Love it or hate it, English has become the world’s lingua franca* and its current position as a communication powerhouse is unlikely to change anytime soon.
For this reason, most businesses online these days choose to have an English language version of their website available, even if the business is not from an English-speaking country.
But with so many varieties of English to choose from, which one should you pick for your company or business?
The many varieties of English
A given language, such as English, often has multiple varieties. In many ways, it’s technically more correct to speak about Englishes instead of English.
From the colloquially informed Australian variety, to the formality of written Indian English, in English we have a language chameleon. One that has been shaped, crafted and changed by the nations who use it.
Did you know that there are around 65 sovereign nations who list English as one of their official languages? Add to this the 30 odd non-sovereign nations who use English in the same capacity, mix in the world’s English creoles and pidgins, season with emerging Englishes, and the result is a linguistic stew like no other.
For the most part, Englishes are mutually intelligible. Meaning that a speaker from one place can easily understand a speaker from another. That said, it’s also possible that being offered a “switcha” (lemonade) in Nassau, Bahamas would confuse many other native speakers. And being “aksed” (asked) a question in New Zealand would cause many an English speaker to do a double take.
Each variety of English is enriched by local slang, phrases, and pronunciation. But this is all speech, isn’t it different when it comes to text?
In terms of writing, vocabularies are merging thanks to the rise of globalisation, but many idioms remain unknown. Moreover, grammatical constructions used in one variety may be completely unused in others.
And while a heavy use of contractions (it’ll, she’ll, don’t and the like) might be completely acceptable in one variety, even in a formal text, they would be frowned upon in other varieties. For example, Australian English favours contractions and a conversational style, including in government texts. British English, on the other hand, shows less use of contractions.
Know your bottle-os from your offies
Language does not exist in a vacuum. And any language, or variety of that language, is always inextricably linked to culture.
For this reason, it’s important that you gear your English-language texts toward the clientele you’re aiming to convert. It’s no good peppering your texts with regionally specific idioms and vocabulary that are going to be misunderstood by your readers. At best you’ll lose your customer base, at worst you’ll come across as inept and untrustworthy.
This is not to say that you should steer clear of all colloquial language, just that you need to make sure that it fits the audience you’re targeting. It’s no good referring to, for example, a “bottle-o” * or an “offie” * when your readers will only understand “liquor store”.
Colloquial language is a powerful tool for business when used correctly. In fact, studies have shown that the correct use of localised forms of language in text can result in a more positive reception that plain, formal writing would.
Essentially, you can seem more likeable and approachable by making sure that your texts encompass and embrace the culture you’re writing for. Language has a large part to play in terms of social cohesion and your marketing can tap into this and turn it to your advantage.
Forget about minding my Ps and Qs, should I Z or S?
Here in the digital realm we are witnessing an epic battle of sorts. It seems that half of the pages you read these days are written in American English, and the other half, this page included, are written in British English.
Should you capitalize or capitalise on the changing tides of English or not? There’s no correct answer to that question, but once again, it pays to pay close attention to who your market is. Across Europe the preferred form of English is British English. In fact, the European Union uses this variety for all its English-language publications and translations.
But when it comes to international business, northern American English is far more common. Because globalisation is driven in large part by business, it is entirely possible that in the future we will be swapping ‘s’ for ‘z’ and dropping ‘u’ from many of our words. Good news for those who already write this way, bad news for those of us who are somewhat attached to our colourful variety.
In any case, both are easily understood by all readers so long as you pay attention to those pesky bits of vocabulary which don’t cross the Atlantic as easily as the grammar seems to have done.
Oh, and make sure that stylistically your texts don’t alienate either audience. American English does no favour passive sentence construction or long sentences with multiple clauses. And the very notion of “gotten” being a word will send many a Brit running for the OED.
Sounds like a lot to take in? If so, keep your focus on the business side of things and let us worry about the words. We like to keep them front and centre (center?) around here.
For further information on how to supercharge your marketing materials and really tap into the national psyche of your target audience, get in touch with us to find out how we can help.
*We’re sure the irony of this usage is not lost on the French
*Bottle-o – An Australian term for a shop which sells alcohol.
*Offie – Backformation from ‘off-licence’ a shop which sells alcohol.