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As she is spoked
May 26, 2012 12:15 AM   Subscribe

The myth of English as a global language One would have to say that English, far from being a pure maiden, looks like a woman who has appeared out of some distant fen, had more partners than Moll Flanders, learned a lot in the process, and is now running a house of negotiable affection near an international airport
posted by infini (76 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
Stop trying to slut shame my language.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 12:24 AM on May 26, 2012 [61 favorites]


Though it is an amusing bit, quoting the article that way makes it sound like the author is saying exact opposite of what he's actually saying, which is that one should not see English as a woman, "pure" or "impure" or whatever.
posted by koeselitz at 12:31 AM on May 26, 2012 [6 favorites]


Irregularity and superfluity are what give a thing character and a deeper beauty. And this doesn't just apply to language.
posted by Decani at 12:35 AM on May 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


I love you all so much.
posted by infini at 12:45 AM on May 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


It's not that I hate the English language, the problem is that is forced down people's throats.
posted by - at 12:47 AM on May 26, 2012


:-) up people's throats
posted by Cranberry at 12:55 AM on May 26, 2012 [6 favorites]


Repeatedly down people's throats. On the internet.
posted by happyroach at 1:00 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


But in any case, readers of the TLS, remembering bellum gerere and bellum as the textbook neuter noun declension paradigm, will need no further gloss to see it is not Wanley here who is “grossly misleading”.

*nods sagely* Indeed, indeed. (?!?!)

I find the author's style stilted and his explanations lacking... explanatory value. Regarding style, this sentence made little sense on first read: "It is concerned to correct what the author sees as an interlocking and mutually reinforcing system of myths about English." Why not the much more easily understood "Its concern is to correct what the author sees as an interlocking and mutually reinforcing system of myths about English"? As for non-explanations, so many times he brings up "gotcha" points that ramble around and around and just when you think you might understand... oh, hi, new paragraph with a new gotcha. Or "silly you, don't know what the neuter noun declension paradigm is, do you?" The whole thing seems to boil down to him making a quotable slut-shaming anecdote that he can brush off with "yeah but I said it's dangerous" despite even this excerpt using it as a pull-quote, and the age-old "English has weird spelleengz and has changed a lot and adopted stuff and it's hard to pin anything down."

I mean well – critiquing because it could have been better.
posted by fraula at 1:19 AM on May 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


Not exactly pertinent to the article, but it's always fun to quote James Nicoll: "We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary."
posted by benito.strauss at 1:27 AM on May 26, 2012 [32 favorites]


In context, he does say that the metaphor is dodgy, but it's still a bit icky.

I'm just astonished that that bit about Latin declensions and translation errors didn't bother to explain the problem. Newspapers never assume that much prior knowledge, and it's refreshing to be expected to know something, but it seems kind of elitist to assume that everyone present has had the benefit of a classical education.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 1:31 AM on May 26, 2012


I see you're not a regular reader of the TLS.

I was glad to see that that the reviewer knows what a phoneme is, which is useful when discussing spelling, however he erroneously uses a quote from Chomsky and Halle. What they called "close to an optimal system" was not English spelling but rather its sound inventory, its set of phonemes. Spelling would be somewhat irrelevant to a linguist unless it was spelling in IPA.
posted by tractorfeed at 1:35 AM on May 26, 2012 [5 favorites]


wtf with this analogy?
posted by ruelle at 2:00 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


So, I didn't really find out anything about the first book, except that it's about spelling, which I could have got from the title, and the second sounds like over 50% of it is arguing against straw men, and especially weak ones at that. So all in all, a pretty standard midrange TLS review. But a step up from the news where they don't review the book, but instead talk about their own brilliance.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 2:08 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Obviously we all know this, but 'bellum gerere' means 'make war'. Watts mistook 'bella', the noun meaning war, for an adjective applying to 'descripta' and so nonsensically talks about the 'fine descriptions' Beowulf 'performed' against the Swedish princes, whereas what he actually did was wage war against them.

