Amglish In, Like, Ten Easy Less

Arthur E. Rowse

Part 6

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Ostler is not just another Brit who is angry at what the Americans have done to his royal tongue. He is a well-respected historical linguist who knows what has happened to languages of broad convenience such as Greek, Latin, and French, to mention only three of these rare linguistic birds.

One of his two main arguments is that English is being used primarily by elites, such as tourists and business travelers with special reasons for using the language at a time when increasing democratization and rising social equality tend to bring down such languages. But the impetus for English in the world comes from all levels of society, especially middle and lower ones.

How Ostler Errs.

His other main argument is that instant translation technology has reached a point where a common language will not be needed for international contacts. The only problem is that machine translation has nota"and never willa"reach the point where it can completely replace human translation, which can be prohibitively expensive.

In addition, Ostler commits one huge error of omission that indicates that he may have been living on the moon for the past few decades: he essentially ignores the impact of the computer, a subject that is barely mentioned in more than three hundred pages of text, with only one reference to it in the index.

He also errs in saying that the only means of communication that really matters is written or printed. The huge increase in oral discourse through computerized devices doesnat count for much in his eyes. In fact, languages change more in an oral sense than a written one.

Graddolas Complaint.

In 2004, David Graddol, another respected British linguist, wrote an article for Science magazine in which he said that English no longer seemed to be the dominant language of the world. Itas still important, he said, but the share of the worldas population that speaks English as a native language was falling, at least in his view. He added that Chinese will continue to have the most native speakers, while English remains in second place.45 But his thesis does not take into account all the people who speak English as a second language. That numbera"an estimated 1.5 billiona"is still growing and puts English far ahead of any other language. Two years later, Graddol wrote a paper for the British Council ent.i.tled Why Global English May Mean the End of English as a Foreign Language. In it, he acknowledged that English had become the worldas primary language for international communication. aBut,a he said, aeven as the number of English speakers expands further there are signs that the global predominance of the language may fade within the foreseeable future.a Nine years earlier, the same Graddol had issued a monumental report for the same group. It was called The Future of English: A Guide to Forecasting the Popularity of the English Language in the 21st Century. On the first page, he asked, aIsnat it obvious . . . that the English language will continue to grow in popularity and influence, without the need for special study or strategic management?a His answer was a begrudging aprobably yes.a Like many other Brits, he refuses to acknowledge the dominance of U.S. English or its influence on the informality of global English. At least David Crystal, author of the authoritative book The Stories of English, does, but only in the final, twentieth chapter.46 Language Ownersa Remorse?

These and many other worries about the future of English appear to be essentially laments from the previous owners of the language that they had nurtured for well over 1,500 years. After such a long love affair, it is only natural to dislike what the unpredictable and irresponsible Americans have been doing to trash such an old family member.

You donat find Americans setting up big national councils to a.s.sess the future of American English. By the time such a study could be published, it would be grossly out of date. Surprisingly, there is comparatively little interest by the American media in reporting the remarkable spread of American English around the world. The subject rarely rates even a minor headline, much less a discussion on commercial radio or TV. By contrast, British newspapers and magazines eat up all language developments, and their worry beads are always out.

Nor can you find much interest in the United States in finding a name for the informal patter that is sweeping across the globe. That gives the Brits their way in naming the baby. As a result, the frequent names offereda"such as Globish and Panglisha"donat begin to represent the dominant U.S. role.

Disappearing Languages.

While Amglish is flourishing, at least half of the approximately 7,000 languages in the world are likely to die by the end of this century. Part of the reason is the rapid growth of English as the first genuine world language. A bigger factor is the ma.s.sive shifting of populations from one place to another.

As the world draws closer together because of improved transportation and communication, and people move to where opportunities are greater, the need for local languages diminishes as the need for a common language grows. Areas that have lost the most languages include Asia, South America, and Australia. In the United States, the most threatened are Indian tribal dialects.

But in the case of at least one tribe, the Cherokee, the computer has given a measure of hope for the future. Surviving members of the tribe worked with Apple executives for three years to develop software for the tribe that was compatible with personal computers as well as portable versions like the iPhone, iPod, and iPad. Cherokee is now one of fifty languages supported by the Apple system. But only some 8,000 of the 300,000 tribal members still speak Cherokee.

The Threat of Diglossism.

There is also a growing possibility that English is becoming diglossic. The word refers to a terminal disease that can split a language into two levels: a high, intellectual version and a low or average-person version. This is what happened to ancient Greek and Latin before they eventually met their lingering deaths.

In this scenario, Amglish is lower cla.s.s, while BBC English and its American counterpart are upper cla.s.s. The dirty little secret is that every language faces such a prospect if it lasts long enough. Another secret is that there is no way to stopa"or even slow downa"the process.

