Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Who owns English?

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It’s a provocative question. So provocative, in fact, that Newsweek International decided to put it on the cover of its March 7 issue, and I was sucker enough to buy it. Rarely does the content of Newsweek or Time ever live up to the covers, so I don’t know why I should be disappointed this time. In any event, the content, such as it is, of the particular article “Not the Queen’s English” can be summed up in the following four points:

1. English language instruction is a hugely lucrative industry.
2. “If you can’t speak English, it’s like you’re deaf and dumb.”
3. Non-native speakers of English now outnumber native speakers 3 to 1. Why is this important? Never before has there been a language that’s spoken by more people as a second than a first.
4. There is no World Standard English, but there is an international “brand” of English, and despite regional variations in vocabulary and pronunciation, it’s the non-native speakers who are doing a better job of communicating in it than those who insist upon the Queen’s English and all its idiomatic colloquialisms.

Conclusion (mine): Everybody knows that language is a fluid thing. It trickles and eddies, flows and overflows. It penetrates, erodes, refracts. Eventually, a point of saturation will be reached. In the meantime, there is indeed a lot of money to be made, and only a fraction of it will be made by Brits and Americans. I think it’s fair to say that nobody owns English anymore; it’s a mass market commodity sold dirt cheap on every corner. Imagine one advertisement selling equally effectively in each and every corner of the globe. This is a great triumph for English. Nothing is wasted, people say, and a language grows neither richer nor poorer; it just is what it is. But I wonder, in 50 years or so, will Spanglish, Hinglish, Greeklish, and other such tongues be mutually comprehensible or will they be useless double corruptions that got out of hand? (Blogos [see March 1] is more optimistic.)

Linguistic imperialism is hardly the issue when the “oppressed” are clamoring, supplicating themselves, and paying exorbitant prices for access to “the language of empowerment.” Nevertheless, I think English is already going down in history as a language killer; it’s another sort of mass extinction we can blame on the Americans. Diversity guards against the loss of any given species, and I think that bilingualism and multilingualism will keep total domination by English at bay for the foreseeable future, maybe indefinitely. In fact, the way I see it, English may be among the first to fall in the killing spree. The descriptivists will judge me for this, but in English, there is an –s on third person singular verbs. There is a difference between who and whom, and pil(l) and peel, and pique and peak (and peaked and peaked).

Back to the bottom line, runaway inflation will inevitably leave a currency devalued. Walter Benjamin, John Berger, Walker Percy and all those guys said it first, but it’s all a matter of mass reproduction and overabundant representation. Performance is privileged – over property, permanence, and sadly, precision.

The picture was taken by Kyle Reed in China’s southwestern Sichuan Province. Coincidentally, statement Number 2 (above) was made by a 12-year-old girl who makes her home there. According to Kyle, the Chinese means something like: "Entrance to bus station here" but the sign was written in Chinglish (English words with Chinese syntax).

4 Comments:

Blogger Loxias said...

A small point: the vast majotiry of endangered and extinct languages are in this position not because of English, but because they are lost to dominant local languages. This is attested in Brazil (native languages lost to Portuguese), Indonesia (to Bahasa Indonesia), China (to Chinese varieties), India (to regional languages). It just happens that, in the case of Native Americans, English and French happened to be the local dominant languages through colonialism. See David Crystal's book English as a global language

1:30 pm EET  
Anonymous Kyle said...

I agree that English is no longer owned by anyone. Even if America and Britain suddenly didn't exist, English would continue since it is the only common language in many places. Interestingly enough, in Chicago, USA, I recieved voter registration information in three languages - English, Spanish, and Chinese. America is slowly turning into a multilingual country. English is, and will probably continue to be, the language of international business because people want and need a common language to communicate in. English is here and it works. People have tried to make global languages by combining several languages. They were easy to learn for many cultures, but never had the base of people to use it and make it popular. English has this base and will probably continue - I can't see another language developing that will overtake it, unless English mixes with all the other languages and itself becomes a mix. Is English the best language for the job? No. I prefer the Chinese style of grammer with no congugation of verbs and only one word for I and me and a common suffix to turn singular pronouns into plural pronouns (I to us and you to them). But, Chinese has the little problem of using characters, which means it is very hard to learn and it is also a tonal language, which makes it very hard to understand for someone who has never experienced such a language. For better or worse, English is probably going to stick around and native English teachers are going to continue to be desired.

4:35 pm EET  
Blogger sissoula said...

Loxias, not such a small point at all. Kyle, thanks for sharing your opinions and of course your pic. I'm always a little suspicious when people say the grammar of any language is simple; people say the same about English, and then in the next breath, complain about its 800 irregular verbs. Actually, one of the things I was griping about was the inclination toward simplifying or streamlining English to the point that it's not English anymore. A simple solution isn't always the best one.

By the way, readers, Kyle suggested behind the scenes that I give you a more relevant link to his world comparisons page. So I did.

6:44 pm EET  
Anonymous Kyle said...

sissoula, I agree that there is no simple language - they all have the plusses and minuses. My point about Chinese is that there is absolutely no congugation of verbs, but their written language is far more complex. I am for an evolved English that is simpler, but not might resemble English anymore. It might incorporate aspects of many languages that make it simpler for everyone to learn - maybe have no congugation of verbs and retain the simple written form.

7:09 pm EET  

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