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Word-loving people seem to know who they are early in life. They’re the kids who find dictionaries at least as absorbing as children’s books. And instead of asking parents or teachers why the sky is blue, they ask why the sky is called blue.
Where I spent my first years, in Santa Cruz, California, the most alluring language was to be found in the colorful compound words that cropped up everywhere. At school, there were earthquake drills and field trips, say, to a classmate’s family strawberry farm. Our house sat in a redwood forest populated by bobcats, mushrooms, and what my German-speaking grandmother thrillingly referred to as Wildschweinen, “wild pigs,” disappointingly called “boar” in English. A family friend, Jack, had what he called his surfshop, a smelly but exciting beachside design lab of sorts, where he was working on a sharkproof rubber wet suit, striped to mimic a poisonous fish he said even sharks refused to bite. (Sharks, it turned out, weren’t fooled by Jack’s invention.) Then, in 1966, a new TV series certified that compounds were truly wonderful and could even be created from scratch. My little brother was mad for the superhero protagonist’s Batmobile and beguiling Batcave. For me, the show was all about Batlanguage.
These compounds were spellbinding verbal objects, two-part words that were so much more than the sums of their parts, equally satisfying to break down into their component pieces for closer examination and then put right back together. Some were easy to decipher, like earthquake, clearly what you get when the earth quakes, which it often did along the San Andreas Fault. Or redwood, obviously so named because the tree’s wood and bark were red. Or at least reddish. But others were more mysterious, like mushroom. What was the story here? Were mushrooms called that because they grew in rooms full of mush? Or because there was room for mush to gather in the gills on the underside of their caps? The dictionary said that mushroom came from the French mousseron. Impossible. I had learned from my French-speaking mother that mushroom was champignon in French. Now she was insisting that mousseron had to do with moss. But that didn’t answer my question. Besides, all I could hear in her mysterious French word was a hint of chocolate mousse.
For the time being, the whole idea of anglicized pronunciations of foreign terms was just too weird and complicated. Mushroom would have to remain its more manageable intriguing self, a word calling out to be loved for its divisibility. The same went for my favorite: artichoke.
Artichokes were great suppertime treats in our household, and happily, we lived near the self-proclaimed Artichoke Capital of the World, Castroville. When our parents drove us out to the farmers’ fields, we traveled on dirt roads sprouting vibrant, hand-painted billboards. Many of them depicted cute, anthropomorphized artichokes, some smiling cheerfully, as if eager to be ripped from their native fields, taken in a car to some strange house, steamed in a pot, and devoured. A few were given speech bubbles saying things like “Best Artichokes Here!” The yummy plants seemed to have been named for the dazzling art that they’d spawned. But what about choke? Was it because you could grab the thick stem under the human-head-like bulb of spiky leaves and appear to be choking it? Or maybe it had to do with the hairy stuff in the middle of each artichoke, the stuff our mom scooped out so we wouldn’t choke on it. When I asked my teacher for help, she showed me how the dictionary gave the word’s origins going through several languages and back to one I’d never heard of, Arabic. But I found it hard to believe this version of the artichoke story, especially since I had seen the Artichoke Capital of the World many times with my own eyes. Surely the vegetable had been named in the art-filled fields of Castroville, not in the place that Mrs. Greider was indicating on the far side of the globe mounted on her desk.
My California Batchildhood ended abruptly in 1970, when my father moved our family to Colombia. He had a new job there, with the Peace Corps, and I soon forgot about compound words to embrace my own new task: learning Spanish.
Accompanying my father, I traveled to places in the Amazon and the Andes where people spoke languages so isolated from the rest of the world that few outside their small populations understood them. These groups of people were often visibly disadvantaged, lacking things that we in California, and even in BogotÁ, could take for granted—like a doctor to treat a bad earache. It naturally appeared that not all languages were created equal: the more widely recognized ones, like my English and budding Spanish, or my mother’s French, allowed their speakers to interact with a wider world, and to reap the benefits offered by life in a bigger and more broadly distributed population of speakers.
Our expat life in Latin America also proved that English had a special place even among the larger languages. In foreign capitals like Colombia’s, educated people who were fully engaged with the world were likely to speak some English, whereas only oddballs and academics bothered to learn uncommon tongues such as PÁez, spoken in the Andean region of Cauca. On the other hand, most native English-speaking adults visiting our household, even those whose jobs took them to countries where English was not officially spoken, turned out, far more often than not, to be monolingual. In their views a second language, whether spoken in huge parts of the world or not, was unnecessary. Any person one might wish to speak to was bound to know some English in the first place.