Lingering within much of this history is the nostalgia factor. It is only natural for older people everywhere to bemoan the tendency of todayas ma.s.ses to ignore the values and traditions of yesteryear. This is especially true in countries with long pasts such as China, where the art of shadow puppetry was once popular.

When one elderly Chinese couple decided to help preserve the art, they devoted years of research to the task. They eventually opened a museum in Beijing to display their artifacts to the adoring crowds they expected. But they found little public interest in their work or the artwork itself, which tells so much about earlier Chinese culture.

Cui Yongping, the museumas curator, spelled out his lament to reporter Michael Wines: aPeople in China no longer learn about the things of our ancestors. Whatas popular now is saying O.K. and McDonaldas.a47 Nostalgia is not like it used to be. With each pa.s.sing day, public interest in things past wanes a little. And the waning seems to be picking up speed just as communication itself is. To be sure, papers are still being written about Old English verse and the pivotal poetry of Geoffrey Chauceras saucy Canterbury Tales in Middle English. But todayas world has moved far beyond that point.

The Permanence of Change.

What will happen to the large body of great English literature and history that may become increasingly ignored? And what about all the vital laws and doc.u.ments that could lose their relevance and meaning as old languages fade away? You might think that the English themselves would be worried about this problem. Yet the extensive studies and reports on the future of language donat give it much attention.

No problem, say some language pioneers; such literary works will surely be saved as valuable relics of a bygone era. Broadway and Hollywood canat afford to have Shakespeare die. He is too much a part of todayas entertainment world. Just to make sure, New York Times columnist Bob Tedeschi carries the complete works of Shakespeare on his iPhone.48 Itas very possible that todayas language ferment may create its own great works to be admired by future generations. We donat yet know what they might be. What we do know is that we canat turn back the clock. We must accept the major changes, good or bad, and learn how to cope with them.

Just think of what a single world language such as Amglish can do for all humanity. For starters, it could help unify people around the globe in a way that neither the United Nations nor any other world body has been able to do. Local languages could still serve important purposes, but a universal tongue could become a unique power for better or worse. For starters, it could reduce the chance of war and help alleviate or cure vital food and health problems.

This chapter has described how Amglish has become the first truly international language. The next chapter will focus on the major forces that have built the international power of Amglish.

From Revolution to Tsunami.

English is destined to be in the next succeeding centuries more generally the language of the world than Latin was in the last or French in the present age.

a"John Adams, September 5, 1780.

No prediction about language has been as prescient as the one above.

If Adams could have known how people would handle the Kingas English two hundred years hence, he might not have been so optimistic. In fact, he was already peeved enough by the quality of English in his own era. In the letter from abroad quoted above, he urged Congress to set up an American academy similar to ones set up earlier in France and Spain afor refining, correcting, improving and ascertaining the English tongue.a He explained, aIt will have a happy effect upon the union of the states to have a public standard for all persons in every part of the continent to appeal to, both for the signification and p.r.o.nunciation of the language.a Sure thing, John.

To understand where he was coming from, you have to know where he was going. This proper gentleman was headed for the White House as vice president to George Washington, then to the presidency in his own right, eventually to be followed by his son, John Quincy Adams, also as president. The only other family close to having such credentials is the Bush family, whose father-and-son presidents had somewhat different skill sets for language.

Fortunately for freely speaking Americans, the idea of federal language police has never caught fire. There have always been more than enough volunteer cops on the beat. The closest things to such an authority have been several failed attempts by Congress in recent years to designate English as the anationala language as part of an immigration-control bill. One thing blocking such a move may be the realization by some legislators that their own language might not measure up.

Ironically, the world would probably not be latching on to so much U.S.-flavored lingo today if the proper Bostonian Adams had had his way on an academy of language monitors. Look at how French eventually lost its status as the lingua franca of the world despite its head start, largely because French authorities tried so hard to fine-tune its use and fight linguistic imports instead of allowing language to evolve naturally.

Everything More Global.

Despite his amazing prediction, Adams couldnat possibly foresee todayas wired world, nor the explosion of ultrarapid communication devices that are transforming human interchanges in unprecedented, exciting ways.

He also could not have predicted the speed or amount of international travel, the immense growth of international trade, the ma.s.sive migration of rural people to cities, and the worldwide shift from the agrarian society of his time to the consumer society of our own.

In recent years, Asian and Latin American countries have caught the wave, boosting their ma.s.ses up the economic ladder to the level of the West and adding billions of educated partic.i.p.ants to an international audience that craves the new communication devices and the thrill of being constantly connected to the entire globe.

For better or worse, globalization has brought nations and their populations closer together through the buying and selling process. American business has led the way by hiring foreign workers, setting up branch plants abroad, and teaching workers how to communicate in American terms. Also working to connect people have been the immense problems a.s.sociated with globalization.

