that language evolution has not played itself out, is well taken. And just look at Aramaic, Greek and Latin, all in their days lingua francas.

Listen in iTunes or here.


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Aussie English and proper English

Not that Australian English isn’t proper…

English is so widely and variously spoken that it barely can be called a single language. That hasn’t stopped grammar stickler Simon Heffer from trying to re-establish order.  The man is seriously old school, and he doesn’t like what any of Britain’s new schools are teaching –or failing to teach — about English usage. We take a trip with Heffer to a school in Suffolk, where he makes the case for his version of correct English: the difference, for example, between I will and I shall. Heffer doesn’t like it when English speakers get in a muddle over foreign terms. The Italian term panini, meaning sandwiches, has essentially become an English word. Most of us either don’t know or don’t worry that panini is plural.  Heffer, though, does. If he’s buying just one sandwich, he will insist on asking for a panino.

No-one’s going to arrest him for that.

Heffer, of course, is far from alone in trying to control our use of  the language, before it descends into hellish and unseemly chaos, no doubt taking us with it.  In the eighteenth century,  English bishop Robert Lowth tried something far more proactive: he laid out a set of  grammar rules for English that were, essentially, borrowed from Latin. To that end, he criticized the likes of Shakespeare, Donne and Milton for their “false syntax”.   Podcast contributor Elise Hahl says Lowth partially won his fight for the Latinization of English grammar. She says that to this day, English is the poorer for it. That said, we  hold up Shakespeare today as the numero uno Literary God of the English language, not least because of his inventive rule-breaking. So maybe Shakespeare and loose English got their revenge.

Also in the pod, poet Les Murray describes some of the more colorful expressions of Australian English: papped, for example, means snapped by paperazzi (or, I suppose, paperazzo if there’s only one photographer, yes Simon?); a window licker means a voyeur.  The keeper of the Australian English flame, by the way, is the Macquarie Dictionary, well worth checking out.

Finally, we check in on a language school in India where the teachers have a strong sense of what constitutes proper English. Mr Heffer might approve.

Listen in iTunes or here.

For more on the endless variations of English, check out our discussion of Rotten English in this podcast from 2008.


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