Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

As English Spreads, Speakers Morph It into World Tongue

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

As English Spreads, Speakers Morph It into World Tongue

Article excerpt

IN India, people created the word "prepone" as the obvious opposite of postpone. On the Internet, a form of cyber-English has sprouted with such words as "net-surfing." On MTV Latino, the word coolisimo defines hip for a continent.

In Britain, meanwhile, editors of the Oxford English Dictionary are struggling to keep up with the "morphing" of the mother tongue.

What centuries of British colonialism and decades of Esperanto couldn't do, a few years of free trade, MTV, and the Internet has. English dominates international business, politics, and culture more than any other language in human history, and new words are melding into English at a frenetic pace.

"English is probably changing faster than any other language," says Alan Firth, a linguist at the University of Aalborg in Denmark, "because so many people are using it."

More than 1 billion people are believed to speak some form of English. For every native speaker, there are three nonnative speakers. Three-quarters of the world's mail is in English and four-fifths of electronic information is stored in English.

As more nonnative speakers converse with each other, hundreds of impromptu varieties of English are taking on a life of their own around the world.

But the uncontrolled, global germination of so many "Englishes" has some worried. English purists, led by Britain's Prince Charles, bemoan the degradation of the language as they see it.

Multiculturalists, meanwhile, say the blitzkrieg-like spread of English effectively commits "linguistic genocide" by killing off dozens of other languages.

These differing views lead to the question: Is the world taking English by storm or is English taking the world by storm?

Tom McArthur, editor of the Oxford Companion to the English Language, says that in 20 to 30 countries around the world, English is merging with native languages to create hybrid Englishes.

"The tensions between standard English and hybrid Englishes are going to become very, very great," says Mr. McArthur, who calls the process neither good nor bad. "We are going to have to keep on our toes. Some standard form of English {should be maintained} ... as a tool of communication."

Linguists see three main "Englishes" forming along with dozens of offshoots.

One includes Britain, the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand where distinct dialects of English are already spoken by about 350 million people.

A second includes South Asia and such African countries as Kenya and Tanzania, where pidgin Englishes -- in numerous forms -- are dominant.

And a third is broken English use for basic communication in the rapidly industrializing regions of East Europe, East Asia, Latin America, and the Mideast.

THE spread of English has given rise to interaction between foreign peoples that would have been considered remarkable only a few years ago, according to linguists.

In a Sydney factory, Cambodian, Samoan, Maltese, Greek, and Latvian workers take orders, talk about their families, and complain about their bosses to each other in their own broken English.

In Thailand, Russians, Pakistanis, Japanese, and Germans make phone calls by shouting out mispronounced numbers in English to exasperated Thai operators.

One of the largest sources of new terms is computers, according to linguists. In more than 100 countries, Internet users jabber in English -- or something like it.

To many nonnative English-speaking computer hackers, a computer term such as "hardware," has only one meaning -- computer equipment.

"Hardware is one of those words, it means, I don't know," laments Dinko Novoselec, a database operator in Zagreb, Croatia, when asked for another definition. "Some kind of tools for digging the earth or something like that. …

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