Read an Excerpt
The Power of Language Change
Was I in Arcadia or Alhambra? Was I speeding past Temple City or City of Industry?
Somewhere amid the grind and spurt of traffic on a southern California freeway, I slipped a Coldplay disc, X&Y, into my car’s CD player. The morning sun lit up the distant, snow-clotted San Gabriel Mountains, a prospect as exhilarating as the opening song, “Square One.” As the lead singer, Chris Martin, evoked discovery, travel and the future, his tenor voice seemed to soar high above the choking swarm of vehicles; half consciously I swerved into the fast lane. But Martin’s tone soon darkens. Several of the cuts demonstrate loss, regret, uncertainty, and apprehension about what the days after tomorrow hold in store for us. An SUV was maintaining an aggressive stance inches behind my license plate, and I pulled back into one of the middle lanes.
The CD reached its fifth track: a haunting, nine-note melody, repeated softly, then with a surge of percussive volume. Martin sings about his fear of the future, his need to speak out. When an early attempt at reassurance fails, he probes deeper, asking if “you,” his brother, feel incomplete or lost. The song is called “Talk.” To the underlying rhythm of a drummed heartbeat, its lyrics summon up an anxiety specific to words and meaning: the feeling that other people are addressing him in a language beyond his grasp. It’s as though language has lost its ability to connect us— as though we’ve misplaced a key that would allow us, somehow, to understand what words have come to mean. Birds kept flying somewhere above Walnut or Diamond Bar, but all utterance now seemed strange, unfathomable. The guitar riffs swooped and rose to match the breathtaking, lethal grandeur of the California freeways, yet the song’s lyrics were bleak.
Back home in Montreal, I found myself continually listening to X&Y. So were millions of other people in dozens of countries—this had been the world’s top-selling album in 2005. One day I came across a futuristic, B-movie-like video of “Talk”; it showed the perplexed band trying to communicate with a giant robot. A version of the video on the YouTube website had been watched more than 442,000 times in the previous ten months. Many hundreds of viewers had posted comments. Some of them were brief, uninhibited love letters. ace this song iz wick id lol ace vid, wrote a viewer from Britain. coldplay is the BEST!! added a thirteen-year-old Finn, using a Japanese screen name. vid. is kind of err. but the song is roarific, noted an American. A comment in English from China followed one in Basque from Spain and one in Spanish from Botswana.
If I were more of a joiner, I might have signed up for the official Coldplay.com online forum, which boasts tens of thousands of members. The forum makes national borders immaterial—Latvians and Macedonians, Indonesians and Peruvians, Israelis and Egyptians all belong. To them it doesn’t matter that the band consists of three Englishmen and a Scot singing in a tongue that was once confined to part of an island off Europe’s coast. Now, wherever on the planet these fans happen to live, music connects them. So does language. As long as they’re willing to grope for words in the accelerating global language that Coldplay speaks, the forum gives all its members a chance to speak. Which is how the fifth song on X&Y ends. Martin admits that things don’t make sense any longer. But as the melodies collapse around him, he invites us to talk.
All sorts of borders are collapsing now: social, economic, artistic, linguistic. They can’t keep up with the speed of our listening, of our speaking, of our singing, of our traveling. Borders could hardly be less relevant on teen-happy websites like Facebook and MySpace. That morning, a Canadian in the exurbs of Los Angeles, I was listening to a British band while driving to meet a Mexican-American professor who began a memoir in Argentina full of sentences like this: “repente veo que ALL OF A SUDDEN, como right out of nowhere, estoy headed for the freeway on-ramp.” Routes are merging. Languages are merging.
That professor celebrates a promiscuous, unruly mix of words. But many people contemplate such a mix with annoyance and fear, emotions they also feel about other kinds of language change, like the chatroom abbreviations in those YouTube comments. When you first peer at the weirdly spelled, lowercase fragments of speech, or listen to the staccato interplay of tongues in major cities like LA, you may be fearful that everyone else is talking in a language you don’t speak. Is it mere unfamiliarity that inspires such unease, or is it something deeper?
Language enables us to feel at home in everyday life. But of late, language seems to have packed up its bags, slammed the door behind it, and taken to the open road. That’s where we find ourselves: on the move. Every few days, if not every few hours, we become aware of a new word or phrase speeding past us. There’s no going back, either—no retreat into the grammar and lexicon of the past. Our only home is this: the verbal space in which we’re already traveling. The expressions in that space are often amazing— a generation or two ago, before our use of language went digital, no one would have believed some of what we routinely see, hear and type.
