Because the English language is my bread and butter, this recent article on the BBC website caught my attention. The basic argument here is that English has ceased to be the property of native speakers and now belongs to the world. It isn’t that this idea is anything new – it’s restating something which I’ve heard many times before. In fact, it’s an idea that seems to be asserting itself as some sort of established ‘fact’ – a classic meme. However, there is also something more original; the article goes on to argue that native speakers have the duty to simplify their language to avoid excluding non-native speakers – and ultimately (wagging a finger) excluding themselves, because:
‘…you haven’t had to go through the same learning process that the non-natives have. So they’re all on the same page and it’s the native speakers who are the odd ones out… At the European Parliament, for instance, non-native speakers complain to the Anglophones, “Can’t you just speak English like the rest of us do! “ (sic) The power balance has shifted a bit by sheer virtue of numbers.’
It’s certainly true that non-native users of English far outnumber native speakers. For well-known historical reasons, English is as close as there has ever been to a universal language and the process shows no sign of slowing. A joint project between German, Chinese and Brazilian companies, for example, will almost certainly use English to communicate, even though there’s not a native speaker in sight.
As someone who is in daily contact with non-native users of English, let me agree wholeheartedly that native speakers can and should adjust the level and content of their language so as to be clearly understood by all listeners. It’s a matter of common courtesy, if nothing else. Non-native speakers are often uncomfortable when confronted with natives in a business context, especially on the telephone and in meetings, where they may need to interrupt and put their own view forward strongly.
It’s also natural that non-natives, in an attempt to avoid embarrassment, often simulate understanding when they’re basically just guessing at what’s been said. Perhaps this is the main reason native speakers frequently assume they’re being understood and, focussing on the business at hand, forget who they’re speaking to. In general, non-natives are more comfortable dealing with other non-natives in English, where ‘we’re all at the same disadvantage’.
When non-native speakers use English together, it may well be that a simplified version of the language will emerge, with the more complicated areas of grammar glossed over and with a far more restricted vocabulary than native speakers would use. But this really isn’t the same as saying that non-native speakers are in the process of taking control of the destiny of the language.
For one thing, the non-native users are themselves normally unhappy with this situation. They know they aren’t speaking English ‘properly’ and they don’t like it. Who wants to learn something wrongly? If you took the trouble to learn Mandarin, would you want to end up speaking some sort of ridiculous pidgin that would make a native of Beijing try to suppress his laughter? No you wouldn’t, and what non-native speakers of English usually want is to meet and talk to (sympathetic) native speakers who will encourage them, correct them and act as a template.
Generally speaking, native English speakers are blissfully unaware how vitally important it is for the rest of the world to speak their language. Being bad at French or Spanish in a British school means nothing very much; it’s like being bad at music. Of course, language skills in Britain or the U.S can be useful in many careers, but across the channel English is as essential as basic maths. Today, if you can’t speak passable English, there are fewer and fewer jobs available to you. Probably best not to travel much beyond your own country’s borders, either.
So, what any non-native speaker with an ounce of ambition wants – needs, in fact – is a good level of English. And like any highly desired, marketable skill, those who have it are going to flaunt it. It’s a passport to getting on and even a weapon to diminish the opposition for a promotion. Why not make a point of correcting your rival’s hesitant English in front of the boss? That’s sure to make him even more hesitant – and it’s far easier than trying to show up his poor IT skills.
To prove their proficiency, non-native speakers find it increasingly necessary to obtain an internationally recognised qualification such as a TOEIC, TOEFL or IELTS certificate. A whole industry has grown up to get people to the grade stipulated by their present or prospective employer. Anyone who thinks they can get away with their own version of English in one of these exams is going to be sadly and humiliatingly disillusioned.
The desire then, is to understand, write and speak fluent, sophisticated English. That is ‘correct’ English, whether the British or American variety. And importantly there is no need for a native speaker to be there to keep it ‘pure’. One thing is certain, non-native speakers are not ‘all on the same page’, as the BBC article would have us believe. English in a non-native company will be policed by those who are most proficient in it. After all, it’s given them an important position in the company and has taken a lot of effort to learn; they’ll be damned if bad speakers are going to pollute it.