It is a pretty bad error I think, one that would probably have got me yet another look of pained disappointment from my kindly old latin teacher when I was about twelve.
posted by Segundus at 2:14 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


I always was more fond of the "English mugs other languages in dark alleys and rifles their pockets for loose vocabulary" metaphor myself.
posted by radwolf76 at 2:20 AM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


Sort of like the look I got from Mr Jess in Form 3 French when I yelled out "saisir de frites" ?
posted by infini at 2:22 AM on May 26, 2012


Damn preview laziness
posted by infini at 2:22 AM on May 26, 2012


I wish I just got bad looks in French class. Brother John would do the nails on chalkboard thing to illustrate what my pronunciation sounded like to him.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 2:33 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


> so every language in the world (except maybe the artificially invented ones like Esperanto) has an ancestry going far back into prehistory

You can be sure that the author of this article has never looked at Esperanto.

Or "Vi povas esti certa ke la aŭtoro de ĉi tiu artikolo neniam rigardis esperanto". But you don't understand a word of that, Esperanto sharing no ancestry with any language you know.

Now Lojban, on the other hand, ......
posted by benito.strauss at 2:53 AM on May 26, 2012 [9 favorites]


benito.strauss - my understanding of several languages in the indo-european language family meant that I could immediately grasp the meaning of what what you wrote in Esperanto, despite never having seen it written in a sentence.

I was about to object to what you said, and then my sarcasm detector suddenly ended whatever delay loop it was on and immediately went up to maximum.

Off too look up Lojban now...
posted by grajohnt at 3:02 AM on May 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


And Google Translate did a perfect parsing of the Esperanto.

Whereas I did not.
posted by Mezentian at 4:02 AM on May 26, 2012


Well, confession time. Google did the translation into Esperanto in the first place. I could not. "ĉi tiu"?


(Though looking again I think it should probably end '... la Esperanton', which doesn't affect its obvious ancestry.)
posted by benito.strauss at 4:12 AM on May 26, 2012


It seems like the word "Global" here means something more like "having been the same language throughout history", global in time, rather then space.
posted by delmoi at 4:14 AM on May 26, 2012


On the line of likening English or any tongue to a person—most often a woman—I agree that it can be taken too far, and moreover that cries of purity have an odd undertone I can't place. But also a language shouldn't be seen as a model or pattern either. The standard has a use, but simply adhering to that standard because it is "proper" makes little or no sense. Outside of those areas where we've agreed (or been forced to agree) to use standard language, it's particularly annoying to be told how to speak. Just as we shouldn't let the past inform some idea of purity, nor should we let the existence of a standard make us believe that there is such as thing as incorrect English. The writer seems ambivalent on this point, saying that we all know there is no single standard, but then saying that the standard is useful. Maybe that is right, but I still feel that we should condemn a standard as a necessary evil.
Not exactly pertinent to the article, but it's always fun to quote James Nicoll: "We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary."
It's a fun quote, but it's not really anywhere near to the history of English. I've said this before somewhere, but the line should be, "English doesn't just borrow words, it is repeatedly beaten unconscious by French, Latin and Greek who stuff new words into its pockets." Lots of folk like to talk about how flexible or cosmopolitan English is, borrowing words from everywhere, but it's not really that true. The language has only borrowed heavily from three languages (if we discount Old Norse as a special case), and once you remove them it looks pretty damn average. This becomes even more stark once you move away from the written standard and look at spoken dialects, which mostly lack such heavy borrowing.
posted by Jehan at 4:16 AM on May 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


nothing should be a global language

homogenaity is fucking toxic
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 4:21 AM on May 26, 2012


Jehan, you make an excellent point in your comment but I'd also like to point out the influence of the colonies on the English language (quite unlike any other, really, but I hope I'm proven wrong). Hobson Jobson as a starting point... going on to amok, amah and junk. Unless we reverse the situation and say that each of the former colonies has taken on the English language and made it very much their own.
posted by infini at 4:30 AM on May 26, 2012


global in time, rather then space.