Yet from time to time, I too feel lost. In the future, wherever we are, what in the world will we say?
The way other people use language sometimes troubles us. But the reasons vary wildly. It may be the particular version of English spoken in Singapore, Sydney or San Diego. It may be the way teenagers talk—Joan Didion, describing the “blank-faced” girls and “feral” boys of southern California, criticized their “refusal or inability to process the simplest statement without rephrasing it. There was the fuzzy relationship to language, the tendency to seize on a drifting fragment of something once heard and repeat it, not quite get it right, worry it like a bone.” It may be a pompously inflated polysyllabic phrase, a contortion of words in an ad, a noun that masquerades as a verb. It may be grammatical errors in a TV news bulletin, phrases abused on a radio talk show, spelling mistakes on a website. It may be the opaque language of bureaucracy—in March 2007, to take a random example, the Queensland Government Chief Information Office defined its task as “the development of methodologies and toolkits to strengthen the planning and project management capability of agencies.” Say what? “The QGCIO also plays an integral part in building relationships and identifying opportunities for collaboration between agencies, cross-jurisdictionally, with the ICT Industry and with the tertiary sector.” Even more than this kind of flaccid verbiage, my personal bugbear is the rhetoric of war, engineered to hide the truth: “collateral damage,” “friendly fire,” “transfer tubes,” or “the excesses of human nature that humanity suffers” (such was Donald Rumsfeld’s euphemism for the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib). There are innumerable reasons why people get irritated about language.
Irritation can lead to anxiety. If words no longer bear their proper meaning, or are no longer pronounced the right way, or are now being combined with other words in some incorrect manner, what verbal defacements might scar the future?
Experts keep trying to reassure the public. Even in 1929, the British linguist Ernest Weekley felt it necessary to observe that “stability in language is synonymous with rigor mortis.” “People have been complaining about language change for centuries,” says Katherine Barber, editor in chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. “They’re fascinated to learn that ‘travel’ started off as an instrument of torture—but they want the changes to stop now. I think people invest a lot in correct spelling and grammar because they worked very hard to learn it well in school—that’s why there’s a resistance.
They say, ‘It’s terrible, they don’t use the subjunctive anymore.’ But the subjunctive has been disappearing for centuries.” As the American scholar John McWhorter has pointed out, “There is no such thing as a society lapsing into using unclear or illogical speech—anything that strikes you as incorrect in some humble speech variety is bound to pop up in full bloom in several of the languages considered the world’s noblest.” Nobility, the linguists reiterate, is in the ear of the beholder. Many native speakers beg to differ.
Amid the commotion, rest assured: I have no ideological ax to grind. I’m not interested in persuading you to refine your punctuation, double your vocabulary or perfect your grammar. I write simply as someone who loves and cares about language; I believe its manifold powers of expression help make us truly human. Today the evidence of linguistic change, like that of climate change, is all around us. But I suspect that with both words and weather, we don’t always ask the right questions. “Is language declining?” may not be the smartest inquiry to make. It might be more rewarding to ask: “Why does language change provoke such anxiety? What kinds of change can we expect to see in the future? And how should we try to cope?”
More than two thousand years ago, the Roman poet Horace compared words to leaves in a forest: just as trees lose their withered leaves and welcome fresh ones, so too do words fall away to be replaced by the new. The process is continual, and older than any of our languages. Yet words seem unusually volatile now. “We are living at the beginning of a new linguistic era,” the eminent linguist David Crystal wrote in 2004. “I do not believe that ‘revolution’ is too strong a word for what has been taking place.” He based his assertion on three interrelated phenomena: the planetwide spread of English in the late twentieth century, the disappearance of hundreds of other languages, and the sudden dominance of the Internet as a means of communication. When these topics are looked at together, Crystal argued, “we encounter a vision of a linguistic future which is radically different from what has existed in the past.”
The nature of that difference is the central theme of these pages. Having devoted a previous book, Spoken Here, to the last-ditch struggles of minority languages, I promise to say little about that subject here. The awareness of a terrible loss—on average, a language goes extinct somewhere in the world every two weeks—underlies some of what follows. But loss is not the only story to be told. This book sets out to explore and interpret a verbal revolution.
