Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Unwinding Babel

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, language, english language, globalism

About half the members of the church I attend are Chinese, both "mainlanders" and Taiwanese. Though they all speak Mandarin, it is not everyone's first language. At a church lunch I might hear four or five Chinese dialects in use. The rest of the congregation consists of those, like me, whose first language is English. Church meetings and business sessions are conducted in English. However, when speaking to the group, I unconsciously speak a simpler English, adjusted to more closely match the vocabulary of them all.

At work, some of my colleagues are Indian, American citizens born in India. Several other colleagues with whom I sometimes interact are in India, at the other end of a video conference link or Skype call. I don't need to adjust my language much with any of them, but I have noticed signs of some of them digging out English terms to express concepts that, among themselves, they have a local word for. At least four Indian language groups are represented among them, so even though they also all speak Hindi as a second or third language, their English facility is better, and that is how business is carried out, in Indian-accented English.

Nearly none of my wife's family can speak English, but some of her childhood friends do. With them, we can speak ordinary American English; they learned from American servicemen and their spouses. But their children and grandchildren all speak "Japanglish" (more recently termed Janglish) among themselves, and can effortlessly switch to a lightly-accented English if they need to talk to me (not that they much care to).

Robert McCrum would tell me these are varieties of Globish, the new world language. The title of his new book (just a year out) is Globish: How the English Language Became the World's Language. His thesis is simple, that a few accidents of history, and the recent immense spread of the World Wide Web starting as an English language phenomenon, catapulted this word-gobbling, culture-flattening German/French hybrid tongue into global hegemony. Though twice as many earthlings speak Mandarin as a first language, more than half of all of us, four billion, speak English as a second or first language.

Simple though the thesis may be, the process was sinuous as a burnt python. Starting with the confluence of invader languages and native Celtic in the 5th Century, Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, quickly developed as the primary tongue of Britain. The breakup of the Roman Empire had resulted in the rapid eclipse of Latin as anything but a scholar's language. A few generations of Norman rule starting in 1066 AD nearly doubled the vocabulary as the British subjects of Norman overlords were required to learn new words for everything, but kept their old language for converse among themselves. A similar phenomenon continues wherever there is a servant class; just go to the Jamaican section of Baltimore, where you'll hear little English but plenty of Patois being spoken, though they speak English clearly enough when at work. In Norman England, the Anglo-Saxon of the servant class was sufficiently robust to survive and become Middle English, even though a nearly total overlay of "upper class" French words had been added to the mix.

King Henry V was the first to use (Middle) English instead of Latin or Norman in all his documents. Not for nothing did Shakespeare put a rousing English rallying cry in his mouth as he prepared his troops for battle on St. Crispin's Day (what King Harry actually said is, of course, not known, except that it was in English). In this, Henry was, perhaps consciously, recapitulating Alfred the Great, who used the vernacular hundreds of years earlier to rally his people, including his commissioning of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle. As Alfred's influence catapulted Anglo-Saxon back into a national tongue, so Henry did for Middle English at a crucial time.

We still retain memorials of the transition of Middle English into Early Modern English—Chaucer, Shakespeare and the Geneva Bible—and then Modern English, with the Authorized Version (King James Bible) on the cusp of the transition. Though spelling conventions have changed, making KJV English hard to read in a first or second edition, the spoken word has changed less (barring 400 years of neologisms), so that you'd be able to understand William Shakespeare well enough, were he to pay us a visit to discuss his life and work.

What is it that makes English such a robust language? In a word, flexibility. English is the great borrower. It exemplifies the entrepreneur's ethic: Why create what you can freely appropriate? While the French are struggling to find "honest" French expressions for the one-quarter of modern Franglish that was borrowed from English and other languages, English has grown to have a vocabulary of more than a million words, as collected by the Oxford English Dictionary. It requires only 10,000 words or so to become a fluent speaker of most modern languages. Any English-speaking fourth grader has a vocabulary exceeding 30,000 words, and the college-educated population knows 50,000 to 80,000 words. About a fifth of these make up the Anglo-Saxon/Norman core that fills our daily conversation, and many of the rest are borrowings of various vintages.

A most fortunate circumstance for the spread of English worldwide was England's loss of the American colonies in the 1776-1814 period. England turned to worldwide Empire building, and within a century, Great Britain and her empire girdled the globe and acculturated more than a billion people to her language and customs. Then two world wars came along, in which the Anglophone powers, the U.S. and England, became the closest of collaborators. One result was the breakup of the British Empire into the British Commonwealth plus a number of English-speaking former colonies. Another was the Marshall Plan, which has morphed into half the world's nations hosting clusters of American troops, whose English language spreads from every American base outward throughout those nations (this last sentence is my addition to McCrum's otherwise comprehensive historical review).

Just at such a juncture, technology intervened to produce a class of perfect electronic servants. When I first obtained a desktop computer in 1981, I knew that 90% of all keystrokes on PC's were word processing. PC's replaced typesetting equipment almost overnight; they replaced typewriters shortly thereafter, once printers got cheap (though my IBM ProPrinter, at $600, doesn't seem cheap now, it was quite a bit less than $7,000 laser printers of the time). The early 1990s saw the World Wide Web sweep over the Internet/DARPAnet and turn it into a global library. Now it is becoming "the Cloud", and if you don't read or write English, you can get free translation to and from the language you prefer at Babelfish or Google Translate or several other venues. They are getting less clumsy all the time (BTW, when I correspond in French, I use GT to check my word choices and grammar).

The two largest nations on Earth are promoting English even more than the U.S. and England. The Indians of course are becoming the go-to-folks for technical service no matter where you happen to be. And their accents are getting better. India has a greater accent-reduction industry than Hollywood. The Chinese are teaching English almost universally, so even though Mandarin is spoken by a billion and a half people, you can now add half of them to those who can use fluent English, or actually Globish, for commerce.

The English language escaped England two hundred years ago, and now it is escaping America also. That is a good thing. The flow of language is two ways, and Globish is now the language with the greatest ability to gain new words for new concepts. As a result, English/Globish is the only language that really needs a Thesaurus. It will never be a concordant language. Today's situation was summarized by McCrum's colleague Alan Rusbridger at The Guardian thus:
  1. There is no such thing as Abroad.
  2. Most of our readers are 'foreign'.
  3. They expect us to inform them about their own countries.
  4. Their decisions will affect us.
  5. No economy is an island.
  6. 'They' will want to come here.
  7. It matters in London what they teach in Lahore.
  8. The environment is global.
  9. Technology is global.
  10. Their own media won't do this: but we will!
(Note on p 290). This is a journalist's view, but with minor tweaking it represents the environment in which all commerce finds itself. For the coming decade or two, native English speakers will have it a bit easier than most, but the spread of Globish continues to flatten the playing field. After all, it matters most if you have something to say, and the world is full of people with plenty to say, and they are getting better at saying it to everyone, everywhere.

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