A foolish concept. Other, better words already exist for that: eternal; forever; always, etc.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:00 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


infini, you are right that some dialects certainly do borrow heavily from other languages, and it was an oversight for me not to mention them. In those dialects the spoken form can exhibit heavy borrowing, often from a nearby language. But the effect of borrowing from languages spoken in former colonies is really quite small generally. English spoken in India might show a much greater influence from Hindi or other Indian languages, but that lessens to maybe a few dozen words in most other dialects. It never reaches the scale of borrowing from French Latin and Greek. Had English only borrowed from languages in former colonies, we would much less likely hear about the language's propensity for borrowing, or make anthropomorphic quips about it. Despite being built upon the relationship of English with just three languages, it's a myth we can't seem to shake.
posted by Jehan at 5:01 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Jehan, do you think that the myth might be more due to the reverse I'd mentioned earlier? That is, if there's Singlish, Hinglish and Spanglish (among the many many other 'lishes') then there's the perception of English as a global language whereas it, in itself, isn't as global as its spread might imply?

(hope that makes sense in the way I've attempted to articulate it)

Also, a side note, is Swedish one of the three root languages? Something I used to wonder about when immersed for a couple of years in Finland and needing to navigate by what little I could decipher of that language vs suomi's incomprehensibleness (though I found more similarity between suomi and hindi for eg)
posted by infini at 5:06 AM on May 26, 2012


A foolish concept. Other, better words already exist for that: eternal; forever; always, etc.
Yeah, "The myth of English as a eternal language" would be a better description of what the article actually seems to be about.
posted by delmoi at 5:47 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Money has a great deal to do with the spread of culture. Ergo, expect the lingua franca of the Internet to eventually be Chinese. Or Hindi. Or Spanish. Or Hindi/Urdu. Whatever language is used by the people with the dinero. If the nobs are chatting in Swahili, hakuna matata, learn some Swahili.
posted by pracowity at 6:00 AM on May 26, 2012


I don't know; Latin hung around for a long time as a lingua franca after the Roman Empire collapsed. Some languages just get entrenched in useful niches and stay there long after their due dates.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 6:11 AM on May 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


As soon as I saw the FPP, I knew the James Nicoll quote would get produced. I know James slightly -- he used to run a store I shopped at -- and I gotta say that while we are not best buddies or anything, I am sure I know no one else who has produced an epigram as widely quoted (and misquoted), including all the published authors in my social circle.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:44 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Infini, your post was described with wit and style. It has generated several witty rejoinders. I only wish I could respond with a modicum of your wordsmithery. Well done.
posted by theora55 at 7:08 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


The strength of the Nicoll bon mot is in the amusing image it conjures, and perhaps the way it imparts a sense of brazenness, but yeah, not so much its accuracy. There's something in the character of English that spoils its speakers for choice; making it not only okay but almost compulsory to pull in new words from anywhere when what is wanted is nuance, style or a shade of meaning.

Perhaps it was the Norman infusion that did it; once having passed into a period in which two distinct vocabularies of different tones and social standing that we could freely choose from, there was no stopping us. See 'bon mot' in the first sentence. There is almost no reason in the world for me to choose that over the other near-synonyms already applied to it in this thread. I did it because it was there and I could. The exact refinement of meaning is more an expressive detail than actually necessary.
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:14 AM on May 26, 2012


theora55, you make me blush furiously under my natural tan, much to my embarrassment for just throwing some words together in a pan and shaking them into italicized form.
posted by infini at 7:26 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


None of this explains what comes out of the mouths of proper Brummies.
posted by srboisvert at 7:37 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Blah blah blah Ebonics. The purpose was for teachers to use AAVE as an interface language to teach Standard English as a second language to native speakers of so-called black English. Jeez
posted by toodleydoodley at 7:47 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


> Infini, your post was described with wit and style. It has generated several witty rejoinders. I only wish I could respond with a modicum of your wordsmithery. Well done.