On a bright October afternoon, I was standing in front of a class of sixteen and seventeen-year-olds in a small town west of Montreal. Their English teacher had invited me to give a writing workshop in the high school library. The hour was nearing its end when abruptly I switched course. Instead of talking about metaphors and similes, sweet conclusions and dynamite beginnings, I asked each student to jot down a few words or phrases that older people would not understand, and then provide a brief definition for each term. I gave the class no advance warning. The risk was that this impromptu assignment would induce a yawn-filled silence, a retreat into heavy-lidded boredom. But instead the students—especially the girls, I noticed—set about the task with enthusiasm.
“You mean any words?” said a preppy-looking girl in blue. “Even the ones that aren’t in the dictionary?”
“Especially the ones that aren’t in a dictionary,” I replied.
I waited a couple of minutes—time was short—and asked for the results. Arms filled the air. Hands waggled. I’m a reader, a parent, a viewer, a listener; I thought that all together, the students might come up with a dozen words I didn’t know. So much for the vanity of age.
Cheddar, said the first, meaning “money, lavish earnings.” (I’ll give this and all the other definitions in the students’ exact words.) He got owned, said another: “rejected, shut down, beat up.” On the go, added a third: “it’s like going out, but not official.” I recognized some of the expressions, of course; even a senior citizen of fifty can comprehend eye candy and loaded, poser and flame. Did these innocent, cool teenagers really believe their generation had invented high? But as I stood there in the sun-dappled library, I realized that the majority of the students’ words and phrases left me bemused. What on earth was burninate? Was d-low somehow related to “below,” “delay,” “J Lo”—or to none of those terms? (Not wanting to keep the meanings secret—to d-low them, that is—I’ll suggest that you’d burninate something only if you had the fire-breathing powers of a dragon.) More generally, by what learned or instinctive command had these young people enacted their self-assured takeover of the language?
Before the bell freed them from the joy of learning, the students handed in the slips of paper on which they’d scribbled their definitions. I have them still: scraps torn from notepads and workbooks, a page from a disintegrating paperback, a yellow Post-it note with a smiley at the top. Overlaps were surprisingly rare; just one word—noob, meaning somebody new, ignorant or inexperienced—was defined three times.
Looking at the sixty-six words now, I’m struck by the diversity of their origins. A few emerge from the online world of instant messaging: rofl, for instance, which gathers the initial letters of “rolling on the floor laughing.” Others are abbreviations: sup, for instance, originally “What’s up?” and now a synonym for “Hi, how are you?” Almost anywhere you go, the power of hip-hop seems unavoidable: surely that’s how homie (friend) and foshizzle (I agree) migrated from America’s inner cities to a small, waspish town in Quebec. Hip-hop and cyberspace together encouraged the spread of phat, which morphed from “sexy” in the 1960s to “cool, great, wonderful” by the ’90s, and which is now widely regarded as an acronym for “pretty hot and tempting”—its original meaning, in short. Drug culture is just as influential; blame or credit it for fatty (an oversized joint), gacked (on speed) and pinner (a small joint). It’s unfortunate That’s so gay has come to mean “That’s stupid, not worth my time.” But what could be the origins and adolescent meanings of lag and One and die in a fire?
It was humbling to read an impromptu definition of scene, a word I thought I knew, that deployed a word I couldn’t quite pin down—“style (knock-off of emo).” Emo? It was even more humbling for me, a writer, someone whose livelihood depends on the rich and exact use of words, to realize how far the English language had slithered away from my grasp, not for reasons of ethnicity or culture but simply because of time. “But at my back I always hear / Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near,” wrote the poet Andrew Marvell in the seventeenth century. It’s not a chariot any longer; it’s a Dreamliner.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that all these expressions are destined to enter the permanent storehouse of English vocabulary. Many of them will be as fleeting as youth itself. Young men and women have always used slang as a weapon to cut their lives free from the nets cast by their elders— didn’t I aspire, unsuccessfully, to be a groovy freak? Older people have no reason to try and memorize the throwaway lexicon of the young. But the cascade of teenage slang I faced that afternoon can stand as a symbol of the astonishing rate at which new words are pouring into English. Nobody can control this breakbeat language; nobody can even keep track of it.
The language is both inherently permissive and amazingly powerful. Yet while it soaks up terms from dozens of foreign cultures and nations, English also infiltrates and penetrates most of the world’s other languages. Worry about the linguistic future is nothing unique to English-speakers. People around the world are struggling with verbal shock: angst about how we speak, how we read and write, the changing ways we communicate. Perhaps all this helps to explain why so many are convinced that language is deteriorating. It’s as though—regardless of whether the supposed peak of eloquence was attained in the era of Shakespeare, Goethe or Proust—the language of the twenty-first century must inevitably mark a sad decline in accuracy, grace or both. Nervousness about falling standards makes us resort to grammar hotlines and seek the stern advice of language mavens. Google the phrase “proper grammar,” and you’ll find, as of November 2007, no fewer than 394,000 hits.