Languages change, but this isn’t the sort of environment where it’s going to happen. If anything non-native speakers are a force of conservatism; it’s native speakers who can get away with bad grammar, lazy pronunciation and appalling spelling. Within limits, nobody in a British or American office cares very much. It’s here among the native speakers that changes are going to happen, because the confidence exists to play with the language, bend and break the rules, start using a familiar word in a new way…
That’s how languages change. Any language with irregular verbs is witness to the fact that, when it comes to their own language, people don’t care very much and that nothing is set in stone. It also shows that, until recently at least, it was the ignorant, common people who brought about change – the sort of people who didn’t give a toss that it was correct to say ‘I knowed’ if it saved a couple of facial muscle movements to say ‘I knew’. You can just imagine the look of distaste and contempt on a medieval abbot’s face when the candle delivery man told him the monastery had bought two score of tapers the previous month: “It’s buyed, my good man, BUYED! I telled you the same thing last month when you comed here and selled them to us!”
I say that this was the case ‘until recently’, because a lot of languages now take themselves very seriously indeed. Seriously enough that august and select bodies are tasked with their policing. French glories in its Académie française, under the stern eye of 40 self-sustaining immortels; Italian has the Accademia della Crusca, German the Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung . Even Moldova considers that its language needs the Academia de Ştiinţe a Moldovei. Under no circumstances should the hoi polloi be allowed a say in the shape of the language they were born to and use every day. The language is like the most exquisite jewel – a fine wine to be savoured and preserved at just the right temperature. Any prospective change will be fussed and fretted over and may or may not be officially adopted after a decade or so of earnest and often heated debate.
Surely this is a recipe for stagnation and then fossilisation. I think one of the strengths of English is that it has no such stuffy body; if one did exist, I guess it would rapidly become a target of ridicule. You could say that English has retained its liberty – it’s free to roam where it will; no matter how irritated the self-appointed grammar police may get, it remains flexible and democratic.
But doesn’t this mean that the English language is spiralling out of control? With nothing to underpin it, won’t it degenerate into some horrible mish-mash of simplified grunts where, like Orwell’s Newspeak, sophisticated expression – and thus thought- become impossible?
It’s pretty certain that this isn’t going to happen. A language will be just as complicated as it needs to be. If a word or linguistic structure falls out of use, it will either be because it’s become redundant or because it’s been replaced with something more streamlined. If a concept needs to be expressed but there is no current word to do the job, one will rapidly be invented or borrowed from another language. English does the latter with unselfconscious ease, while less confident languages feel the process is an attack on their purity.
As an aside, I am always amazed how homogeneous the English language is. You will be hard put to find significant disagreement about correct usage between the large number of English grammar books on the market. It’s also the case that British and American English are also far closer to each other than European and South American Spanish, for example. It’s almost as if a ‘National Academy’ is not just a waste of time, but a force of division. If you want to keep your language uniform, ‘market forces’ would seem to be the best option.
But beyond that, the future direction of English is (like anything else) hard to predict. This article in The Economist takes a stab at the question, but immediately falls into the same trap as the BBC piece by presuming the tide of non-native speakers will take control. However, it does make an interesting claim that the more widely-spoken a language is, the simpler it becomes. Perhaps so, though one of the examples given, Latin, could hardly be described as grammatically simple. It seems to me that it’s peasant languages – those ignored and sniffed at by the educated elite, which are allowed to become simple. This carries with it the proviso that the language must be spoken over a reasonable range of territory and, perhaps vitally, used in trading between peoples with widely different dialects or slightly different languages (assuming there’s a difference between those two alternatives). If you’re going to trade with someone, you need a clear and accurate language in common – frills like gender and complicated inflections are surplus to requirement – a waste of time in a noisy market square.
It’s interesting that for hundreds of years these conditions are exactly what prevailed for English – used by the common people and merchants, while the elite spoke Norman French and the monks wrote in Latin. English grammar became simplified at this time – not later when the language started to spread beyond its small island.
The amount of vocabulary, on the other hand, exploded. The down-to-earth traders seemed reluctant to winnow out superfluous words, but rather to collect them like a stash of coins. Why have one word for speaking in a loud voice, when you can have: shout (Old English); clamour (Norman French); yell (Old English); bawl (Old Norse); cry (Norman French); call (Old English); bellow (Old English); scream (Old Norse); screech (Old English); and Shriek (Old Norse)? You would be hard put to explain the difference between many of these, but one often seems to ‘feel’ the better choice. You might say we are spoilt for choice, although non-natives trying to learn the language might say something else. At an estimated half million non-technical words, English has a far richer vocabulary than any other language.
So in my view the English language is thriving. It’s like a wild garden where beauty and order emerge through the natural process of things. Next door, the constantly fussing gardener is prone to leaf blight and root viruses; with a tut-tut, he punctiliously weeds interlopers from the ornate beds; he is constantly fearful of the early frost or the heat-wave that could destroy half his work.