Huh? Every word in the post is quoted from the linked review, so the "wit and style" belong to Tom Shippey. Also, while the review is a good one (some people here don't seem to understand that it's a review, not a disquisition on English, and some people seem to have a problem reading academic reviews and blame their problems on the reviewer), it appears to have been linked here solely for the pull quote, which is badly misleading about the review and pretty much pre-derailed the thread.
posted by languagehat at 7:57 AM on May 26, 2012 [6 favorites]


One would have to say that English, far from being a pure maiden, looks like a woman who has appeared out of some distant fen, had more partners than Moll Flanders, learned a lot in the process, and is now running a house of negotiable affection near an international airport

You say this like this is a bad thing.
posted by arcticseal at 8:11 AM on May 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


The Watts book is outstanding, the TLS review less so. The reviewer's claim that Chomsky referred to English spelling as "close to an optimal system" (which tractorfeed also cites), pretty much torpedoed any credibility he might have had for me on anything having to do with linguistics.

So don't let the review discourage you from reading the book. It's a very good analysis of the development and entrenchment of language ideologies, and while it does consider "the myth of global English," it is really about much more than that. It's rare that I have the time (and even rarer that I have the inclination) to read a scholarly book -- even one in my field, which this one is -- from cover to cover in one day, but I picked up Language Myths one Saturday morning over breakfast and before I knew it, it was dinner time. It is outstanding.
posted by isogloss at 8:21 AM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


Huh? Every word in the post is quoted from the linked review, so the "wit and style" belong to Tom Shippey. Also, while the review is a good one (some people here don't seem to understand that it's a review, not a disquisition on English, and some people seem to have a problem reading academic reviews and blame their problems on the reviewer), it appears to have been linked here solely for the pull quote, which is badly misleading about the review and pretty much pre-derailed the thread.

I'll accept everything said here but the words in bold, that's unfair. koeselitz picked up the nuance with more sensitivity than that. It was an enjoyable read, even for the humble layperson who has only been exposed to global English as a mere recipient of the language, than a more serious scholar but even if the title alone had been left as the entirety of the FPP, it would have still been misleading and possibly derailed a thread. Though, what would have been the conversation in a more appropriate thread?
posted by infini at 8:26 AM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


> ... is Swedish one of the three root languages?

The English settlers in England came from western Denmark and the Frisian-speaking areas of northern Germany and Holland. Medieval Norsk (or Old Norse), ancestral to Danish, Swedish, Norwegian and Icelandic, is a lot like Old English. So not one of the roots, but really close kin to one of them. (And, yeah, I'm using the "kin" metaphor.)
posted by nangar at 8:29 AM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


> I'll accept everything said here but the words in bold, that's unfair.

Yeah, you're right, I shouldn't have made cranky assumptions about your motivation, and I withdraw the suggestion.
posted by languagehat at 8:29 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


So, granted I'm not a linguist...

But did anyone else think, for book review written by someone who studies English, that was a remarkably difficult to understand article?
posted by midmarch snowman at 8:30 AM on May 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


... is Swedish one of the three root languages?

When push comes to shove, I'd say Norwegian is a better choice. (Skyv vs. Skuffa)
posted by grajohnt at 8:51 AM on May 26, 2012


English may not be a "global language," but it sure is a truly global lingua franca.
posted by asnider at 8:54 AM on May 26, 2012


... is Swedish one of the three root languages?

When push comes to shove, I'd say Norwegian is a better choice. (Skyv vs. Skuffa)


It was seeing "drag" instead of "pull" on a door handle that made me stand there at the threshold pondering this deep thought until someone nudged me out the way
posted by infini at 8:58 AM on May 26, 2012


Perhaps it was the Norman infusion that did it; once having passed into a period in which two distinct vocabularies of different tones and social standing that we could freely choose from, there was no stopping us.
We're getting off topic, so I'll keep this short. But English was a very average borrower during the initial period when French was the language of higher social registers (or acrolect if you want). Texts from before 1250 or so don't really show huge amounts of borrowing. It is after this time when the use of French in higher social settings begins to break down that much borrowing happens. The breakdown in the use of French happens due to lessening language skills (supposedly caused by fewer openings for travel to France) while the language itself retained high prestige. Borrowing can then be seen as an attempt to socially "prop up" English speakers by consciously using whatever French words are known to the individual but in an English matrix. Hence why a writer like Chaucer—who wrote with far more French words than normal—was praised for "adorning" the language and found such a great reception.

