Nua blows it. Twice

As far back as the final June of the preceding century, we were explaining, as if patiently, that the essence of the Web is text (or, as we put it more properly later, graphic design).

Now Rob Norton at the mighty Nua makes the same declaration, on the topic of animated online advertising:

People who permit dumb animation on their websites show that they misunderstand the nature of the Web as a medium. Despite all the hoopla about broadband and multimedia, the Web, as it exists today, is primarily a print-like medium. People spend most of their time on the Web reading – if you define reading in its broad sense. Just as people reading a newspaper or magazine will look at photographs, illustrations, and advertisements, so will web readers.

We expect an avalanche of praise (and client bookings) to bury Norton now that he has declared (a) the bleeding obvious and (b) what we were talking about half a lifetime ago in Internet years.

But we don’t want to sound bitter.

It gets worse: Elsewhere, Norton recommends using “world English,” that is, “American English,” in all your pages. How audacious! How ill-conceived! How ignorant!

The reason for using American conventions isn’t that they’re right or wrong (whichever you were taught as a child will seem right). It’s simply that the number of Web readers familiar with American spelling and usage is vastly larger than the number familiar with British style, so you will generally offend fewer people by using American spelling and style conventions.

A supporting reason is that British speakers are used to encountering Americanisms and recognize them as such. Many Americans, however, are not used to Britishisms, and will assume they are mistakes, or – worse yet – will misunderstand completely. Take the sentence “I went looking for my mate.” In British English, where mate is a synonym for friend, the sentence could mean that I left the bar to see where my pal had gone. In American English, however, mate has only one meaning, and the sentence would mean that I had set off in search of my life partner.

The article is strewn with laughably unlikely and exceptional “examples” of this sort. All that’s missing is a reminder of the difference in meaning of “knock you up” in British and American English. Or of course the distinction between private and public schools, and exactly what the kids get up to in the latter.

As ever with these high-powered yet clueless consultants, where do we begin?

  1. Principles of localization hold that a site should appear entirely natural and fluent in the language of the target audience.
  2. Localization does not limit itself to cross-border shopping. You aren’t obliged to localize only when a change of language is involved. English does indeed find itself among the family of languages spoken and written differently in different regions (also Spanish, French, German, Chinese, and Portuguese, merely to drop some of the bigger names). To do a proper job, even English-language sites need to be localized.
  3. Some firms may begrudgingly admit that the British are important enough to warrant their own customizations. Note that Norton confines the body of his recommendations to British vs. American English, as though those were the only variants at play on the Web and thereby authorizing the selfsame sin he advises us to avoid: “Offending” readers.
  4. It is no less a sin to offend British readers than American. To standardize on American English is a thoroughly America-first approach and has nothing to do with “world English” or avoiding offense, contrary to the false premises of Norton’s disingenuous and deceptive article.
    1. We deal with this all the time. One “client” used the salutation Mr. for any name whose gender could not be determined. The claim was that it was always safer to address a woman as a man than vice-versa. Surely this had nothing to do with the fragile egos of the male engineers who dominated the department, for whom the emasculation of being addressed as Ms. would be a fate worse than death. (For the record, if you don’t know the addressee’s gender, use the full name: “Dear Robin Jones.”)
    2. The worst thing you could possibly do to an American is to call him (sic) a foreigner. The fragile self-centredness of American Web-surfers must apparently be preserved at any cost, even the cost of fundamental respect to other readers.
  5. Moreover, just as business sites should be localized (usually done poorly, as our previous coverage documented) to respect the reader’s requirements, cultural and personal sites need not be localized. Remaining unlocalized will respect the author’s requirements. The NUblog is written in unapologetic Canadian English (an amalgam of British and American, epitomized by two words: neighbour, organize), while Monash University’s site is written in unabashed Australian. Such variations are the flipside of commercial localization projects and are entirely just and proper.
  6. For readers of all variants of English who actually can spell, the orthography used is a matter of right or wrong despite Norton’s claim that night is actually day.
  7. Speakers of English variants other than American outnumber American-speakers. It’s true that online usage is dominated by Americans, but that won’t last forever, and it’s no reason to pull a Hollywood on the rest of the world and demand that everyone accommodate U.S. spellings.

Today English, tomorrow the world!

If your first goal is communication, not cultural ideology, you should write in the simplest, most universal “World English” that suits your content.

Newsflash: There’s no such thing as a World English any more than there’s a World Culture or a World Government (the efforts of Jack Valenti and the Pentagon notwithstanding). Homogenization cannot possibly “suit” our “content.” (Why the wiggle room, Norton? Why give us a choice of a World English that “suits” our “content”? Is there one World English or isn’t there?)

And the punchline? Norton banged out his credibility-shredding litany of malapropisms for Nua, and Nua is an Irish company! The Irish, as we all know, aren’t even British, let alone American.


Posted on 2001-03-13