On language (again)

I found this article in Newsweek, about the emergence of a language called “Globish” (a simplified English) to be very interesting. It came in a strange couple of weeks where there were some calls (in an admittedly politically-one-way-and-not-the-other newspaper–see how far I’ve come, I know now the way to read the British press) against the “Americanization” (Americanisation?) of “The Queen’s English” here in Britain, stories here and here.

I found myself (as I often do, thank goodness) at a dinner party tonight with an American couple here temporarily, along with myself here nearly 4 years (already?) and a colleague from Northern Ireland. (NB This was after having spent the hours of the US-England Soccer/Football match Saturday night with a group of mixed couples plus me, all of whom had lived in both places but where the men happened to be British and the women happened to be Americans living in the UK. It was great fun as no one could divide their loyalties perfectly and we were all just interested in the match, and probably we were all happy with the 1-1 draw.) But I digress. The American couple new to, and temporarily in, the UK had plenty of questions for me, the long-term transplant, and my colleague, the native (UK but not English) son. It was a fascinating evening.

My American colleagues were not yet used to the diversity of accents that exist in the UK and beyond, and for this I recommend listening to the audio clips of English spoken (with the same paragraph) at the Speech Language Archive. Having lived abroad for a number of years, I can now pick out countries–roughly–but am still not able to discern the regional accents within the UK (aside from Glaswegian, which I still find difficult but distinctive). When I listen to the audio clips on the archive, I’m comforted by the Minneapolis sound, expectant at what I’d hear in Brooklyn or Boston and I know the South a bit when it comes to the US. I still find the Irish accent easier to understand than anything traditionally ‘British’ and I’m sure there are historical reasons for this in the US.

But my point, and I do have one, is that the English language is fluid. English may be named for England, but it is a language that has emerged in the global marketplace as something that we can all speak with each other. Trying to protect the ‘Queen’s English‘ is a mistake, as is trying to guard against ‘Americanisms’ in the language since the point of ALL language is communication. If this means that we all settle on the lowest common denominator and speak some form of ‘Glob-ish’ I’m all for that. Although I work hard to instill in my younger charges a sense of grammar and punctuation that fits with the old rules, I am happy to concede to a language that allows for the most broad and encompassing of communication skills and I hope that we can all do the same.

I don’t wish to see languages die, and I know that that is a problem in the global language marketplace. But having lived abroad, and having learned new words and new expressions even within my own language (two countries separated by a common language and all of that), I wonder if the best only comes about when we all can communicate with each other and perhaps that involves some simplification. I’d be happy to know that my straight-forward American-ish comments were received in the spirit in which they were offered, free of the nuance that comes with language in it’s mature form. I make mistakes all of the time in this context–I offend the English unintentionally due to my manner of speaking. For this reason, I welcome a back-to-basics “Globish” form of communication, should it actually exist, if it meant that we just used a small vocabulary to express simple concepts across country lines. There may be reasons to salvage more nuanced versions of a language for communication within groups, but how nice would it be to see the less nuanced language flourish for the benefit of the global economy?

5 responses to “On language (again)

  1. Wholeheartedly agreed. Language is fluid. To attempt to keep it static is to kill it; just look at the verbal gymnastics the French have tried in their attempts to keep the language “French” and not “French-ize” English words. English itself would not exist in the state it is today without the influence of German, French, Spanish, Latin, Greek, Yiddish… The list goes on and on.

    I don’t know if I’m precisely in favor of “Globish”, but I do see the point. If we can’t communicate with each other, how will we ever progress as a global community?

    I know plenty of people who rail against the Internet and texting for “ruining” the English language. But I actually don’t object to that; it’s a sign of the adaptability of our language and our species that we invented new ways to communicate that fit into 140 characters or the high-speed typing needed to keep up in a chat room filled with 40 different people and as many conversations – or whatever! All I ask is that kids learn the language “properly” first – master the rules and regs of grammar and spelling first so that you then have the knowledge of how they can be bent and yet still make yourself understood.

    A favorite quote of mine: “Words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning and – for those who will listen – the enunciation of truth.” ~ V for Vendetta

  2. Hilary Chapman

    Your last commentator said “If we can’t communicate with each other, how will we ever progress as a global community?” Quite right. I’d like to see greater use made of Esperanto.

  3. I just see all the ‘Globish’ in the press as oversimplistic hype, really. There was an artificial ‘English’ created ages ago called ‘Basic English’, which has been helpful for some kinds of communication to non-native speakers (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basic_English), but language is a living thing, and isn’t easily confined…

  4. I agree with Hilary Chapman about Esperanto. The contention that “everyone speaks English” is indeed an urban legend.

    Yet people also claim “no-one speaks Esperanto” which is also untrue.

    If you have a moment have a look at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g2LPVcsL2k0 or http://eurotalk.com/en/store/learn/esperanto

    Dr Kvasnak teaches English at Florida Atlantic University.

  5. “Globish” reminds me of the earlier Mediterranean lingua franca, which was spoken by traders and sailors in pre-steamship years. It worked partly because it addressed a finite set of ideas. To discuss the speakers’ finer feelings, it probably wasn’t adequate, but to say, “Toss me that rope,” it was just fine. Globish sounds the same way–not really a full-fledged use of language, but handy in a limited context.


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