Will the sun ever set on the English language?

For two centuries, English mastery has equaled power. Will Chinglish, Spanglish and Hinglish topple that great linguistic empire?

Published March 28, 2007 10:20PM (EDT)

Any essay on the globalization of the English language that includes references to Otto von Bismarck, open-source advocate Eric Raymond, U.K. reality TV star Shilpa Shetty, Clifford Geertz, "Sex and the City" and Chinua Achebe is an essay that one should pay attention to. And so it is with the 118-page "As You Like It: Catching Up in an Age of Global English" by Samuel Jones and Peter Bradwell, writing for the U.K. think tank Demos.

Written from the point of view of the original fount of all things English -- the United Kingdom -- the authors start with an unexceptional point: English is the closest thing we have to a global lingua franca, a circumstance that has redounded greatly to the benefit of all native speakers of the language. They then move quickly to a more provocative observation:

The downside of this advantage is that we -- the U.K. and its citizens -- have rested too easily on our laurels. We have retained ways of thinking about the English language that were more suited to empire than they are to a modern, globalized world and we are at risk of becoming outdated. With the dominance of English, we have failed to concentrate sufficiently on learning other languages and we miss out on the opportunities that they open. And, at the same time, speakers of those other languages are becoming ever more proficient in using English and will be better positioned to operate multilingually in a globalized world.

English was once the language in which power was exercised, note the authors, but now it is the language in which power is accessed. And in the future, speaking only English won't be enough; the real advantage will go to those who are proficient in a multilingual, multicultural, increasingly interconnected world.

This isn't just about encouraging youngsters with an eye to getting ahead in the 21st century to study Mandarin. It's also about coming to terms with other members of the English family -- the Chinglishes and Hinglishes and Spanglishes spoken by hundreds of millions of non-native English speakers across the globe. Too often, English-language instruction is contemplated only in a framework in which teaching the "correct" English according to some foundational British or American standard is the only choice. But today, there are many correct Englishes, and flourishing in a globalized world will require that those brought up in Oxford or New York understand those reared in Mumbai or Shanghai.

The era of globalization has been described as one in which conversations happen between people all over the world at any time. We have moved into a new phase of international relations and politics in which the constituencies are no longer national, but fragmented across borders, interests and cultures. In this system, English is a force for both coherency and accentuated difference.

The authors conclude their wide-ranging and fascinating essay with a series of brass-tacks recommendations for beefing up language instruction in the U.K. My fancy was taken by the very last of their proposals -- an open-source Wikipedia-style worldwide dictionary of English that they label "democtionary.org" -- "an organic representation of the topography of power in global English" that "could serve to embed the democratizing potential of a global lingua franca."

At democtionary.org:

...people could add entries from all over the world. Each entry would be "tagged," providing geographical information. So, for example, "robot" could be tagged as an automaton in the U.K., and in its South African usage as a traffic light. Equally, new words could be contributed as they are used and come into recognition from whatever part of the world.

Such a service would be helpful indeed, because then I'd have a decent chance of understanding in full the delirious and wonderful "Singlish Poem" (written, best I can tell, by Cornelius Pang) that the authors include in their essay:

Wah! I heard we all now got big big debate.
They said future of proper English is at stake.

All because stupid Singlish spoil the market,
want to change now donno whether too late.

Aiyoh! Ang mo hear us talk like that also want to faint.
Even our "U" graduates speak like Ah Beng, Ah Seng.

Singlish is like rojak, everything throw inside anyhow mix.
Got Malay, Indian, Chinese and English, can give and take.

When you donno something is under table or chair,
you ask loud loud "Oi! Under where? Under where?"

When you see somebody behave very bad,
you scold him, "aiyah! Why you so like that?"

When you ended up in a traffic jam, and got stuck,
you complain, "today, I sai chia kena very chia lat."

When you warn your kids to be careful all the way,
you tell them, "careful har, you better don't play-play!"

When you see moon cakes with many egg yolks,
you say, "wah! This type good to eat, very shiok!"

When your friend mistook his mother for his aunt,
you disturb him, "alamak! Why you so blur one?"

You write like that in exam you sure liao.
Teacher mark your paper also kee siao.

This kind of standard how to pass?
Wait, you sure kena last in class.

Other people hear you, say you sound silly.
So like that how to become world-class city?

Basically Singlish got good and got bad.
Aiyah! Everything in life is all like that.

Actually Singlish got one bright side.
I am talking about our national plight.

Maybe I must explain to you what I mean.
If youb

Other people all say we all got no culture.
All we got is a lot of joint business ventures.

So we got no culture to glue us together.
End up we all like a big bunch of feathers.

Wind blow a bit too strong only we fly away.
Everybody all go their own separate ways.

Now we must play internet otherwise cannot survive.
Next time the only way to make money, or sure to die.

When other countries' influences all enter,
we sure kena affected left, right and centre.

Sekali our Singporean identity all lost until donno go where.
Even Orang-Utan Ah Meng starts thinking like a Polar Bear.

But still must go IT otherwise become swa koo,
only smarter than Ah Meng of the Mandai Zoo.

Wait the whole world go I.T., we still blur as sontong,
next time we all only qualified to sell laksa in Katong.

So got this kind of problem like that how?
Either sit and wait or do something now.

But actually we all got one "culture" in Singlish.
It's like rice on the table; it is our common dish...

I know this funny "culture" is not the best around
so we must tahan a bit until a better one is found.

Not all the time can marry the best man,
so bo pian got no prawns, fish also can.

I donno whether you agree with me or not?
I just simply sharing with you my thoughts.

Singlish is just like the garden weeds.
You pull like mad still it would not quit.

Sure got some people like and some do not like.
Singlish and English, they'll still live side by side.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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