If technological innovations are usually cheered, linguistic innovations just as commonly come under attack. A few years ago Prince Charles attacked the “corrupting” effect of American English, saying, “People tend to invent all sorts of nouns and verbs and make words that shouldn’t be. I think we have to be a bit careful; otherwise the whole thing can get rather a mess.” His late compatriot Alistair Cooke bemoaned “the disastrous de- cline in the teaching of elementary grammar.” But is language really in a state of free fall? Are speakers in the future condemned to be messier and less accurate than ourselves?
It’s easy for me to say that words are evolving fast. But I need to prove the point. So let’s perform a brief test. If you look back at the eleven paragraphs you’ve just read, describing my visit to a high school—and if you leave aside all the students’ new expressions (noob, foshizzle, sup and so on)— you’ll still find at least thirty words and usages that did not appear in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1884–1928), the most ambitious and scholarly effort yet made to assemble a complete record of the language. Some of these terms are obvious: Google, hip-hop and instant messaging were all born in the late twentieth century. So, slightly earlier, were Post-its and smileys. According to John Ayto’s book Twentieth Century Words, “hotline” is believed to date back to 1955, “online” to 1950.More subtle, more thought-provoking, are recent coinages that evoke not technological inventions but concepts and ideas. The creators of the OED had no knowledge of “takeover,” a word that appeared only in the mid-1940s, nor “permissive,” a 1950s term, nor “inner city,” a phrase from 1968. “Ethnicity” dates from 1953; one particular ethnicity, “wasp” (meaning white Anglo-Saxon Protestant), had been around for centuries, although the word remained absent from the language until 1962.
The list goes on. “Senior citizen” arrived in 1938, a year after “workshop” began to signify something more than just a room full of tools. “Angst,” understandably, seems to have become an English word during the Second World War. Another wartime invention was “acronym.” Both angst and acronyms have proliferated since. “Throwaway” was unavailable to the OED’s first editors; so was “cool,” except as a term evoking temperature. Even “insecure,” in its common usage, arose only in the 1930s. Most surprising—given the ubiquity and apparent necessity of the term—the word “teenager” was not born until the early 1940s. “I never knew teen-agers could be so serious,” declared a writer for Popular Science Monthly in 1941. The first verifiable use of “teenage” goes back another generation, to (of all places) Victoria, British Columbia, where a 1921 article in the Daily Colonist declared: “All ‘teen age’ girls of the city are cordially invited to attend the mass meeting to be held this evening.” The OED’s staff had already finished work on the letter T by then, so anybody looking up “teenage” in the great dictionary is in for a shock: it’s defined as a country term meaning brushwood for fences and hedges.
In 1921 few people outside the Victoria area would ever read the Daily Colonist. A copy took days to reach the East Coast, weeks to travel overseas. Today the Times Colonist, like almost every other newspaper, maintains a lively presence on the Internet. With some clicks of a mouse, anybody who has access to a computer can learn about the city, keep up with its goings on, or send aggrieved letters to the editor. Thanks to technology, you don’t have to live in Victoria to stay abreast of the Victoria news. Besides, the growth of immigration, cheap air travel and a global economy means that no English-speaking city in the world is ethnically homogeneous. I used to believe this wide dispersal of readers and speakers would encourage a uniformity of language—a smoothing out of differences. Even if a few slang expressions varied from place to place, surely the varieties of English were destined to become ever more similar.
Now I’m not so sure. Admittedly, many dialects and accents have faded over time—as long ago as 1962, in Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck lamented the decline of American regional speech. The little town of Lunenberg in southern Nova Scotia was settled by Swiss and German immigrants in the eighteenth century, and until recently dozens of German-based expressions could be heard in the area: “struddle,” “mawger,” "gookemole,” “wackelass” and so on. Few of these terms, unfortunately, remain in daily use. Most of them have joined the silent, ever-growing army of lost words.
