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An American Editor in India: Bridging the Gap Between Different Versions of the English Language

Hello from the United States to my colleagues in India! I am an American editor who has had the good fortune of visiting your beautiful country on four occasions, all in a short span of time: 2013-2017. That opportunity came courtesy of my wife, whose parents were from the Northeastern state of Mizoram. So while most of my time was spent visiting her relatives in that wonderful state, I also had the chance to visit several parts of the “mainland” (as I call it, from the perspective of having spent time in the relatively isolated Northeast). I had two visits to Delhi and surrounding areas, one to Agra and the breathtaking Taj Mahal, and two to Kolkata. I also spent some time in Assam and Meghalaya on my most recent visit, in 2017. Each of my trips was fascinating and educational, and I look forward to visiting again whenever the opportunity arises.

Whenever a language is transported across countries, continents, or oceans, it undergoes changes, sometimes radical. For the most part, speakers of the same language residing in different countries or regions can understand one another, but there is often confusion when it comes to idiom, usage, and spelling. So it is with American English, which had the added impetus for change through the works and efforts of Noah Webster (1758-1843), who is famous for writing the first American dictionary, and whose name still graces America’s most popular dictionary, Merriam-Webster (“Merriam” comes from the brothers George and Charles Merriam, who published Webster’s dictionary, An American Dictionary of the English Language, in 1828).

Webster was especially known for giving us American spelling of many words, including those in which the “u” was dropped from the “ou” in, for example, “colour” and “humour”; dropping the “me” in “programme”; eliminating the double l in words such as “travelling”; and changing “ise” to “ize” for phonetic purposes.

But spelling differences are the least of the barriers for those who speak British English when conversing or reading in American English. Phrasing, usage, and pronunciation can be radically different. Take, for example, a word for what we in America call a water heater: Geyser. Not only do we know the word as a term for a blast of hot water from underground, we pronounce it differently, with a long “I” sound for the “ey” part. So when my wife’s relative in Mizoram said that he had a “geezer” in the bathroom, I wondered whether there was an old man in there (“geezer” being a derogatory term for such a person here in the States). But after he showed me what he was talking about, I realized that I would be having the luxury of a hot shower (albeit a short one), which is not always a given in the humble but welcoming homes in Northeast India.

Several years ago, I welcomed dozens of college students from Hyderabad who had come to the United States to study management and computer engineering. I was assigned to be their ESL teacher, and they had to pass my course in order to advance through their chosen programs. There was some polite resistance to this requirement, with students sometimes protesting that they were English speakers and did not require additional language assistance. I think that, by the end of the 10-week course, they understood that in order to function more efficiently in their new country, they could benefit by learning from an American English speaker, which heretofore they didn’t realize was quite different from the Indian version of the language that they were accustomed to speaking and reading. I was happy to help raise their awareness of this potential barrier to their advancement here in the United States, and I had the added advantage of having visited their country several times as well as having considerable interaction with Indian Americans over the past nearly 20 years.

I hope someday to be able to meet members of the ICF if I have the opportunity to visit India once again, and look forward to reading about the trends and state of the editing profession in your country.

Mark Farrell is an American editor with about 27 years of experience in the field, encompassing multiple disciplines, such as copyediting, proofreading, and technical editing. Mark also has 13 years of teaching experience, including as an English language and history instructor at California University of Management and Sciences (Northern Virginia campus) since 2011.

Born in New York City, Mark grew up in Massachusetts, where he attended Stonehill College and Boston College grad school. He moved to the nation’s capital area, metro Washington, D.C., where he has lived since the early 1990s. Mark and his wife have lived together in Maryland since 2000. He enjoys traveling, reading, music, and playing basketball.

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