Ignorance of other languages was also seen as a perk of American superpowerdom, whose representatives in any case seemed to visit foreign countries more to talk than to listen. This was, after all, the Cold War era. Apart from English, the only major languages on the average Westerner’s awareness map were those of allies in Europe. And maybe Japanese. And Russian. But the Soviet Union was then so closed to the world that—barring a plan to defect to or spy on the Eastern Bloc, or to head a Colombian guerrilla movement funded by Moscow, or to succumb to an overpowering desire to read Tolstoy in the original—it was rare for someone to see much point in learning Russian as a second language.
One American who had taken the time to master the Spanish I was just beginning to learn was Paul, a handsome and sweet Peace Corps volunteer. He worked to organize relief for victims of a cataclysmic earthquake in Peru. At age nine I developed a hopeless crush on him and was mesmerized by everything he did or said. When my father announced a field trip with Paul and a friend of Paul’s, an American anthropologist, I petitioned night and day to be included. At the time, nothing compared with the company of the perfect Paul. But in the end, the indelible parts of the ten-day excursion were spent talking with his friend the anthropologist.
The man was living with a group of Andean Indians who spoke Aymara, and he had learned their language to study their way of life. I asked if he would have bothered to know a weird language if it hadn’t been for his job. He thought about it awhile and finally said yes, he would, because knowing this other language was like being given a pair of magic glasses. If you put on the glasses, you would see new things about reality, things that had been concealed when you were looking at the world through your English-speaking eyes. And once you had the glasses, you could put them on whenever you liked, to experience the world in a different way. I must have rumpled up my face or told him that I didn’t get his idea, because he went on to give an unforgettable example.
“You know how, in English, when we speak of the future, we picture it as something that lies ahead, physically? And that what has already happened, what is past, is thought of as what’s behind us?” Yes, that seemed obvious. “Well, in the Aymara language, people speak of time the other way around. What has already passed is in front of you. And what’s unknown for the moment, the future, lies behind you.” But, I objected, if you’re walking forward, you’re walking into the future, because you’re advancing, going ahead! Paul’s friend was sympathetic. “You see things that way. And so do I, when I’m speaking English. But someone else could say that no matter how fast you walk or even run ahead, whatever you see with your eyes has already occurred by the time you see it. Even if your feet move like crazy, you’re just moving faster toward what has already taken place.”
I tried pirouetting quickly a few times, to see if I could catch a glimpse of things to come. “In the village where I live, there’s a girl about your age, Alaya. If I told her that you and I think of the future as being in front of us, she would be just as surprised as you are by her way of seeing time.”
What about magic glasses for English? What does our language have that’s a fun thing to know? The budding anthropologist had a ready answer. “All languages have their own special ways of shaping our experience of the world. But English glasses aren’t so magical, because so many people speak English.”
Hmm. So any language that gains huge numbers of speakers can kiss its magic glasses good-bye? I could see the point Paul’s friend was making. Unusual ideas—like the Aymara’s one of the future’s being behind us—wouldn’t be so surprising, or have the potential to be so illuminating, if a zillion people had already accepted them as self-evident. But does a language only provide magic glasses if hardly anybody speaks it?
Over the years since that eye-opening conversation, I came to see that Paul’s friend was wrong. English, for all its widespread familiarity, has always furnished its speakers magic glasses. And it now furnishes them a new pair that has only recently come into existence. The magic glasses of English enable speakers to behold the world on a global scale, and to shape life on our fast-changing planet in a language that is, itself, changing quickly.
How does today’s world appear through the lenses of a language whose scope is nothing less than global? And what about the future?
Today English outsizes even the most widely used languages of the past. Since the rise of modern technologies of communication, beginning notably with the telegraph and the telephone but hardly ending there, English has been adopted throughout the world to become Global English, a language of unprecedented, planetwide recognition and use. Perhaps it would make more sense to say Global Englishes, since there’s no one particular version of the language that speakers learn or use. Employed variously throughout the world, English has attracted hundreds of millions of new speakers and is slated in coming decades to become the common language of hundreds of millions more.
Some actively seek proficiency in English to gain access to global realms of activity, from education and web surfing to diplomacy and business. At the other end of the spectrum, Global English consists of words and phrases that an astonishing portion of Earth’s population now knows by osmosis. Many of these pieces of language are already elemental building blocks in the daily lives of countless nonnative speakers of English. They’re also essential terms for millions who don’t really speak English but nonetheless recognize words and phrases in it. These expressions work as cultural portals, points of entry into a planetary realm of life, a realm that is for now the exclusive preserve of English.