Yet robust dialects still flourish. Many people in Scotland, for instance, are convinced that their daily idiom, Scots, is so different from mainstream English that it should count as a separate tongue. In 2006 some portions of Trawlermen, a BBC-TV miniseries about fishermen off a coastal town in Scotland, had to be subtitled before being shown elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Matthew Fitt, a young writer appointed by the Scottish government to serve as National Schools Scots Language Development Officer, has written poems in which lines I can figure out (“be guid tae yirsel”) are followed by lines I find totally incomprehensible (“sic a drochle / a peeliewally”). Fitt invents words on occasion—“cyberjanny” was his coinage for a virtual concierge who made an appearance in a Scots cyberpunk novel—but more often he simply puts into writing the everyday idiom of Scottish people. Their accent can be so distinctive that many common words—“guid,” for instance—look weird in standard English spelling, like a fullback in a tutu.
If you wander down the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, you’ll pass a six-floor apartment building (a block of flats, I mean) on which a historic-looking plaque is kitted out with flags and emblems. But the plaque is far from old. The wording on it reads: al this wark was begun be dancon on 10 January 1989 and endit be them on 31 March 1990. The use of Scots on the plaque makes a strong cultural and political statement. Part of its meaning is that, in the face of the rampantly global, Scottish people are determined to value and promote the local. Yet every vibrant dialect, not just Scots, generates new expressions; and these expressions can get in the way of a shared understanding. Think of all the acronyms that speak volumes to insiders and say nothing to everyone else. TTC, for instance. If you’re a sports fan, you probably associate those initials with The Tennis Channel. Unless you’re a sports fan living in Toronto, in which case you’d first call to mind the Toronto Transit Commission. Anyone moving to the city finds TTC an essential trio of letters to figure out. In the American South, the letters also involve transportation: Trans-Texas Corridor. But in Paris, TTC is a hip-hop band; in Singapore, South Carolina, Essex and Oklahoma it refers to a college (four different colleges, that is); and in Wellington, New Zealand, it signifies the Tararua Tramping Club. (“Tramping” means hiking, if you’re American, or rambling, if you’re British.) The initials also belong to a European research project, Timing, Trigger and Control, whose website helpfully notes: “The TTC system was initially developed by RD12, an LHC Common Project financed by EP and SL Divisions and the four LHC experiment collaborations.” TTC, in short, has dozens of disconnected meanings around the world.
For a stranger, mastering the language of a new place means getting to know its initials as well as its cultural and political references. And countries, like cities, have their own allusions, their own illusions. The playwright George Bernard Shaw once quipped that the USA and Britain are divided by a common language. It might be more accurate to say they’re united by a different language. North Americans traveling in Britain would be well advised to realize that “randy” means what they know as “horny”; otherwise they could be as baffled as a Chicago girl I once met in a Glasgow youth hostel who couldn’t fathom the reaction she caused by walking up to boys and saying, “Hi, I’m Randi.”
Teenagers in London are less and less likely to speak in the traditional Cockney accent, but they’re not switching over to the Queen’s English, nor even to the Estuary English adopted by their parents and older siblings. Instead, many of them use a new transcultural idiom that goes by the name “Jafaikan.” Besides the obvious Caribbean source, it draws on accents and words from Africa, South Asia and Australia. “Safe, man,” wrote a Guardian journalist in a piece entitled “Learn Jafaikan in two minutes.” “You lookin buff in dem low batties. Dey’s sick, man. Me? I’m just jammin wid me bruds. Dis my yard, innit? Is nang, you get me?” Migration is a fact of language. Now that the peoples of the world jam with their bruds on each other’s doorstep, it may be necessary to understand the differences between, say, a hijab and a niqab, a khemar and a chador. In large cities, isolation from other cultures is impossible. The more we mix, the more we match. And just as our words keep flooding into other languages, some of their words inevitably seep into ours. English has already adopted terms from at least 350 other tongues, including Choctaw, Twi, Nootka and Araucanian.
Languages change when a minority people asserts itself as strongly as Jamaicans in Britain and Algerians in France have recently done. There’s nothing new or alarming about this; Jewish immigrants to the United States a century ago had the chutzpah to make Yiddish a rich source of English expressions. Languages alter too when sheer proximity forces idioms to rub up against each other—to share a physical space is also to share a verbal space. In Montreal, English- and French-speakers routinely and genially wreak havoc on each other’s languages. Soon after a collapsing overpass had killed several people, I heard a Quebec official say on English language radio: “Circulation on Autoroute Dix-neuf will have a little perturbation.” In other words, traffic on Highway 19 will be chaotic.
Technological change can add to our verbal unease. On a trip to New York in 2006 I happened to pass a notice board at the entrance to East Green, a quiet area of Central Park, that still told passersby: “Earphones are required for listening to radios and tapeplayers.” The sign became outmoded as soon as the Discman and MiniDisc Walkman replaced the portable cassette player. In an era of iPods and MP3 players, the notice makes even less sense. The word “tapeplayers,” once so shiny, bears the scuff marks of age. To keep up with technology, the notice board would require a fresh noun every few years.
