Category: language

On the future of English

By , 7 August 2009 8:38 pm

One thing was very striking in France this year, the fact that almost everybody we met was able to communicate in some way in some form of English. Don’t misunderstand me, we used French with the French and for the most part got along very well, but every so often we needed some help and at this point they would take pity on us or overcome national pride and come up with a helpful statement in some form of English that would clarify matters. The Germans and Belgians also seem to have access to a similar, rudimentary but functional form of English. (What about the Dutch you say? In my experience the Dutch almost without exception speak English very well: sadly, the true Dutchman/Dutch woman often reveals their origin by speaking amore formal and more correct English than we lazy speakers ever would.)

This is the phenomenon that has been called Globish (pronounced globe-ish), a word which I will avoid because it seems to be a patented term with a particular philosophy behind it. ‘Global Basic English’ may be a better term. But whatever you call that there is no doubt that the phenomenon of English-Lite it is here and is increasingly widely used as a functional lingua franca across the world. It is able to deal brutally with tenses so that past, present and future simply become ‘I go to town yesterday’, ‘I go to town today’, ‘I go to town tomorrow’. Plurals are created simply by adding an S to anything. You identify the subject of a sentence by simply saying ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘you’, ‘they’. Sentences are kept short. Vocabulary is reduced; some people say to as little as 1,500 words. Adjectives can be put before or after the noun and are very limited: ‘big’, ‘small’, ‘cheap’, ‘expensive’, ‘many’, ‘few’. Word order is astonishingly flexible. Anything remotely clever or subtle like puns, humour, sarcasm, irony, nuances or ambiguous words is avoided.

On the whole I welcome this. Ever since Latin stopped being the language that every civilised gentleman and lady used we have been waiting for something like this. It’s not quite the end of the curse of Babel but it’s better than mutual incomprehension.

Some people however object to this on the grounds that it is the triumph of American and English culture over the rest of the world. I am not so sure: the whole point about Global Basic English or whatever we call it is that it does not replace the native language. It is hardly going to be the main language of any culture. It is not easy to be romantic in it for a start and it is hardly suitable as a language of politics: for that you need a language in which it is far easier to mislead people than in stark, plain GBE. One of the key proponents of Globish is French and he sees it as being the salvation of the French language; I can see his point.

Two observations. First, if the rise of Global Basic English is at all threatening, it is threatening to native speakers of English. On the one hand, it is we who are most inclined to be misunderstood by our use of complexities and nuances that others eschew. On the other, there will be a danger that High English will be corrupted by the presence of its debased English-lite offspring. One teacher grumbled to me this year that he felt some of his native English speakers were incapable of using past, present and future tenses correctly. And this was at A level! And of course the fact that you can universally be understood with a subset of your native language is not exactly going to encourage us to master French, German or Spanish, let alone the really difficult languages of East Asia.

The second observation, which does have a spiritual significance, is that in some respects we have been here before. Scholars point out that classical Greek which was venerated by every civilised man because of its flexibility and great literary tradition, gave rise to a vulgar offshoot, Koine Greek. Koine Greek (which eventually acquired a much greater subtlety than Global Basic English has at the moment) became the language of tradesmen and the marketplace anywhere where the Greeks had once ruled; which was pretty much most of the Mediterranean and well over as far as Mesopotamia. It seems to have coexisted with classical Greek.

The really interesting thing is that it in this Koine Greek that the New Testament is written and which appears to have been the language of much of the early church. That is something you need to remember when you hear people defend the Authorised Version (KJV) on the grounds of its beauty of language. Equally it is worth remembering when you come across preachers who deliberately aimed for a polished preaching style with a high use of English. (The Arabic church has suffered greatly from preachers who feel that they must communicate in high classical Arabic; Welsh speaking friends tell me that their church has also suffered at the hands of men who aspire to flowery literary elegance.) Those of us who are writers and who aim for a measure of literary competence and even that hard-to-define thing called style need to remember that a debased language seems to have been good enough for God. When it comes to preaching, it seems that style and elegance are added extras. In the beginning was the Word…

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