English is not one language and never has been—even Old English had different dialects. Global English is a family of varieties, mostly mutually comprehensible but loaded with traps and surprises. And even when you can easily understand English from another part of the world, you will most likely recognize that it’s from somewhere you aren’t … and you’ll eventually get confused by something.
All of that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, but some people seem to think it’s possible to produce a neutral, non-regional, truly global English. I will grant that it’s possible to produce an English that seems at least slightly foreign to anyone anywhere—the famous “mid-Atlantic” English you hear in some movies is a spoken version—but it is not possible to produce a variety of English that is taken as unremarkably local by every English speaker everywhere. There are several reasons for this.
The most obvious difference is in pronunciation. Get someone from Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, someone from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and someone from Newcastle upon Tyne, England, to have a pleasant chat and see if they can understand each other at all.
Pronunciation is less of an issue when dealing with the written word—you probably won’t have a person from Buffalo writing “hot” and a person from Toronto thinking it’s “hat,” as you may when it’s spoken. But text is, in fundamental ways, a representation of the spoken word, and it often relies on reference to the spoken word.
Not just jokes but advertisements and catchphrases rely on rhymes and wordplays that are particular to just some varieties of English—“caught” and “court” sounding the same, or “quarter” and “border” rhyming for instance. These differences also help ensure the impossibility of English spelling reform: you can’t make a phonetic spelling of one variety of English that won’t be incomprehensible to users of many other varieties.
Not that English spelling is the same everywhere of course. Canadians are used to American-style spellings but can be very patriotic about colour and centre in some contexts; if a Canadian book expects a largely American audience, however, you can count on those Canadian spellings to alienate them. And on the other hand, if you just go with British-style spellings in Canada, you’ll soon realise it doesn’t always suit. And there are more striking differences, such as gaol versus jail, oestrogen versus estrogen, and arse versus ass—though that last case is arguably a difference of which word is used, not just which spelling.
There are many, many things that have different names in different countries. It’s well known that British cars have boots and bonnets instead of trunks and hoods and that a British lorry is an American truck (of a specific kind); it’s generally famous that what Americans call a barbecue Australians call a barbie. Fewer people will know that South Africans call the same thing a braai, or that instead of saying bro or buddy they say boet (which sounds like “boot”)—while in India, they say yaar.
For that matter, there are regional differences even in America, some of them quite celebrated. Is a Pepsi a pop, a soda, or a Coke (used in defiance of trademarks)? Do children on playgrounds ride see-saws or teeter-totters? Such regional differences—which don’t always divide on the same lines—are what linguists call isoglosses, and maps showing the isoglosses are some of linguists’ favorite things.
Americans occasionally run up against the fact that pants and fanny mean less publicly acceptable things in British English, and Americans are likely to know that in England and Australia mate refers to a friend rather than a romantic partner.
They’re less likely to know that hotel can mean a restaurant in India; that South Africans call a traffic light a robot; that in India you don’t graduate, you pass out; that tea can be a full meal in England; that a torchlight in Nigeria is a torch in England and a flashlight in the US; that I understand you in the US is I hear you in Nigeria; or that South Africans say shame when they are shown a cute baby or told of happy news such as an engagement.
Americans may not even know what someone from a different part of the US means by boulevard (a grassy strip between sidewalk and street or a wide avenue with a green strip in the middle?).
The lexical differences also extend to idiomatic turns of phrase. Where an American might write Main Street on Friday is different from a suburb on the weekend, a Brit would have The High Street on Friday is different to a suburb at the weekend.
A person from England might say I’ll knock you up to mean I’ll drop by and might tell you to keep your chin up by saying Keep your pecker up, but if the hearer is from North America, the results could be … awkward.
Some differences are points of pride: New Yorkers make waiting on line rather than waiting in line a kind of local shibboleth, and for New Zealanders, a phrase like Kiwi as (as in This food is Kiwi as) is, well, as Kiwi as … as what? They expect you to fill in the blank.