Over the next few decades, advances in technology will bring us a megaload of gleaming words. But more important, the whole feel and, so to speak, headspace of the future will be unlike anything we can foretell. Words don’t just give names to devices, they give flesh to ideas. Apart from the multitude of fresh vocabulary that speakers in 2100 will take for granted, and the subtly different threads of grammar that will knit their words together, it’s likely they will pronounce the language in different ways than we do. The sounds and rhythms of English, French and many other languages have undergone substantial change within the past century.
To hear exactly how a language alters, we’re lucky that the New Zealand Broadcasting Service sent mobile recording units around the country in 1946. The units had previously gathered soldiers’ and nurses’ wartime messages to their families at home. After the outbreak of peace, New Zealand decided to record the music being performed in outlying areas as well as the reminiscences of old-timers living there. “The recordings were made on fourteen-inch acetate disks,” the linguist Margaret Maclagan explained to Australia’s Radio National, “which were so soft that they didn’t actually want to play them very often, so most of the people who were recorded never even heard themselves. They made the recordings in people’s homes, or on farms or in the local town halls.” Surprisingly, perhaps, the music proved less popular than the stories, and so the mobile units went back on the road for another two years, harvesting the voices of more than three hundred people.
Why is this of any interest now? Because New Zealand English is a young dialect. Other varieties of English, from North America and the Caribbean to India, South Africa and Australia, were already well established by the second half of the nineteenth century, when most of these speakers were born. They are, Maclagan explained, “the first generation of European people born in New Zealand. So they’re the very first people who ended up speaking New Zealand English.” This means, unusually, that almost the entire history of the dialect exists in recorded form.
Radio National played the voices of a brother and sister, a Mr. and Miss Bannatyne, who were small children in South Island in the 1890s. Their given names appear to be lost. Even in the late 1940s, Mr. Bannatyne spoke in what sounded very much like an English accent; he would have pronounced the word “fish” with a vowel sound recognizable to English-speakers elsewhere. But Miss Bannatyne pursed her mouth and swallowed her short i’s: fsh, she would have said. That’s one of the most noticeable qualities of a New Zealand accent. She had it. He didn’t.
What the New Zealand researchers found in those 1940s recordings holds true elsewhere. Women take on a new accent faster than men (this matters not only for its own sake, but also because mothers traditionally play the largest role in passing on language to children). People from a lower social class acquire a new accent more quickly than those from a higher class. And accents develop most quickly when people from many different places mix together. The more social flux and tumult there are in a community, the more likely its language is to alter. New Zealanders were fortunate to acquire their distinctive accent without rancor. In many countries today, mobility and social mixing have never been greater, and language can change with startling abruptness.
Even so, some kinds of change happen gracefully. Let’s consider Somalia for a moment. It’s hard to think of a nation more profoundly stricken by war, famine, displacement and ecological collapse. Somali culture, traditionally nomadic, was reliant on camel herding, and the decline of that practice has heightened the people’s vulnerability to the ever more frequent droughts that plague the Horn of Africa. Over the centuries, the Somali language developed an astonishing range of words to embody a herding culture—golqaniinyo, for instance, meaning “a bite given on a camel’s flank to render her docile during milking”; or uusmiiro, “to extract water from a camel’s stomach to drink during a period of drought.” What’s striking is the confident way in which Somalis have taken their old came-lrelated words and applied them to new purposes.
Their use of language is dynamic. Guree, for example, once meant “to make room for a person to sit on a loaded camel.” Now it refers to making space for someone in a full car or truck. More radically, gulguuluc used to mean “the low bellow of a sick or thirsty camel,” but today the word applies to a poem recited in a low voice. Haneed once signified “the left side of a cow camel where one stands when milking.” Its meaning has stretched to the point where the term now suggests good form or style. Yet the stretching is a natural evolution, nothing forced or jagged. If English would only change as elegantly as the Somali words for camel culture, few people would have a serious objection.
Fat chance. In today’s world many hundreds of millions of people speak English as a foreign language, with greater or lesser success. (One of them, translating an Israeli tourist brochure into English, recently turned a Hebrew phrase meaning “Jerusalem—there’s no city like it” into “Jerusalem— there’s no such city.”) As their language lunges off into uncharted territory, native speakers often resent the bewildering, graceless changes they have witnessed since childhood. Can English still be ours if we don’t know a phat from a fatty? If we respect traditional rules of spelling and grammar, will we soon be owned?