It is a momentous time to be a speaker of this language. With its current status as the world’s default common tongue, English is poised to be significantly transformed over the next few generations. Already, worldwide, the language claims more nonnative speakers than native speakers. In China alone, more people have acquired ability in English than speak it as a mother tongue in the United States. Those Chinese-speakers for whom English is a foreign language are bound to change the look and sound, and even the meaning, of many Global English words and phrases, and ultimately of English itself.* Other major languages including Spanish, Hindi, Bengali, Portuguese, Russian, and Arabic, will likely also lead English down new paths.
What kinds of unexpected insights into the world will Global English be newly equipped to offer once its nonnative speakers have altered it? Aymara neatly reminds us that the future remains invisible. But one thing is sure. English is bound to change substantially as it evolves in its role as Earth’s common language.
This is not the first time that English will have been greatly transformed. Indeed, from its outset, English has been about high-octane collisions with languages that its speakers never expected to encounter. At several points in its history too, English might even have become extinct. It’s not as though the language was somehow destined to be used on a planetwide scale, or even to be spoken beyond the island where it emerged. But due in large part to historical accidents, English did survive and gradually, over time, has been modified to tremendous degrees. Hence Old English, or “Anglo-Saxon,” as seen in the opening words of the epic Beowulf, today looks fully foreign even to native speakers of English: “HwÆt we Gar-Dena in gear-dagum.”* By the same token, even those born in the era of Modern English, say, in Shakespeare’s day, would have been absolutely mystified to behold what now rates as banal to many adepts of text messaging: “omg! u r n nyc? c u 2nite @ j’s b-day! l8r, ldd.” Is this really the same language that was used by clansmen gathered to hear tell of the heroic exploits of Beowulf and his fellow warriors? The answer is yes. It is. There is an unbroken line of linguistic and cultural continuity between us, in our digital global world, and those tribes of long ago, in an environment that we must now strain to fathom. Will Global English-speakers of the twenty-second century require special training to read or listen to English as it was used before the arrival of the internet? Will it look as baffling to them as Old English now does to us?
Technology has, as never before, made it possible to belong to a community of speakers—or language “users”—that is at once widely dispersed and yet, as counterintuitive as it often seems, fluidly interconnected. And not only does this community use language for purposes that never existed in the past, but its members also speak diverse native languages, the great majority of which have never before been in steady contact with English. Taken together, these influences, novel and potentially potent, are positioned to catapult English into a fresh phase of its historic evolution.
About sixty-five hundred languages are now spoken on our planet. Yet humanity is each day closer to using English as its sole lingua franca. Incredibly, you can utter the word yes virtually anywhere—from Timbuktu to a multinational space station orbiting beyond the stratosphere—and be understood. Some view this fast-spreading English as a threat to the survival of other languages. Or as a frightening leveler of cultures, turning so many distinct ways of life into a homogenous extension of America, the dominant English-speaking nation of the day. But while these dangers are not imaginary, it’s also the case that Global English is now an instrument of humankind’s increasingly collective existence, and possibly our species’ most valuable tool in a global era of unprecedented challenges and possibilities.
How is the world using its new common language? To find out, we’ll investigate the unique histories of thirty English words and phrases familiar to people across the globe. Why these thirty? In the ever-growing vocabulary of Global English, each of these spotlighted terms has found its place in a worldwide conversation. We’ll track down the origins of each expression independently and consider it in its Global English context. But most important, we’ll use these selected words and phrases to illuminate the emergence and spread of Global English, which we’ll explore in brief chapters. We’ll look at the evolution of the English language and come to a point so simple as to seem self-evident: for the first time, the world needs a planetary lingua franca, and English is highly qualified for the job. Finally, we’ll take an extra step and imagine how English will look and sound quite different in the near future. All along the way, the stories of our thirty words and phrases will bring the remarkable expansion of English to life. Let’s now look at an introductory word in Global English, a language that’s got the whole world talking.
* ]By “Chinese-speakers” I mean people who speak Chinese, rather than “speakers who are Chinese nationals” or “speakers who identify themselves as ethnic Chinese” or “speakers who reside in China.” Throughout this book, I hyphenate similar phrases to clarify that we’re talking about speakers of a language (English-speakers, Swahili-speakers, and so on) rather than passport holders of certain nations or members of ethnic groups. In the latter cases, no hyphens are used. So, “French speakers” refers to speakers who are French, while “French-speakers” refers to speakers of French in France but also in Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, Algeria, Vietnam, and anywhere else.
* “So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by.”1
© 2010 Leslie Dunton-Downer