posted by Jehan at 9:02 AM on May 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


Actually acrolect is wrong in this context, so disregard it.
posted by Jehan at 9:03 AM on May 26, 2012


Jehan: "The language has only borrowed heavily from three languages (if we discount Old Norse as a special case), and once you remove them it looks pretty damn average."

'The space shuttle is only special in that it has rocket boosters that lift it into space; and if we remove those, it's just an airplane that's pretty damn average.'
posted by koeselitz at 9:05 AM on May 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


Sorry if my point is obscured there, but the question is: average in relation to what? The reason most people see English as a 'borrowing' language is often because they're comparing it to the more common romance languages; maybe those are not adequate points of comparison, I don't know.
posted by koeselitz at 9:08 AM on May 26, 2012


Is "borrowed" the correct term to describe the relationship between Old/Middle English and Norman French? It seems more like a fusion to me.

/not a linguist
posted by benito.strauss at 9:15 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


I wish wikipedia hadn't taken over the world, it can be limiting and suspiciously barren at times.
posted by infini at 9:38 AM on May 26, 2012


expect the lingua franca of the Internet to eventually be Chinese

I would be very surprised if this actually happens, at least without Chinese jettisoning hanzi first.
posted by adamdschneider at 9:40 AM on May 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


> We're getting off topic

How was this off topic? It was on the subject of borrowings, to no greater or lesser extent than you, for example, had spoken of at length above.

Borrowing can then be seen as an attempt to socially "prop up" English speakers by consciously using whatever French words are known to the individual but in an English matrix. Hence why a writer like Chaucer—who wrote with far more French words than normal—was praised for "adorning" the language and found such a great reception.

You seemed at the outset of your response be disagreeing with my (rather vague and general) suggestion that the availability of Norman French vocabulary in the era following the Conquest informed our borrowing tendency, but I don't see this response in any way as being disputative of it. Rather the reverse.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:58 AM on May 26, 2012


But did anyone else think, for book review written by someone who studies English, that was a remarkably difficult to understand article?

The first paragraph jarred me with its labored construction, having for example an awful lot of parenthetical clauses and em-dashed asides, and by ending with fairly hard to justify ellipsis. In terms of content it seemed a shade tangential to the article as a whole and even to itself in spots, which is an odd way stylistically for a first paragraph to behave. But after that i just went with it and stopped critiquing it. It seemed like it was fun to write, anyway, and that communicated a bit in being somewhat fun to read.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:15 AM on May 26, 2012


'The space shuttle is only special in that it has rocket boosters that lift it into space; and if we remove those, it's just an airplane that's pretty damn average.'

Sorry if my point is obscured there, but the question is: average in relation to what? The reason most people see English as a 'borrowing' language is often because they're comparing it to the more common romance languages; maybe those are not adequate points of comparison, I don't know.
There are 6,000 languages in the world (more or less). Any argument that English has a propensity or nature to borrow based on borrowing vocabulary heavily from only three is flawed. I doubt that any linguist would agree that languages even have propensities or natures (or whatever we might call them), but it does point to the need for a more complex explanation. The social context of English caused it to borrow heavily from French, Latin and Greek, but outside of that context it looks much the same as any European language with regards to borrowing. That's not to say that Latin and Greek had no influence on other European languages (they certainly did), but rather that our view of English as a borrowing language is a myth. Maybe "average" is the wrong way to describe it, so think of it as "not so different" or "really very much like other languages". But you are right that "borrows a lot" and "borrows little" is relative, and maybe that even making any judgments about a language itself based on borrowed vocabulary is wrong.

