English as the Center and Its Privileges

24 Aug

Daniel José Older recently uploaded an appropriate video titled Why We Don’t Italicize Spanish:

This incited reactions from several people, including Bryan Thao Worra:

Previously, I once asked an editor why we italicize Filipino words. “Charles, there’s a difference between away in a manger from away in a manger.” (Away being the Filipino word for fighting.) There is, of course, context:  readers should be able to immediately distinguish if people are moving away from the manger, as opposed to a fight taking place in a manger, if such a sentence was used in a story. But I doubt if the style guides of various publishers (including the one I work for) will be changing anytime soon.

I’ve written before about the demands of fluency in one language, as opposed to organic language that uses and combines several languages in a sentence or phrase. There is also the systemic favoritism over English. Notice the é which I included in spelling out Daniel José Older? I had to lookup the Unicode value for that, instead of just typing it as easily as an e.

I just finished doing the eBook layout of Kaleidoscope for Twelfth Planet Press. It included several non-Roman characters.  Amal El-Mohtar’s story included Arabic characters. John Chu’s had Chinese characters. You can just imagine the various hurdles I went through just to render them correctly in various eReaders.

Do you know where I saw some interesting interplay between language? From John Chu’s “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere”:

“Okay, your sister had a bad reaction, but poe poe and gohng gohng don’t seem to be taking it badly.”
I blink and shake my head. It takes me a few seconds to realize that he’s talking about my parents.
“Did you just call my parents 婆婆 and 公公?”

In that scene, we see the significant difference between Romanizing Chinese characters, as opposed to using the actual characters. Even without providing you the context, readers can easily determine who is the native speaker and who isn’t — and the cultural nuance that carries.

I’d also like to note how the italics rule only applies to language that uses Roman characters, because heaven forbid we confuse one Roman language for another.


One Response to “English as the Center and Its Privileges”


  1. Top 10 Episodes and Blog Posts for August 2014 | The Skiffy and Fanty Show - September 4, 2014

    […] “English as the Center and Its Privileges” by Charles Tan […]

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