People with a different mother tongue are less likely to feel an intuitive bond to the particular version of English they learned. But they too can be upset by language change, especially if its effect is to make English seem even less straightforward, even harder to comprehend. Non-native speakers of the language far outnumber those for whom this is the tongue of earliest memory. And the future of English, some linguists now suggest, will depend heavily on those who did not speak it in their childhood.
I will have much to say in this book about the exhilaration that language change provokes, the creativity it embodies. But it can also be deeply problematic. It can leave older people voiceless in their own tongue. It can create havoc for lawyers, teachers, police officers and other professionals. It can divide a community. And what of the cultural loss it incites? The dramatic influx of new words into the language has left no room for thousands of old ones, which beat a quiet retreat into portly dictionaries and half-forgotten classics. Even the hardy survivor words carry meanings that swell or shrink over time.
The result, often, is confusion. We may think we know what a sentence or a paragraph means, but we can easily be deceived. When a language slams its foot down on the accelerator, the past shrinks and blurs in the rear-view mirror. Much of the difficulty we have in understanding the past is semantic—if its language consistently eludes us, so does its spirit, its psychology. The attempt to read any text from a bygone century can, in Coldplay’s words, make us “feel like they’re talking in a language I don’t speak.” And as history becomes unintelligible, we lose touch with the roots of culture.
Consider a few lines from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, still being used in many churches in the twenty-first century. Some of its wording goes back nearly half a millennium, to a time before William Shakespeare was born. I remember, as a boy, being puzzled by the invitation “Come unto me, all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.” Did I travail? Would I be refreshed? A few moments later, the priest declared Jesus to be “the propitiation for our sins.” The what? That verse was prefaced by the command “Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all that truly turn to him.” There the language floored us —not just me, but also the vast majority of worshipers. For “comfortable” doesn’t mean what we naturally assumed it did; it means, to quote the Oxford English Dictionary, strengthening or supporting.” That dictionary gives a dozen meanings for "comfortable”; nine of them were obsolete a century ago.
The Anglican prayer book employs the word in a geriatric sense that could only mislead contemporary readers. It’s a good thing the book doesn’t also—as far as I know—feature manure and commodes. To manure meant to manage or cultivate, which is why an Elizabethan author could say that England was “governed, administered and manured by three sorts of persons.” And a commode, when it sauntered into the language, was a tall headdress worn by fashionable women. Hence an otherwise inexplicable couplet by the minor poet Edward Ward: “Stiff commodes in triumph stared / Above their foreheads half a yard.”
More recent texts also run up against the shifting nature of language. As a university student, I learned a few favorite poems by heart. One of them was “Lapis Lazuli” by the Irish author William Butler Yeats. Its subject is the magnificent persistence of art in times of pain and horror. Written in the mid-1930s, as Europe lurched toward war, “Lapis Lazuli” is, I would still argue, one of the key poems of the last century. But, because of language change, it’s a poem that has become hard to enjoy—even, for young people, to take seriously.
When the aging Yeats wrote, “Two Chinamen, behind them a third, / Are carved in lapis lazuli,” he didn’t know how offensive the term “Chinaman” would become (except in the game of cricket, where it continues to refer to a particular type of delivery from a left-armed spin bowler).When Yeats said, “Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out, / Pitch like King Billy bomb-balls in,” he couldn’t predict that zeppelins would soon be a historical relic, even more antiquated than the expression “bomb-balls. ”When he used the phrases “hysterical women” and “all men have aimed at,” he didn’t know that feminists would dismiss such wording as sexist—his “men” refers to human beings, not just to adult males. And when the poet declared, “All things fall and are built again, / And those that build them again are gay,” he wanted to evoke a brave insouciance in the face of grief. He certainly wasn’t thinking about Judy Garland albums and rainbow bumper stickers.
As a euphemism or proud substitute for “homosexual,” the word “gay” became widespread only in the 1960s. Its origins stretch back much further, perhaps to the Victorian era—although a 1942 Thesaurus of American Slang gives no hint of its current meaning, which spawned the derisive usage I encountered among high school students. Cole Porter could have had no clue about the adjective’s future destiny when in 1932 he entitled a musical Gay Divorce. In “Lapis Lazuli,” Yeats used “gay” four times, making it the poem’s central word. But if you’re a contemporary reader who has grown up equating gay with homosexual, you’ll have a hard time forgetting the familiar meaning. The line “They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay” could well evoke an unwanted image of certain actors; and the poem’s slow, resounding conclusion—“Their eyes, their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay”—verges on the ridiculous.
