Attended a talk entitled “The Future of Englishes” by Prof David Crystal, a renowned linguist, at the British Council last evening. The professor was very engaging, a 63-year-old sprite who used the auditorium as his own private pantomime stage: he held his head in his hands, pulled at his white beard, mimicked, twitched, mock-frowned and tap-danced about skittishly, all in the course of an entertaining and informative lecture on the role of English as a global language, and how it has been “first adopted, then adapted” by countries around the world. (Inevitably, he was self-deprecating too, making good-humoured jibes at various elements of clipped, “propah” Britishness – this is a trick visiting Brits quickly pick up when they address audiences, however sophisticated, in third-world countries; they know it makes them popular.)
He spoke of how the centre of gravity in the English language is shifting from first-language users (Brits, Americans…) to second-language users (like us) and how, consequently, the future of the language is largely bound up with what the latter do with it. While statistics are notoriously difficult to trust in these matters, he extrapolated that there are some 400 million first-language users of English in the world today, around an equal number of second-language users, and around 600-700 million third-language users; and that the last two categories are growing at a faster rate than the first.
There were also some interesting perspectives on the combination of factors that has led to English becoming the global language today (“never before in human history has one language been spoken by as much as one-fourth of the world’s population – but then, countries are talking to each other today as they never did before”).
Crystal believes human beings are naturally multi-lingual – “don’t let languages die, bring them off the street and into classrooms, even if you maintain one lingua franca for official purposes”. He believes the future of English is the future of cultural studies of the countries that adopt it. All over the world, new “Englishes” are growing, he said – we’re familiar of course with Hinglish, but there’s also Japlish, Spanglish, Shanglish (in Shanghai) and Wenglish (the prof’s native Wales!) among others. Incidentally, the prof made his point in the best, most practical way possible, by interspersing his talk with decidedly un-Oxfordish expressions – e.g. “unsexy” for “gender-neutral”.
Later, during the audience question round, I found myself inwardly cringing when one gent stood up and rambled in broken English – but then I reflected that this is precisely the kind of snobbishness the prof was exhorting us to discard. That said, I have one reservation to this all-inclusive attitude: I can’t pretend to be comfortable if it translates itself to literature, where people writing in English adopt the “anything goes” attitude. I’m all for English being treated as a fluid, dynamic language, but a complete abandoning of the rules of syntax? As it is, we see far too much inelegant, lazy writing by people with no real sense of (standard) English, masquerading as literature that is taking us into bold new directions. I can hardly bring myself to even look at half the Indian writing in “English” being published these days. Or is that too colonial an attitude? If it is, well, the British Council is hosting L-o-o-r-r-d Vidia Naipaul next week. I wouldn’t mind being a fly on a wall of a room in which he and Prof Crystal exchanged their views.