The quill-and-inkhorn style of Adams and other colonials has given way to a digital universe that few could have predicted even two decades ago. The contrasts are so huge that they defy detailed description here. As George W. Bush once said, aThe past is over.a1 Today is for instantaneous connections from person to person regardless of distance, language, age, or other factors.

The Faulty Tower of Babel.

The Babylonian cacophony that angered G.o.d in Genesis 11 has gone international. As people become more affluent, they tend to travel more and move their homes to distant places. At the same time, millions of less affluent people are now freer to flee from unwanted conditions or to seek work outside their native village or country.

The result is a greater mixture of populations and languages than ever. Just walk down a busy street in any major city, and you will hear not only a cacophony of formal and informal language but a mixture of foreign languages, often distant ones. Mexican-born author Ilan Stavans tells about his home in New York City way back in the 1980s: aI was enthralled by the clashing voices on a regular walk in the Upper West Side: English, Spanish, Yiddish, Hebrew . . . Arabic, French, Polish, Russian, Swahili and scores of other tongues.a2 He said there was a bagel bakery, a Korean grocer, and a newsstand at the corner of 110th and Broadway with periodicals in Chinese, Hebrew, and Spanish as well as English.

In only a few generations, the United States has moved from a largely monolingual country to one that is increasingly polyglot, starting with the major cities and moving to smaller communities. Americans, who have a reputation for not knowing any foreign languages, now are hearing them next door or down the street. Suddenly the worldas languages are coming to us as our own language is going to them.

The world of Stavans also helps ill.u.s.trate the increasingly informal atmosphere within the nationas borders, where many nationalities, races, ages, skin colors, and dialects intermingle haphazardly in search of common ground and understanding. Todayas casual lingo is a function of the growing informality of human affairs.

Itas the voice of shifting styles. Clothes are an example as they drift from formal and flowery to informal, even simple and sloppya"for men, from suits, shirts, and neckties to T-shirts and blue jeans, and for women, from dresses, skirts, and bras to pants and blouses sans bras, plus sneakers or flip-flops for shopping or moviegoing. In temperate zones, shorts are now chic all year long for many, despite occasional freezing weather.

Like words, clothes make statements. And their message today is that informality is in; get with it or get lost. Amglish is English in blue jeans.

Messaging and Networking.

To keep current, in-people no longer merely telephone or e-mail; they message and network. They also Facebook if they are not already tweeting on Twitter or YouTubing. By mid-2010, Facebook had signed up member number 500 million. And who could guess which country is second to the United States in the number of partic.i.p.ants? Itas not China, Russia, or India; itas Indonesia.

Who could have predicted this verbal explosion? Facebook members can both friend and unfriend others with the click of a mouse. Computers are perfectly designed for such casual relationships. All it takes is to join a chat group or listserv, the latter a patented method of sending messages to many people at once. There are listservs for just about any group of people, particularly neighbors, family, or club members.

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The aim is always to make networking easier and faster, for business or pleasure. The latest twist is for teachers to use social networks for posting homework a.s.signments and conducting quizzes. Parents are also in the mix. Itas a sign of the times that some have to use the World Wide Web to reach their youngsters in the next room at home.

Anglicisms in world use but not necessarily from the United States also go deep into history. According to Jon Winokuras 1995 book Je Ne Sais What? such expressions started in 1833 with the naming of Le Jockey Club in Paree. Hundreds of English words have been aborroweda either intact from English or altered to look French.

Global English Mongrels.

Following are sample words from lishes, the combinations of English and other languages around the world: Chinglish: t-xue for T-shirt in the Latin alphabet of Mandarin Chinese Finglish: oh my G.o.d, as spoken by the natives of Helsinki Franglish: les chicken nuggets, usually spoken at the Paris McDonaldas Hinglish: postwalla for mailman in Hindi in India Iranglish: elastic loaves, the official term for pizza in Iranian Farsi Italglish: fastforwardare, a verb heard in Rome along with stoppare j.a.plish: sekushii for the English word s.e.xy in j.a.pan Paklish: bakpaki for a suicide bomber with backpack in Pakistan Runglish: ized cyawfeh for iced coffee in Moscow.

Singlish: dis visiting guy spoken in Singapore.

In the aborroweda category are words that have been imported by the French without change, including the following ones that start with the letter b: bacon, badge, ballast, barman, best seller, bitter, blazer, bluff, bookmaker, boomer, booster, boss, boycott, brainstorm, brain trust, break, budget, bull, bulldozer, bun, bungalow, bunker, bus, and business. In the aaltereda category are le vocabulaire and trafic.7 Computer Driven.

