The most democratic language
With the influence of foreign tongues and now the Internet, English will never stop changing
Anyone who has ever felt anxious about the rapid evolution of the English language over the past two decades or who has ever wondered where our changing language will be in another 10 years will find Mark Abley’s new book therapeutic, sage and enormously informative. Mr. Abley, an erudite journalist and author, established his bona fides in this area with his widely praised 2003 work Spoken Here, in which he reported on the world’s threatened and dying tongues. He has read and thought deeply about the sociological, political and technological forces that continuously reshape, lift and sometimes bury the written and spoken word. His new book, The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches from the Future of English, is devoted to exploring the reciprocal dynamic of the English language’s global power and the worldwide pressures that are in turn transforming the language.
Mr. Abley, who is based in Montreal, travelled to England, Japan, Los Angeles and Singapore for this book; he also reached out to English speakers around the world via the Internet. He makes no extravagant claims for himself, does not pretend to be a language seer and issues the forthright disclaimer that his book “is not a crystal ball.” What English will sound like in 30 or 40 years no one can fully know. What Mr. Abley does offer is a prodigiously researched investigation of the most salient current trends in usage, coinage of new terms, absorption of words from outside English, and its fusion with foreign tongues. He has distilled a vast amount of material into a thoughtful and gracefully written book.
Because English was implanted in so much of the British Empire, it had a head start as a global language leader. A preferred common tongue in India, some other parts of Asia, several African countries and North America, English now, as Mr. Abley points out, has “unrivalled [global] dominance in commerce and science, diplomacy and warfare, information and entertainment.” It is true that people who identify Mandarin as their mother-tongue outnumber native English speakers, but those Mandarin speakers are themselves far outnumbered by the citizens of the world who speak English as a second, third or fourth language.
One outcome of this global migration of English has been the flourishing of mutant regional dialects. He mentions Spanglish, Hinglish (a union of Hindi and English) and Singlish (otherwise known as Singapore Colloquial English) as prime examples. Hybrid languages such as these have become a staple of our increasingly globalized culture, and the DNA of English is prominent in many of them. Mr. Abley offers an inspired metaphor for this phenomenon: English as the mallard of languages. Mallards, he explains, are such aggressive inter-breeders that wherever they have been introduced they are threatening the species integrity of other ducks. “Male mallards have been observed raping ducks of both sexes,” he wryly notes. But multiculturalism inevitably cuts both ways. The “species integrity” of English is itself being challenged not only by intimate contact with other tongues, but by the forceful assertion of heretofore suppressed populations. A fascinating chapter in this book is devoted to the power of American Black English as a change agent that has left an indelible mark on English speakers around the world. Mr. Abley offers many examples. A simple but memorable one is “foshizzle,” a hip-hop coinage meaning “I agree,” which has apparently migrated into mainstream youth culture in parts of North America, undoubtedly causing consternation among some adults. But one inescapable conclusion arising out of this book’s discussion of language purists is that resistance to language change, which has been couched in moralistic terms since at least 1755, when Samuel Johnson published his dictionary, speaks more to the protection of entrenched social and political power than it does to the pursuit of clear thinking and intelligent communication.
Possibly the most fertile locus of language mutation in the past two decades has been the Internet. Mr. Abley’s examination of the impact of e-mail, chat rooms, and the wider web documents both the speed and range of these linguistic shifts. Much of this transformation has reflected the natural evolution of language that always goes hand in hand with new material realities; the web’s neologisms and new forms of writing have arguably enriched English and empowered its younger speakers. But language purists are not alone in cringing at some of the novel modes of communication that computers have allowed. Much of the criticism that knowledgeable observers register in the book’s pages centres on the haste, divided attention and shallow thinking encouraged by the universe of blogging and instant messaging.
Yet Mr. Abley optimistically concludes that because of computers, language and knowledge have been democratized. He could have added that one result may be a historic empowerment of youth. This could be a unique moment in history, not only because of the potent new technologies we are adopting and adapting to, but because of the remarkable linguistic shifts engineered by relatively young users of those technologies. If this is so, now more than ever the future of language belongs to the young.
The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches from the Future of English
by Mark Abley, Random House Canada, 262 pages, 2008, $34.95