Monday, May 23, 2016

The New English

It's one of those times of year in which I'm busy marking scripts from around the world. These days the marking comes to me on-line, which means I no longer have any idea of what geographical background any script in front of me is from. Previously examiners would receive thick envelopes of examination papers from clearly indicated locations - we'd know the specific schools involved. Now the scripts come at random. You download one and it could be answering any one of six essay questions, and it might occupy anything from less than a page (rare, but I got one this morning) to an upper limit of around ten sides or so. (My longest ever was sixteen sides of unreadable handwriting, that being the first script I ever marked for IB, believe it or not, which immediately made me consider giving up the job.) And the script could come from anywhere from Africa to Alaska, from Zimbabwe to New Zealand.

The striking thing is that I rarely, if ever, have the slightest idea as to the origins of a script. It isn't that the essays are all written in a neutral Standard English such that they all sound the same; rather, and this is the odd thing, most seem to be written in the same variety of slightly skewed English, such that one begins to recognise similar odd constructions that aren't terribly wrong but are never quite 'right' somehow. I find myself wondering whether the people writing these essays are all frequently talking to each other since so many of them seem to be saying the same kind of thing in the same slightly slanted kind of way.

One simple example: it's very common indeed to be told in answers that a writer uses a mood in order to portray a theme (especially if a kid is writing an essay related to a question on mood.) Since so many write this or something like it, I suppose that in their minds it means something, that they are thinking of an actual sequence of some kind a writer sets into motion. But what on earth takes place in the course of this process?

Of course, there are some very well written scripts and there are some which are barely coherent. But the vast majority occupy a shared territory in between the two extremes which appears to have developed its own variety of the language. And I'm really not sure at all if this is cause for celebration or complaint.

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