To step outside of Europe and see the argument in parallel, let's think of Japanese. We could say that Japanese borrows lots of words, and certainly there's a numerical argument that could be made, counting up all the words that have been in that language since the split with other Japonic languages and then counting up all those which came in later. But it would be wrong to do such a thing, because Japanese didn't just borrow from any language it came into contact with, but rather mostly heavily from Chinese. There are a good many words in Japanese from other languages, but no single source comes close to Chinese. Why? Culture, and likely that alone. Even if you knew nothing about Japanese history you could easily guess its position in relation to China from the vocabulary borrowed. But while the language can inform about the society it was spoken in, there's no reason to say that the society informs about the language. That the social context favored borrowing doesn't make Japanese a "borrowing" language any more than the history of the Soviet Union makes Russian a "communist" language.

I think the point is that there is nothing particular about English and borrowing vocabulary once removed from its historical context. People like to point to all these words present in the English language as though they tell us something about the language itself, which they don't. English is not "flexible and open to new vocabulary" or "welcoming to new ideas and cosmopolitan" (to think of the kinds of things I've heard people say) because languages simply can't be that. English is—or was—open to vocabulary from French, then Latin and Greek because of the society it was spoken in, and then only a small and educated section of that society. Often English has been far more "grudging", borrowing new words for animals and plants previously unknown, or cultural practices that are unique and not readily transferable, such as religious jargon or cooking. Look at some of the lists here, it's not the best source but it will do. You will see that many of the lists are really quite short, and many of the words they contain belong to just a few categories or are restricted in their use. The list of words from Welsh has just twelve entries. Twelve! And that's from a language English has been spoken next to for 1500 years. In contrast, words borrowed from French, Latin and Greek are huge in number and general in use, ranging across the whole of human experience, from the complex down to the most basic things.
You seemed at the outset of your response be disagreeing with my (rather vague and general) suggestion that the availability of Norman French vocabulary in the era following the Conquest informed our borrowing tendency, but I don't see this response in any way as being disputative of it. Rather the reverse.
That the vocabulary was "available" is unimportant, only that the language that it came from was socially prestigious. Further, in this case it was only the collapse of such a situation (a diglossia) which really led to a large amount of borrowing, not its existence in the first place. The first one or two hundreds years after the Norman invasion didn't really see a great deal of borrowing compared with the situation after 1250. Also, there was never any "tendency", which I've probably spelt out pretty longwindedly above.
posted by Jehan at 11:21 AM on May 26, 2012 [5 favorites]


The list of words from Welsh has just twelve entries. Twelve! And that's from a language English has been spoken next to for 1500 years.

There's more to a language than its vocabulary. What was borrowed from Welsh, I believe, was its "meaningless do" that you find in English everything . This is a pretty good book to check out. . Influences of French on English are minimal - really only vocab. Please do yourself a favor and check it out.
posted by alex_skazat at 11:40 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


I just think it's awesome that Google Translate does Esperanto now. That is all.
posted by blucevalo at 11:43 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Jehan: "I think the point is that there is nothing particular about English and borrowing vocabulary once removed from its historical context. People like to point to all these words present in the English language as though they tell us something about the language itself, which they don't."

I guess my mistake was believing that "the language itself" and "its historical context" were one and the same.

"Hence why a writer like Chaucer—who wrote with far more French words than normal—was praised for 'adorning' the language and found such a great reception."

There are at least three things wrong with this sentence. First of all, there is no warrant whatsoever for believing that Chaucer 'wrote with far more French words than normal,' given the paucity of dialect accounts from the time. Indeed, the fact that Chaucer didn't use French consistently - his usage of French words is highly variable from work to work - is an indication that his use of French words was contextual and therefore probably motivated by a faithfulness to spoken dialects. Second, there are many people who find it quite strange to think that Chaucer's works were popular because people liked French words. And third, it is laughably preposterous to posit that Dryden praised Chaucer's adornment of the language because Dryden happened to be some kind of Francophile. One recommends his "All For Love" to those beset by such wild illusions.
posted by koeselitz at 11:54 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


As far as Global Languages go, we are in second place. Mandarin is in first due to sheer volume of speakers.

