Velázquez with a 'lisp,' and the center of English

After an art-themed concert, some musings about how language changes

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A concert of Spanish music of the Renaissance a few weeks ago has gotten me thinking about whether the "center" of English has changed.

Hmm, I can see how that one needs some connecting of the dots, dear reader. Please bear with me for a moment. I went to hear the aforementioned concert, given by one of our many fine performing ensembles in Boston in connection with a big exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts of paintings by Velázquez and El Greco. (I want to borrow jargon from the news business here and say that the concert was "pegged to" the exhibition.)

As the musicians introduced the pieces they played and talked about the art, I was struck by the pronunciations of "Velázquez" and other Spanish names. Oh, yes, more of a "lisp" sound (forgive me, but sort of "Velathketh") than in the sibilant New World Spanish that is more familiar on this side of the Atlantic. Folklore has it that one of the Habsburg kings actually spoke with a lisp, and that others at the court, and later, across Spain, picked up this pronunciation.

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That story truly is folklore, but it does seem to be true that Spanish pronunciation changed back in Madrid after the conquistadores set forth for the Americas. And this phenomenon fits into a larger pattern of the way languages evolve.

Here's the theory: When colonists leave their mother country to set themselves up in a new place, they take their native language with them (naturally) – as it is spoken at the time of their departure. It tends not to change all that much once they get where they are going. But meanwhile, back in the mother country, the language continues to evolve.

Thus, broadly, broadly speaking, American English is an older pronunciation than British English, Quebec French is older than Parisian French, and New World Spanish is older than Castilian.

It may be counterintuitive, especially to Americans schooled in the narratives of hardy pioneers making their way in wagon trains across the prairies. Wouldn't one expect pioneers to be on the cutting edge of language as well as of geography? Perhaps, but it doesn't work that way. I think the idea is that colonists have enough on their plate, building a new country, and that tinkering with language isn't a priority.

That makes sense: A smaller group of speakers is "not going to be pushing their language as much" as the larger population of speakers back in the mother country," as Merriam-Webster lexicographer Emily Brewster puts it.

Isn't there a point, though, where the "colony" becomes a center of the language on its own? Can't the 300 million native speakers of English in North America give the British a run for their money at this point?

The answer, according to an extremely informal survey of language experts the other day, is "yes." David Wharton of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro suggests that instead of a circle with a center, English is more "an ellipse with two foci," the United States and Britain, each exerting considerable influence over various "world Englishes." The British universities are a very strong influence in India, he observes.

American universities are particularly strong with the Chinese at this point, he adds: "Lots of them are specifically being trained in American English."

There are also many "subcenters" of English, such as South Africa, whose English diverges considerably from both American and British English, and is influenced by Afrikaans. Phrases from this Dutch-derived language have worked their way into the vocabulary even of Anglophones.

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