Perhaps because the English garden has no gardener, it’s often assumed that the language is changing at a frantic and ever-increasing pace. Even now, so people say with a shake of their grizzled heads, it’s difficult to understand what our children are on about; soon the young will be unintelligible to the old. The process is usually put down to modern technology in some way.
But is this really the case? It’s true that we need new words for new things and there are certainly a larger number of new things around today than ever before. But most of these are relatively easy to get a handle on if we are familiar with the thing or concept itself. The rest are merely a result of fashion, and this is just as it always was. New words sweep into the language, but most sweep gracefully out again after a few years or decades. In fact, their shelf-life is pretty limited. Who says ‘crikey!’ today, or ‘groovy’? A few examples such as ‘OK’ do stick around, but only if there’s a genuine niche for them. Grammar changes at a positively glacial pace. Even ‘whom’ is still clinging on by its fingertips.
Anyway, it’s easy enough to test how quickly the language has been changing. Here are four examples of written English:
Forrþrihht anan se time comm As soon as the time came
þatt ure Drihhtin wollde that our Lord wanted
ben borenn i þiss middellærd to be born in this middle-earth
forr all mannkinne nede for the sake of all mankind,
he chæs himm sone kinnessmenn at once he chose kinsmen for himself,
all swillke summ he wollde all just as he wanted,
& whær he wollde borenn ben and he decided that he would be born
he chæs all att hiss wille. exactly where he wished.
Noght fer fro thilke paleys honourable Not far from that honoured palace where
Ther as this markys shoop his mariage, This marquis planned his marriage,
Ther stood a throop, of site delitable, There was a village, on a site most fair,
In which that povre folk of that village Wherein the poor folk of the countryside
Hadden hir beestes and hir herbergage, Stabled their cattle and also lived,
And of hir lobour tooke hir sustenance, And where their labour gave them sustenance,
After that the erthe yaf hem habundance. After the earth had given them abundance.
Chaucer, Clerk’s Tale, c1400
I have of late,—but wherefore I know not,—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me; no, nor woman neither, though, by your smiling, you seem to say so.
Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1601
The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex. Their estate was large, and their residence was at Norland Park, in the centre of their property, where, for many generations, they had lived in so respectable a manner as to engage the general good opinion of their surrounding acquaintance. The late owner of this estate was a single man, who lived to a very advanced age, and who for many years of his life, had a constant companion and housekeeper in his sister.
Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, 1811
As you can see, I’ve chosen passages at more or less 200 year intervals. The language has changed in 800 years to the extent that we need a translation of the first two – although once you know what’s being said, they suddenly seem much more intelligible.
My point is that the rate of change seems pretty uniform. Perhaps the period of greatest change came between 1400 and 1600, the time when the printing press came into being and when Middle English is said to have become Modern English. At this point the voices of Shakespeare and the King James Bible swell out to greet us; we are definitely reading English. However, the language continued to evolve over the next 200 years as literacy and travel became increasingly commonplace.
But then, if anything, the pace of change seems to slow down. Jane Austen’s language is very like our own; we understand nearly all her subtle observations and humour – we can read between the lines and see when her tongue is in her cheek. Any barrier to our understanding comes from the social differences between our times and hers, rather than the language. One or two words and some of the phraseology sound a bit dated and ornate, but you would be surprised rather than mystified to find the passage above in an email replying to your request for info on the Dashwood family.
It’s remarkable that the advent of industrialisation, mass-literacy, film, radio, television and now the internet, has had so little effect on our language, but there it is. I can’t think of a reasonable explanation for this except that our linguistic needs and, perhaps, our outlook on the world have changed far less over the last two centuries than we might like to believe.
As for the future, we’re in the dark as always, but I see no reason to suppose any sudden increase in the pace of change is imminent. The internet means we are exchanging more English words with each other than ever before, but at present I don’t see this having much effect on the way we use them. ‘Incorrect’ usage is often mocked and seen, fairly or not, as a sign of bad education.
English will not be taken over by non-native speakers, nor is there currently any obvious competitor to it as a world language. English is live, vibrant, and self-confident to the extent of being cocky. If I had to put money on it, I would bet that in 200 years’ time English will still be the world’s language and we would be able to understand it without much difficulty. It would be nice to think that the language will continue to host voices as magisterial as Austen, Chaucer and Shakespeare.