Anyway, this article makes some sense, but ultimately I have to agree with many of you in that it could have been written better, and could have made even more sense if properly explained.

English is far from being a perfect language; if there are several ways to say the same thing in one language, then it's probably not perfect. Heck, pinpointing the origin of words is the least of our problems, and having a 26 letter alphabet works just fine, even if some letters don't get used as much.

I also speak Japanese, and aside from being a round about language, it's much easier to speak sometimes. They have 47 characters in their Kana which works rather well. It was easy to learn for me because it makes sense.

I'm no scholar of the English language, and I'm definitely not a linguist. But it works for now.
posted by PipRuss at 11:55 AM on May 26, 2012


That the vocabulary was "available" is unimportant,

Perhaps not completely unimportant as it's difficult borrow from an unavailable vocabulary.

only that the language that it came from was socially prestigious.

A factor I took account of in my original comment. Sometimes, with some people, it's necessary to reiterate all your earlier points in each succeeding comment you make, but I had not supposed that that would be required here.

Also, there was never any "tendency", which I've probably spelt out pretty longwindedly above.

Perhaps you have, but it's still kind of petitio principii as used here.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:13 PM on May 26, 2012


That's a really marvelous article, infini, which I'll be reading several more times in the coming weeks. Thank you so much for bringing it here.

What bothers me about the global predominance of English is that if Bickerton is right about the process of formation of new languages from pidgins developed by peoples thrown together by accidents of history, and who find each other initially mutually incomprehensible to their common detriment, then global English poisons the spring from which new languages bubble forth by obviating the need for the pidgin in the first place.

And that's a greater loss than we might at first imagine, because new languages are not at first written down, which I think allows them to develop a richness of metaphor denied to written languages by the way writing occupies the visual resources of our brains, diminishing their ability to say what they see, and see what they say.

We might seek to recapture lost vitality in English by pushing back the age at which children learn to read-- Yeats learned to read at nine, for example, and it might be argued that the outsize influence of black people on American English and the fact that it was once a crime to teach them to read are not coincidental-- but late reading is now seen as a born loser's late start in the race of all against all, and I don't see how a movement against early reading could ever get off the ground.
posted by jamjam at 12:17 PM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


Still reading, but I can't let this comment from fraula pass:

Regarding style, this sentence made little sense on first read: "It is concerned to correct what the author sees as an interlocking and mutually reinforcing system of myths about English." Why not the much more easily understood "Its concern is to correct what the author sees as an interlocking and mutually reinforcing system of myths about English"?

The latter suggestion, using 'its concern is...', does not mean quite the same thing as the original text, 'it is concerned to...'.

Using 'its concern is...' would be to state that correcting what the author sees as a system of myths is the main or only concern of the book. That is clearly not the statement that the author wished to make. The text as written suggests that this correcting of the system of myths is merely *a* concern of the book, possibly the main concern and possibly one of many; it does not state anything either way on that latter point. Hence his use of the phrase 'it is concerned to...'

It is hard to see the value in a correction that changes the substantive meaning of the text.
posted by motty at 12:26 PM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


You guys left out the part of James' quote dealing with cribhouse whores.
posted by Justinian at 12:46 PM on May 26, 2012


I would be very surprised if this actually happens, at least without Chinese jettisoning hanzi first.

Maybe if we get more into the touch/stroke system of interacting with machines? The swoosh of a finger across touch screen might work for writing systems like Chinese and Japanese, where where you start the stroke matters.

We might seek to recapture lost vitality in English by pushing back the age at which children learn to read-- Yeats learned to read at nine, for example

It works the opposite way than you think. The earlier you learn to read, the more sophisticated your vocabulary gets. The sooner you get a kid devouring text, the more likely they are to develop a wide lexicon.

If you want -different- languages, all you need it pockets of isolation, but good luck with that because we long lost the world where you could have generations living on the same city block and neighbourhood accents. And good riddance, though no set of sounds is superior to the other, it sure made a fantastic class barrier.