The main driver of language changes is the personal computer, the marvels of which are now in the hands of an estimated 2 billion people, nearly one-third of the globeas population.

The computer has shrunken much of the world to a lighted screen that furnishes a common ground for people everywhere to communicate with each other at a faster pace than seems possible. In little more than two decades of ma.s.s usage, the device has destroyed the fax machine and rendered many mailrooms obsolete, rendered printed dictionaries and language guides almost irrelevant, nearly eliminated telephone directories and printed maps, reduced traffic at libraries, altered commuter traffic because of offices in homes, and slashed the audience for broadcast and printed news.

This ingenious device has also shown a remarkable ability to affect personal life by making it easier to blame a machine for writing errors, to avoid the trouble of writing personal letters, and to reduce or eliminate child care expenses. The computer also has a few personal downsides, including the ability to help increase body fat beyond whatas needed to survive the winter, raise or lower s.e.x drive (usually located next to the hard drive), and distract workers from doing their jobs.

Spin-Offs and Falloffs.

At the same time, the computer and its progeny have been undergoing sweeping changes. Not only are they being constantly upgraded and enhanced with new apps (applications), such as constantly available music and weather reports, but they are being reshaped into an amazing collection of spin-offs, including cell (mobile) phones, laptops, netbooks, and a.s.sorted atablets,a like Amazonas Kindle and Barnes & n.o.bleas Nook.

Smart phones are essentially pocket computers with as many as 300,000 free or paid apps to choose from along with connections to Facebook, e-mail, texting, music, games, a camera, a calculator, and GPS travel guidancea"your keys to the world.

So let us pity William Powers, the author of Hamletas Blackberry, who fell off a sailboat with his phone and thereby became aunreachableaa"the worst of all predicaments in the computer eraa"for more than an hour, almost the equivalent of an eon in oldspeak.8 In the equivalent of a millisecond in global history, humans have attained a level of connectivity that could not even be dreamed of a few decades ago, and at speeds equally unimaginable.

But to communicate does not necessarily mean to understand, especially where different languages are involved. Translation can help, but it can be slow, inefficient, and costly, despite enormous technical improvements made in recent years. To reach understanding, a common language is better than the most uncommon translator.

In fact, without actually trying to construct such a verbal meeting ground for the world, the creators of todayas data transmitters have been unconsciously doing just that. Simply making so many devices so useful and enticing sets the stage for a common language.

A Phone for Every Body.

If you build a revolutionary communication device, donat be surprised if there is a human stampede to get it and use it. Recall the international scramble in 2007 to get one of the first Apple iPhones with third-generation (3G) powers.

Even a decade ago, n.o.body could have predicted that the number of mobile phones in the world would grow to 5 billion by the end of 2010, as reported by the UN telecommunications agency.9 Nor could many people have predicted the ready ability to have a conversation almost anywhere in the world for free or to take part in a conference from your home or office.

Before phones became so intelligent and companionable, there was also no handy, quick, and effective way for productive workers and others to do research, do business, or otherwise communicate in such an efficient manner even while walking the dog or waiting in a checkout line.

The mere presence of so many phonesa"approxim.

Lovers Made Phoneless in India.

In the state of Uttar Pradesh, India, authorities have gone so far as to take cell phones from single women in order to prevent unarranged marriages. AFP, a worldwide news service, reported that two dozen couples from different castes had eloped after coordinating their escape by mobile phone.10 ately one for every adult in the worlda"is a powerful incentive for them to be useda"and used to the max. It also sets the stage for a common language at a time when such an idea never made better sense.

The drift toward a single language is especially appealing to diplomats, tourists, business executives, doctors, songwriters, publishers, lawyers, drug dealers, ponzi schemers, and just about anyone else seeking a broad audience.

Even Poor Farmers Need Cell Phones.

One reason for the huge number of cell phone users is the aggressive sales tactics of manufacturers. Most of them have focused on the affluent end of the social scale. But Nokia, the Finnish phone company, has tapped into the pool of indigent farmers in India, where only 7 percent of the population has access to the Internet.

Nokiaas subsidiary aim is to supply prices and other market data to growers in rural areas where such information is hard to get. One farmer, for example, reportedly learned that he could sell his onions more profitably in another city as a result of data he received by text. For the service, Nokia charged him only $1.35 per month. The firm says more than 6 million people had signed up for the service in India, Indonesia, and China by November 2010. Next market: Nigeria.11 Cell phones have also given many millions of people who had no land lines the ability to communicate internationally. Donald Terry, an international consultant, says that in Kenya, for example, where there were never more than a few land lines, most people went directly to cell phones. Now almost everyone there has one, not only for conversations but for money transfers.12 But as a continent, Africa has lagged far behind the rest of the world in connecting to the Internet largely because of the lack of reliable electricity.

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