I Wanna Speak Like Common People

As a language obsessive, one of the things that has dogged me since moving to the UK is the strange insistence so many people here have on using the word whilst instead of while and amongst instead of among (and a few others).

I've never adopted the habit and, in my professional life, often find myself correcting it out of our content. Over the last year or so that I've been in my job (I work in marketing), my insistence on using the common, modern while and among has slowly been eroded and quite recently, I'd all but given it up. Although my employer is quite agreeable and allows me to adopt the language style-guide I think is the most appropriate for the tone of our brand, I slowly allowed myself to become convinced that the difference was geographic and that as a Canadian, I just didn't relate to this particular turn of phrase.

Tonight, armed with a bit of time between episodes of The Wire, I decided to do a little research and I am renewed in my petition against the common use of these particular two terms.

According to Wikipedia, reputable language stylistas on both sides of the Atlantic have renounced the use of the word whilst, including the Times Online Style Guide and the Guardian Style Guide. "Notably, there are no style guides that explicitly recommend the usage of whilst over while in any circumstances whatsoever. The general consensus of English is that whilst is an unnecessary, archaic word whose primary usage is by Britons who prefer what they perceive as a more 'noble' word. Its etymology derives from the early English whiles and, simply put, while is the word that has replaced whilst in modern English, just as thee and thou were replaced by you." (source)

I've found similar results when trying to get to the bottom of the use of amongst over among.

So why are whilst and amongst so commonly used over here? I don't tend to spend time with pretentious people or royalty. I am most often editing things written by developers - that is, people who write code. Call them many things, but they are definitely not pretentious. If the origins of both words are similar to thee and thou, and the evolution of language has truly made them archaic, why are they still so prevalent, so ... common?

Although I am renewed in my effort to purge our official company language of these kinds of terms on the basis that I believe language is at its most effective and powerful when it is simple and accessible, I have to conclude that technically, whilst and amongst are not wrong or meant to be poncy (unless you are royalty) but likely just the result of habit.

Some sources I've looked at have suggested that the choice is completely aesthetic. Apart from writers and language whores, I doubt many people think about their choice long enough to really understand why they use one word over another. Besides, why would anyone intentionally choose to clothe their sentences in the linguistic equivalent of this:


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Unknown said...

I think you should also use "again" rather than "against".

Amy said...

AND: "In modern British English, 'whilst' is supposedly a more formal variant of 'while'. It is also, in my experience, particularly beloved of students who write bad essays."

Dominic Watt, Department of Linguistics & Phonetics, University of Leeds


Friday said...

Whilst I agree with you theoretically speaking, these particulars have a history you or I (or a five year old online encyclopedia) can't even begin to understand. Sue me - I think the difference is charming, and I'd never dare to impose a rule of the English language on the English. Not for another twenty years anyway, eh?

Anonymous said...

Their are worse crimes than this style choice. I like to mentally kneecap people who use reflexive pronouns when they should use object pronouns. I presume that they think it sounds more posh or flattering. It doesn't.

Amy said...

@Friday True enough, though I do feel that as Canadians you and I do share this hybrid kind of history with the folks over here. In some ways I think we are in this odd in-between place where we can see both sides. Though admittedly, I am not really neutral on this one. In any case, I'll restrict my imposition of language preference to my little marketing domain at work (and this blog, of course). ;)

Amy said...

@Anonymous Snap! Kind of like a hit and run though when you don't leave a name or URL.

In any case, there are certainly worse crimes of language than whilst and amongst, but a recurring theme here is about obvious cultural differences between life in Canada and life in the UK and the strange process of trying to work through those differences. So, I don't think a treatise on pronouns would really work in this context. Thanks for the thought though!

Friday said...

Oooh, a highly literate troll! That's gotta be a first, Amy. xx

Amy said...

Some might even say, a rare breed. x

Andy Polaine said...

There are worse crimes (which/that usage, for example). I tend towards whilst and amongst, except while I am among others who don't.

Actually, there is a useful distinction with whilst and while. I can while away the hours, but I cannot whilst them away. Incidentally, German still uses the genitive for those kinds of expressions of time, which is where the extra s comes from in English.

Amy said...

Thanks for the comment Andy - this one is funny because there are many contradictory sources on this particular topic. I like to think of language has having solid rules, a science, but I am always being reminded of the fluidity of it. And really, it's the flexibility that probably makes it so interesting.