Sunday, October 10, 2004

The future of Englishes

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.

3 comments:

  1. I recently read The English Language by David Crystal, where he talks about the same things. I found the book quite engaging. But the future of the English language as he sees it is an imagination wilder than I can imagine. I will never use beri beri balang ever.

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  2. John Oliver Perry3:02 AM, January 24, 2007

    In Arjun Singh's blog on David Crystal's popularization, for Indian English-using audiences at a British Council affair, New Delhi, of the un-news that various global Englishes are (more and more widely) acceptable and certainly (a reason for their acceptability?)more and more obviously being used than "standard" Englishes, i.e., those in use where English is not merely the socio-economically dominant, Singh wrote:
    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.

    Rather than ignore or suppress as undemocratic such feelings of uncertainty about Crystal's facile (pandering to East?!) attitude toward global Englishes, I would suggest that the issue is not merely whether profound and beautiful writing can occur in such a highly varied global English as the "one," really hundreds (at least), in use in India. The answer to that question is evident in two poems by Jayanta Mahapatra that appeared in recent NEW YORKER magazines, the last entied "Village Mythology" (p. 44, Jan 22, 2007). That many spurious literary-value claims are made for poorly thought and constructed instances of global English is no more unexpected or deplorable than that such claims are made for just such poor work in Englishes of Britain and America (while, admittedly, a tiny few such productions do properly attain minor literary value as vital expressions of popular attitudes).
    The more crucial question for civilization concerning the expansion of the uses of global Englishes is how well do they communicate across cultural differences-- or even within them. Take the example of the largest collection of Englishes that have arisen where English is not the most used language, the nation-defined area of India (or the subcontinent as a whole?). The Indian linguist Braj B. Kachru (working in Illinois) long ago (1986) pointed out a crucial fact about what we lump together as "Indian English" or "Hinglish"-- which includes many varieties not based on learning it in a predominantly Hindi-using area, but also in all the dozens of areas where other Indian "regional languages" or bhashas predominate. The fact is that Indian English has the lowest mutual intelligability rate (85%) of all the Englishes he studied, including Jamaican or West Indies.
    That this is a problem should be evident (though not publ;icly recognized)to anyone who participates as speaker or audience at an event where Indian English is in use as the best inter-regional or international medium for communication. Apart from poor sound transmission (mechanical or human) a low rate of communication in one or another Indian English occurs and is tolerated for various reasons. A known one is (especially in events involving English Department academics, which I have often attended) fearful uncertainty in Indian participants about their competency in a non-global English-- e.g., British (Lancashire, Essex, East End?), American (East Texas, Deep South, New York City), Canadian (Quebecoise, British Columbian), or Australian.
    Should Indians abandon these feelings as unnecessary, not feel embarrassed by clumsily expressed
    thoughts, their own or others? NO, for to do so is to give up the eminently practical, non-elitist notion that full communication depends upon care for the medium and the context in which it occurs. How many seminar speakers race through their too-long papers without regard for how well the audience can understand what is being presented? The solution is better (teaching of) critical thinking, including the hard practice of self-criticism.

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  3. The French have the Academie Francaise. This body of professors has the task of acting as an official authority on the language. Although there are numerous countries where a patois of French is spoken, no one would consider any version of French other than that spoken in France as a proper form of the language. And so it should be with English. We have a long history of acceptable English. Check out a school child's grammar book.

    Mr. Perry, I found that after reading the first sentence of your comment that I was apprehensive about continuing as the length and complexity of that sentence (and comments in parentheses) created an almost incomprehensible combination of multiple opinions and asides.

    Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!

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