from “Haphazard Reality”

written by a Dutch physicist, Hendrik Casimir (1909-2000)
Harper & Row, Publishers, 1983
(also see Scientific American, March 1956)

There exists today a universal language that is spoken and understood almost everywhere: it is Broken English. I am not referring to Pidgin English highly formalized and restricted branch of B.E. -- but to the much more general language that is used by waiters in Hawaii, prostitutes in Paris and ambassadors in Washington, by businessmen from Buenos Aires, by scientists at international meetings and by dirty-postcard peddlers in Greece -- in short, by honorable people like myself all over the world.

One way of regarding Broken English is to consider it as a more or less successful attempt to speak correct English, but that is a pedantic, schoolmasterish point of view that moreover threatens to stultify the speaker of B.E. and to deprive his language of much of its primeval vigor. Of course a corresponding point of view would be entirely justified in the hypothetical case of an Englishman trying to speak Dutch (or any other language for that matter) because he will necessarily be a lone figure, but the number of speakers of Broken English is so overwhelming and there are so many for whom B.E. is almost the only way of expressing themselves -- at least in certain spheres of activity -- that it is about time that Broken English be regarded as a language in its own right. It is then found that B.E. is a language of inexhaustible resource-rich, flexible and with an almost unlimited freedom. In the following I shall try to establish some of the fundamental principles of B.E. in the hope that others, more qualified than myself, will take up the subject and help to secure for it a prominent place in linguistics to which it is justly entitled.

The immense richness of B.E. becomes at once evident if we try to represent its sounds. Two short lines of keywords (44 in all) at the bottom of a page of a 25-cent Merriam-Webster are a sufficient clue to the pronunciation of standard American. And the famous English pronouncing dictionary of Jones has only 35 keywords. Compare these pedestrian figures with the wealth of sounds current in B.E. The whole international phonetic alphabet is hardly sufficient to meet the case. Take one simple letter like r.

It may sound like an Italian r beautifully rolling on the tip of the tongue, like a guttural Parisian r or like no r at all. In this last case the speaker usually suffers from the illusion that he speaks pure Oxford English. Similarly th may sound as a more or less aspirated d or t or as a simple z and sometimes (especially in the case of Greeks) almost like th. Then there are elements entirely foreign to English, like the Swedish musical accent and the Danish glottal stop (some people pretend that the glottal stop is hard to pronounce, but that is nonsense; it is very easy in itself and gets difficult only if you try to put it into a word).

But even more important is the principle of free choice. It is well known that the combination ough can represent at least five different sounds. The educated speaker of B.E. is well aware of this fact; but, whereas the speaker of standard English can only use one pronunciation in one word, the speaker of B.E. is at complete liberty. Some speakers make their choice once for all: they decide that they are going to pronounce doughnut as duffnut and stick to it. Others may use their freedom in a more subtle way and say doffnut or dunut depending on the hour of the day or the weather. Still others create distinctions and say dunut when referring to pastry but downut (like in plow) when referring to a circular discharge tube used in modern physical apparatus. The pronunciation dupnut (like in hiccoughs) is rarely heard, although it is certainly correct B.E. It is dubious however whether donut (like in go) is acceptable.

Then there is the accent. In standard English this is a queer business. During the development of the English language the accent has had a tendency to move to the front of the word, but it has not gone all the way and it has shown a curious inclination to linger on the most irrelevant and meaningless syllable of a word. Words like barometer and turbidity will Illustrate the point. Whether this is one more example of the traditional British sympathy for the underdog I do not know, but the result is baffling, and to the convinced speaker of B.E. the realization that he has nothing to do with' these weird intricacies comes as a great relief. The dogmatics will use their freedom by putting the accent always on the first syllable, whereas the rationalists will stress what seem to them the most important syllable. The quixotics try to imitate standard English. This is obviously impossible but the result has sometimes a certain slightly pathetic charm.

Much of what is said about phonetics applies to grammar too. Again a great richness, again a principle of free choice. The gain in power of expression that can be derived from, for example, a judicious use of the article is impressive. If a man invites you to a party it may very well turn out to be a dull show, but if he says, "Today we will have party and shall drink the cocktail," you can almost be certain that you are in for a lively time. Changing the sequence of words gives new flavor to old sayings -- "this is the moment when the frog into the water jumps," one of my teacher used to say at the critical spot in a mathematical proof. Although past tenses and third persons are entirely superfluous, it should be emphasized that occasionally brilliant effects can be obtained by borrowing a correctly inflected verb from standard English.

Also here there is a great freedom. Of course complete Humpty-Dumptyism is impossible, but B.E. is the closest approach compatible with a measure of understandability. (To explain the term HumptyDumptyism: "The question is", said Alice, "whether you can make words mean different things." "The question is", said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master, that is all.”) It is characteristic of the genius of Lewis Carroll that he, who was by birth and breeding excluded from obtaining a mastery of broken English, came by sheer artistic intuition to one of its basic principles.

Notwithstanding the great liberty in the use of words, there is one case where all speakers of B.E. seem to agree: in Broken English Broken English is called just "English."

It is remarkable how old and trite sayings in any ordinary language may acquire new glamour when translated in B.E. The only danger is that one may unintentionally come to use an existing English proverb. "Who burns his buttocks must sit on the blisters" sounds all right to me, but heaven knows whether a similar saying does not exist in Standard English. As a matter of fact this is always a grave peril also with respect to phonetics and grammar: one may lapse unawares into trivially correct standard English.

I am afraid that this very short survey will have to do for the present. But I have still two important remarks to make. First: in view of the stupendous wealth of B.E. it will at once be evident how completely ridiculous, ludicrous, preposterous and ill-advised are the attempts to introduce for use by foreigners a so-called Basic English, a language not richer but even poorer than standard English. Second: it is often stated that at the age of sixteen or so one loses the faculty to learn English correctly. This again is entirely wrong: nothing of any importance is lost; what is gained is the faculty to create one's own brand of Broken English.