The Rapid Evolution of English: Linguists Trace a Rise of Many Englishes around the Globe

Article excerpt

Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said that to speak a different language was to perceive a different world. But what happens when people from different worlds all try to speak the same language? To answer that question, 200 writers, scholars, and teachers gathered recently for a World Englishes Conference at Indiana's Purdue University.

English has become the language of international business. Because of that, English as we know it is changing rapidly. "If lesser-developed countries want to become involved in the global marketplace, then speaking English is perceived as a necessary goal," says the event's organizer, Purdue English professor Margie Berns. "The number of English speakers, and more importantly those who are learning English as a second language, is increasing around the world, and this will affect English as we know it."

As English spreads, individual communities will adapt and alter it to serve their own communication needs--to describe objects, events, and ideas that are mundane to them but not easily translatable into English. This means they will have to add and change words to communicate more fully. The results of this stretching of English, according to Berns, are already visible as new variations on the language are born every day.

"Today, English is also at home in much of the South and Southeast and parts of Africa. We can [now] speak of Malaysian English, South African English, or Indian English as we do American or British English," Berns notes.

This linguistic fragmentation has both positive and negative consequences. On the one hand, individuals who learn English as a second language often develop a unique perspective on its usage. Writers such as Vladimir Nabokov and Maxine Hong Kingston, who learned English later in life, authored some of the most important works in the modern literary canon. On the other hand, the spread of English often occurs at the expense of native languages and dialects, and it can accelerate the erosion of cultural traditions and indigenous ways of life.

Fluency in English is particularly on the rise in China. "China is pursuing learning English with a vengeance so employees can interact more successfully in the business market," according to Berns.

In an ironic countertrend, even as English grows in Asia, Europe, Africa, and elsewhere, the number of non-English-speaking people in the United States has been rising as well. …