There is also the matter of things that are correct usage in one variety but terrible errors in another. I dreamed I dove into a lake may be fine in the US, but I dreamt I dived into a lake is necessary in England. I casted my vote yesterday is terrible in some countries but absolutely correct in Nigeria. I’ll call you when I reach is normal in India rather than I’ll call you when I arrive.
Words and grammar aren’t the only things that vary from place to place though. English-speaking culture is obviously far from uniform, and some baseline assumptions just don’t work the moment you cross a border. Food is different, and passing references can quickly be opaque: not everywhere has food trucks or pretzel carts or chaiwallahs; not everyone can order poutine or grinders or bangers.
And while any Canadian will know what another Canadian means by toque and a parka, most other people in the world won’t.
Americanizing and Canadianizing texts is a large and expensive business, and the spellings are the least of the issue. I remember one time a Canadian colleague working on a converted document discovered a number of instances of underprovinciald in a document; it turned out that someone had done a replace-all from state to provincial without checking. But when a guide to a health care topic starts talking about insurance, no amount of word replacement will fix the disparity between the US and Canada—or, really, between the US and anywhere else.
Houses and other buildings can be different, including what’s called the first floor (ground floor in the US and Canada, the floor above ground in most of the rest of the world).
There are also regional differences. In Canada, for instance, if you talk about a condo in Ontario, you probably mean a high-rise apartment; in Alberta, a condo is more likely to mean a townhouse, possibly a vacation property. What you mean by the word bungalow can vary quite a bit depending on where you are in the US. And in some cities, a duplex is typically side-by-side residences with one common wall; while in others, it’s a house with one residence on the upper level and the other on the lower—meaning that a reference to the people in the other half banging on the wall may be confusing.
How many kinds of English are there? Hmm, get a book of paint colors from a hardware store and tell me how many kinds of white, or blue, or black there are. Get another book and count again. English has national standard varieties, regional varieties within countries, local variants, socially divided varieties (often people from the same social group in different cities will sound more like each other than like people from other social groups in their respective cities).
And don’t forget that the status of English is not the same in every country where it’s spoken—it’s the historical main language in some, the language of a colonizing class in others, and a lingua franca in still others.
But in every country where texts are published in English, someone needs to make sure that that English doesn’t seem strange. And that someone may be you. The one thing you can be sure of is that while one variety of English may be comprehensible to speakers of another, it may alienate them—and may give rise to significant misunderstandings.
Do I see a hand in the back? … Yes? … Labels on boxes? And short warnings and things like that? Yes, it’s true that you can produce some short passages that look local to anyone anywhere. But that’s not a global variety of English; it’s a snippet, and many other similar snippets will not seem so universal.
It’s like going up to a rail ticket office in a European country and knowing enough of the local language to buy a ticket without their noticing that you’re not a native speaker: it doesn’t mean you’re fluent. You couldn’t carry on a conversation without being smoked out. You sure couldn’t write an article—let alone a book—that would be smoothly idiomatic.
The same is true with using English from one part of the world in another part of the world. Oh, they’ll understand you, probably. But they’ll know you’re not from there, and there will be extra friction and effort in the communication and comprehension. You may not realise it, but the little differences to what you’re expecting colour your reception. And editing means understanding, appreciating, and working with these subtleties.
In effect, localizing English is like translating from one language into another, just subtler. You should only localize into a variety you have native fluency in—if you try to adapt a text into the English of a country you’re not from, you will eventually make an embarrassing mistake. But you also need to know the variety you’re converting from well enough to understand the local points of usage and cultural assumptions, so you don’t think a Canadian’s toque is a chef’s hat, don’t believe that a South African at a robot is watching an android, or don’t get what the big deal is about jumping out a first-floor window.
Which, in my view, seems like an excellent excuse to do some international traveling … when you can.