Sombre thoughts: Orphaning English?

Dhaka,  Wed,  28 June 2017
Published : 02 Mar 2017, 19:31:39
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Sombre thoughts: Orphaning English?

Imtiaz A. Hussain
International Mother Language Day (IMLD) is a sombre occasion, eliciting a handshake between what is becoming seasonal patriotism and constantly increasing cosmopolitanism. For Bangladesh, it is extra-special since it falls on a day revered for a denied language from far before. Many other countries forging independence after World War II may also find the celebration to be extraordinary, especially since, under the weight of globalising forces, many languages spoken by either limited or declining populations have been evaporating, or have simply devolved into a lower tier: out of the 7,000 languages on this planet, the UNESCO's Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger identifies 2,473 at risk, placing them in five categories, ranging from the least to the most risks, dubbed "vulnerable"; "definitely", "severely", and "critically" endangered; and those already extinct. 

By the end of the 21st century, up to 90 per cent of them may be lost; indeed, to remain "safe," new generations must embrace them, particularly when they are being overpowered by commercial, cinematic, or rapidly-changing communicative media, such as the Internet.

Two features of those globalising forces predict that gloomy future pathway, in particular for one of the most widely-circulated language: English. It will, no doubt, remain "safe," but not necessarily in the form we see it as currently.

English still draws upon such a sturdy support-base that we cannot even put it on the "evaporating" list, even though the size of native speakers is paltry compared to those of many other languages. Along with French and Spanish (and before that, Latin), English was the most globalised language even before the advent of the Internet. 

The sun would never really set on the British, French, and Spanish empires; but even among them, the English language embraced a far wider population more resplendently world-wide than the others.

If there was not enough to doubt a truly international language, such as English, along came the Internet, as if to reaffirm that. True, the Internet runs on many languages; but the irony remains, just as it was with building empires and laying a legacy, English outdid the others. Something about the mother language of the many inventors of the Internet might have had something to do with it. Yet, if that is the case, the more people think of English today, they are more likely to think of the United States rather than Great Britain.

Here, too, enormous long-term changes are underway whether we believe it or not. With US and British English being so alike that to even distinguish them might look trite, we must remember that English within England also comes in similarly different stripes: a Yorkshire accent is as distinctive from Cockney as England is from the United States. 

More differences can be found in spelling, the relationship between pronunciation and spelling being more direct in US English than the more pompous, often circuitous, version in England: "color," for example, gets the message across far more clearly than "colour" (but, of course, "dolor" in one country cannot become "dolour" in the other). We have toyed with these irregularities for almost as long as the existence of the comparative English language without much ado; but then descended the possibly game-changing Internet impact.

What the Internet age is doing is to slowly enhance one over the other, to wit, the US version over Britain's. We see it every day in Microsoft Word, for instance. Write any word in England's English version that has a slightly different spelling than its US counterpart, and Mister Spellcheck's curse, evident in the red underlining, will henceforth haunt the rest of the essay until it is corrected. 

Make no mistake, Mister Spellcheck's citizenship comes across vividly: it is the United States, and only US English is validated. The result of a single mistake is akin the mountain trickle that turns into a river on the plains and an ocean off-land: countries that have been reared on the British version, that is, all former colonies and dominions, as well as the United States itself, find the colonising country's English slowly and subtly being replaced by the relatively more commercialised, or at least, more constantly remolded US version without any (at least visible) US intent. 

An entire generation born and bred with the Internet at its fingertips in countries like Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, or Pakistan, for instance, might never even get to know there was a British way of spelling certain terms that their parents were more comfortable with.

For Bangladeshis, Indians, Malaysians, Pakistanis, and other peoples in that island's empire where the sun never went down, the future of England's English weakens, and becomes such a hybrid that even in England, die-hard citizens and even Internet browsers, might feel discomfited in accepting it as "native." Worse still, once the language has been given an ambiguous bent, hell lets loose: alliteration follows, quite likely by inflicting the greatest distortion, such that neither England's nor US English would want to take ownership. If this is across Bangladesh, where we see it blooming on almost every other street-side advertisement, even pure Bangla takes a beating: not just a colonising language, but a native one also gets so warped before our very eyes that we remain all too helpless to correct or preserve it.

In a nutshell, then, US English tips its British counterpart, with spelling differences paving the way for alliteration rather than any correct translation, and followed by the extension of spelling discrepancies into phrases, punctuations, and an anti-pedantic cycle.

On the one hand, mass usage of distorted terms confronts the declining numbers of linguists or scholars bent on preserving the "old-fashioned" correct forms. On the other, the catchy or "sexy" spin-offs of words and phrases eventually enter the dictionary or pedagogical treatises, giving them more future mileage than the traditional versions. We end up neither learning the language properly or accurately, nor avoiding the inevitable Gresham outcome (whereby the "bad" drives out the "good"): distortions displacing accurate English as spoken and used in England by simply the sheer weight of English speakers globally.

On International Mother Language Day, therefore, the growing popularity of Internet English may be hastening the eclipse of the language's true mother: neither England nor any other country, but a hybrid technologically contrived and erroneously or ambiguously disseminated by communications media in courting the masses. Stoking the masses serves a marketing purpose, but cultivating languages is a far more eclectic task. For one of the most dominant languages in modern history, that represents a severe identity-crisis, the un-gentrification of a well-bred speech-medium.

We must not pin the entire fault upon the Internet. Hollywood English, even more so, Bollywood English, has been chipping away at the English language's armor (spelt in England's English: "armour"). A few generations down the road, were they alive, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Byron, and Blake might find themselves stupefied by the new words (although, given their catchy, or "sexy" prose presentations, those new terms might even slide comfortably into the phrases, parables, and poetry those authors might want to pen).



Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

imtiaz.hussain@iub.edu.bd


 
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