English Rules

magic_english_logo.jpgSINGAPORE — Riding the crest of globalization and technology, English dominates the world as no language ever has, and some linguists now say it may never be dethroned as the king of languages.

Whoa, a bit grandiose, that King stuff. Didn’t we found this country to get away from that? And who says English is masculine? Why not the “Queen” of languages? Isn’t it the Mother Tongue? These tendencies, toward heirarchial patriarchy and ethnocentric domination, are built into the language and the way Americans use it.

John McWhorter, a linguist at the Manhattan Institute, a research group in New York, and the author of a history of language called “The Power of Babel” was more unequivocal.

“English is dominant in a way that no language has ever been before,” he said. “It is vastly unclear to me what actual mechanism could uproot English given conditions as they are.”

As a new millennium begins, scholars say that about one-fourth of the world’s population can communicate to some degree in English.

And another one-fourth are Chinese.

It is the common language in almost every endeavor, from science to air traffic control to the global jihad, where it is apparently the means of communication between speakers of Arabic and other languages.

It has consolidated its dominance as the language of the Internet, where 80 percent of the world’s electronically stored information is in English, according to David Graddol, a linguist and researcher.

There may be more native speakers of Chinese, Spanish, or Hindi, but it is English they speak when they talk across cultures, and English they teach their children to help them become citizens of an increasingly intertwined world.

This much is true. The revolution in communication technology and the worldwide reach of commercial networks have driven the need for a common tongue, and English is it, by default if not by election or pedigree. Of course, English does have outstanding characteristics which make it well-suited as a world language. It is direct and economical to the point of terseness. It is flexible and absorbent. If another language can say something English can’t – no sweat, we just incorporate the word or expression into English, giving it a broad midlands mispronunciation.

English is the great robber language. We have taken words and expressions from EVERY OTHER LANGUAGE SPOKEN ON THE FACE OF THE EARTH, from Latin to Lativian, from Esperanto to Quechua to Klingon. 40% of our words were stolen directly from French!

If we want to say something that doesn’t Exist in English or any other language, then we just make up a word. Words move into and out of English like clients in a half-hour hotel, and there is no one to tell them they don’t belong. There is no “Royal Academy of English” ruling on acceptability new words and the purity of the language itself. William Safire and Nathanial Webster are the closest we get to official language authorities.

On the other hand, English has its downside as a universal language; fiendishly complicated grammar, the only rule being that every rule has an exception, and a system of spelling seeming designed to reduce phonetically oriented learners to gibbering idiots. Furthermore, linguistic factors alone cannot explain the emergence of English as the dominant world language – American military, economic and cultural hegemongy may have something to do with it as well…..

But unlike Latin and other former common languages, most scholars say English seems to be too widespread and too deeply entrenched to die out. Instead, it will probably survive in some simplified international form — sometimes called Globish or World Standard Spoken English — side by side with its offspring.

Global English already exists in today’s world, and is starting to be studied both as a reaction to and a defense against American domination of globalization. As noted earlier, every language carries coded within itself the priorities, prejustices and power relationships of the culture which developed it. According to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis the structure of the language a person speaks determines how they perceive and order the reality around them. In other words, speaking English forces people into an English way of conceptualizing the world and relating to it.

This bothers a lot of people, especially those who don’t see eye to eye with George Bush or American foreign policy. Back in the 1980’s the Dowbrigade was a professor at the National University of Peru during the first Allan Garcia government, a corrupt center-left coalition locked in a death-struggle with a rabid Maoist insurrection. Most of the students majoring in English were young women from conservative, right-wing families. No self-respecting progressive would major in the language of the neo-colonial oppressors. And yet, even the fervent communists realized they needed the language itself.

As a result, Global English is being studied, and could be modified, to minimize the American cultural influence and make it more value neutral. It will be interesting, in this light, to see what dialect of English evolves and emerges as dominant in the New China rising in Asia.

The teaching of English has become a multibillion-dollar industry, and according to Graddol, nearly one-third of the world’s population will soon be studying English.

So that’s why we are enmeshed in the field, for the big bucks. We are lying in wait for our share of those billions, ready to lend our talent, experience and polished Ivy resume to any well-laid scheme to get a piece of that pie.

artocle from the International Herald Tribune

About dowbrigade

Semi-retired academic from Harvard, Boston University, Fulbright Commission, Universidad Laica Eloy Alfaro de Manta, currently columnist for El Diario de Portoviejo and La Marea de Manta.
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4 Responses to English Rules

  1. Bernard says:

    Unfortunatly for this “English as lingua franca” meme, the percentage of english-speakers (Native-tounge and second-language) has already peaked (10-12%), and is now declining (8-10%).

    In addition, different “englishes” are diverging to the point of mutual incomprehensibilty. Even looking at USA versus British english, it is possible to find words and expressions that have OPPOSITE meanings on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

    eg. “to table a motion (or a bill, etc)”
    In British parliament, this means to bring up or present for consideration and discussion. In USA legislatures, it means to set aside from, or to remove from consideration and discussion.

    The present position of english is very much a consequence of the military and economic power of Britain, and then the USA. Before that it was the french who had the power, and french was the language diplomacy. History shows that the language of choice is dependent on the has the military and who has the money (funny how often those go together).

    And I hear that there is a developing acute shortage of mandarin and hindi-speaking nannies for western well-to-do families…

  2. It’s called Singlish in Singapore – a derivative of English.

  3. Hi! when you learn any thing you should have to obey the system rules so this one is very informative and creative,nice post which I like most.Thanks a lot.keep blogging.

  4. Proxy says:

    Thank you for the post

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