Yeats didn't have a television set, or radio or youtube ironing out all the accents and setting the popular culture, and while it sounds like hyperbole, denying kids to read just so you can get your idea of fancy injected into the language sounds an awful lot like a certain monarch's bad idea to have kids raised by deaf mutes to see if they start speaking Hebrew. Neologism is a natural process created by either language blending or new situations that demand a word that doesn't exist yet.

New languages are written down- or rather new words and affectations are born out of context: w00t, l337 and pwnd, spontaniously grown in a written medium, are all words that might not survive, but all the words Shakespeare added sure did survive because people read them.

As for an injection of one language into another, this has zero to do with reading, it happens wherever you have one population moving into another. That's what happened to English, for example the universally useful "fuck" is dutch, most likely from a period of heavy dyke building and indeed as everyone is discussing, English is very impure, a borrower from all the traffic that first rolled through, and then rolled through other people. Forcibly import Africans, develop pidgin to try to make them do what you need- net result is language transfer. Oppression of any kind that inhibits mobility is going to keep language strains more unique, an illiterate kid isn't going to make any sort of linguistic magic except via the deliberate isolation and forced ignorance of the world around them- and the changes would probably have to do with their new vocabulary based on the weird life they lead.

So not only would a late literacy movement be hard to get going, but it would have the opposite effect (well studied!) that you are hoping for.
posted by Phalene at 12:51 PM on May 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


BTW, just wanted to say I really liked the title of this post, appearing as it does to contain both an amusing cultural reference and possibly an extremely clever pun about the underlying structure of the language. (If I'm reading that latter part into it, please don't tell me.)
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:29 PM on May 26, 2012


dont forget to say it out loud in context of the pull quote ...
posted by infini at 3:22 PM on May 26, 2012


Maybe if we get more into the touch/stroke system of interacting with machines? The swoosh of a finger across touch screen might work for writing systems like Chinese and Japanese, where where you start the stroke matters.

I was unclear. I didn't mean that the actual replication of the symbols would be a roadblock but rather their memorization. It seems extremely cumbersome, and there has been documentation on this very site about even native speakers not being able to come to grips with the massive vocabulary of the written language. I think if they want to become dominant linguisitcally, they will have to follow in the footsteps of the Japanese and distill their system into a syllabary, choosing characters that represent necessary phonemes. It would probably be a good idea to add or designate some punctuation to handle tones, too. China is maybe the only modern country that could impose something like this on its population.
posted by adamdschneider at 3:25 PM on May 26, 2012


one won to too two for fore four - fawn too onfrieze dis langwidge end lad it romp waireva, throeing uff de shackuls ov prawpa spalleng. sloes de whoreed pais ov litral linyer kahmpreehanshun, reefuzin two pley bi roolz enfourst four meer konveenyans seik.
posted by Twang at 3:25 PM on May 26, 2012


But English was a very average borrower during the initial period when French was the language of higher social registers (or acrolect if you want). Texts from before 1250 or so don't really show huge amounts of borrowing. It is after this time when the use of French in higher social settings begins to break down that much borrowing happens.

Statistical studies of the Peterborough Chronicles, which nearly continuously record yearly events affecting the Abbey of Peterborough for hundreds of years, show a fairly distinct rate change in the acquisition of borrow words after 1066, IIRC. It doesn't happen immediately, but by 1100 or so it's clearly there.

What evidence can you point me to that refutes this, as you claim?
posted by IAmBroom at 10:46 PM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


"hundreds of years" = <200 years... I shouldn't have used that phrase.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:47 PM on May 26, 2012


How many of those complaining about English being 'shoved down people's throats' grew up with a minor language? Speaking as a Finn -- thank goodness for English. I certainly love Finnish and all the speech and literature we have available, but how is it more 'homogenous' to have access to the thoughts of hundreds of millions of people as opposed to just a few?
posted by Anything at 2:05 AM on May 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


se on mitä se on
posted by infini at 4:45 AM on May 27, 2012


Que sera sera.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:08 PM on May 27, 2012


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