I like Britishisms. I even like the word Britishisms, but why I use British variants of particular words that may not be in use in North America is because they’re a bit different. To think some would die out from lack of use might even suggest they would due to a much assumed dominance of purveying Americanisms (thank you Microsoft). Notice I didn’t write “Canadianisms”; that is not to say that we don’t have our quirky slang words, creative ditties that twirl around our lexicon. We most certainly do, and are proud of them. To pour them out here would be worth another blog entry (she notes that idea on a scrap piece of lined paper found beneath her tri-piled mess upon her desk). So what prompted this entry today is the very fine word “whilst”.
Someone recently told me he got a verbal slap, pretty much, for having used it (and clearly his listener was American). Okay, without getting into the ignorance of that, no –actually, it’s all about the ignorance of that. Is it decent to say that English is English, and leave well enough alone? No. Multi-semesters in Applied Linguistics has drilled that home, that there are burgeoning world Englishes, which seems an obvious point, to be sure, in our post-colonial, post-industrialization, trans-national trading world. What once was seen as a single language is branching, and perhaps much to the chagrin of people who consider themselves native English speakers. There’s an air of pomposity in that, but not, at least when I use it, in the word ‘whilst’, which is simply a variation of ‘while’. I use the latter seemingly as much as the former. A consonantal consideration may be why I choose one over the other, or use both in the same paragraph, and I would use both if the occasion were informal, mind you. Would I start a sentence with ‘whilst’, as in “Whilst I was sitting in the cafe…”, or would it seem less obvious, and more natural if it were placed later in the sentence as in, “The errands done for the day, I sat lingering over the latest Harlequin romance whilst sipping my iced tea.” Maybe if the word is stuck in the middle-right of the sentence, it wouldn’t be noticed as much. We are left-to-right readers, so whatever’s on the left invariably is noticed more (not always, mind you, as good writers know), so ‘whilst’ tagged on the front seems more obtrusive. With either usage, the word ‘while’ still functions as a subordinating conjunction, which is one of two ways to use it, the other being the noun as in, “I will wait for you a while.” Note, however, that ‘whilst’ is never used as a noun. “I will wait for you a whilst.” doesn’t work.
It is probably because of its archaic nature that ‘whilst’ is getting the boot in North American English. I can’t speak for usage elsewhere. I like the extra consonant combination of the ‘st’; it smacks more, it’s more determined. That final ‘t’ is a hard one; we must hear it. The tongue tip snap of it is crisp and tells the listener to pay attention. So, I say go ahead. If it sounds right, use it whilst you can.