So far I’ve been speaking about the vocabulary of the past. But there’s another difficulty: its syntax. The sentences we fashion today tend to be a lot shorter than they were in previous centuries, when authors were normally intimate with the rotund cadences of Latin and when they wrote out their texts by hand. Yeats grew up in the nineteenth century.His early readers had no telephones, no radios, no TV sets, no computers—the list of what they didn’t have is almost endless. But they did have one thing most of us lack: time. They didn’t need to hurry their reading. They didn’t gobble sentences like mouthfuls of fast food.
And so they expected, even welcomed ornately sculpted phrases. They were at ease with sentences so complex that the syntax resembles architecture, and with a formal register of language that strikes most of us today as puffed up. To the great reformer William Wilberforce, a hundred-word sentence was merely routine. One of his finest pieces of writing—An Appeal to the Religion, Justice, and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire, in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies—was published in London in 1823. A typical sentence begins like this: “For then, on the general ground merely of the incurable injustice and acknowledged evils of slavery, aggravated, doubtless, by the consideration that it was a slavery forcibly opposed on unoffending men for our advantage . . .”
He hasn’t got to the main verb yet. He hasn’t even got to the subject.
Wilberforce’s lifelong struggle against slavery is the subject of Michael Apted’s 2007 film Amazing Grace. The good characters in the movie say straightforward things like “To hell with caution!” and “Remember, God made men equal” and “If there’s a bad taste in your mouth, spit it out.” The evil characters speak pompously: “We have no evidence that the Africans themselves have any objection to the trade. ”We can’t be sure, of course, exactly how Wilberforce talked; in conversation he’s unlikely to have waited more than thirty words before reaching the subject of a sentence. It’s clear, even so, that the film makes his enemies speak in an idiom reasonably true to the age—whereas Wilberforce, to appear heroic in our eyes, talks like us. We mistrust oratory. We like our heroes plainspoken.
Reading the past, we often stumble over the words we encounter. The words that are missing may be just as significant. Although Huck Finn is an adolescent boy, Mark Twain never conceived of him as a “teenager,” for teenagers had not yet, so to speak, been invented. Oscar Wilde was undoubtedly a pederast, but how much sense does it make to call him gay? If we do so, we pluck him out of the nineteenth century and deposit him in ours. People in the past lived free of concepts from our own time, just as we walk around in blithe ignorance of ideas that will seem self-evident to our grandchildren. Those ideas will rely on words that have not yet been born.
And then there’s Shakespeare, the supreme cultural icon for writers and readers of English. Without knowing it, we repeat his words every day of our lives; they’ve become part of the fabric of our mental life. Brevity is the soul of wit, but if there’s method in my madness, it might be too much of a good thing to lay it on with a trowel—there you have four Shakespearean phrases in half a sentence. He was an avid punster and word coiner too: the adjectives “vulnerable,” “laughable,” “barefaced” and “well-bred” all sprang to life in his plays. (So did “critic” as a noun and “puke” as a verb.) Knowledge of his work has often been considered essential to a humane education.
Yet in some eyes that notion betrays insufferable elitism. “It seems there are two kinds of people out there,” the playwright and theater director Kim Selody told me: “those who were taught the plays in such a way that they knew what they were about, and those like me who somehow missed the story. Those that know the stories are in a club. I remember being in grade ten and studying Macbeth. We were asked to read the play on our own. The teacher jumped to the poetry and metaphors and allusions. I never really knew what the hell was going on. By the time I got to theater school and college, I was too embarrassed to admit that I really didn’t know the stories and would just fake it.” There are, Selody is convinced, countless fakers.
In the late 1980s, by then an established writer for young people, he took the plots of The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and Twelfth Night and adapted them for children. A play called Suddenly Shakespeare was the result. “The main question I was responding to was ‘What the heck is going on?’ I purposely chose modern, simple language for the storytellers.” But his choice of words gave rise to dissent: “Some of those in the club felt I was ruining the poetry of his work. This was a conscious choice on my part, because it was the poetry and allusions that had kept the story hidden from me.”
Actors can work small miracles to get some of Shakespeare’s meaning across, even when a word has fallen out of use—“the multitudinous seas incarnadine” becomes a bit less puzzling on the lips of a good Macbeth. But no performer conveys the exact rhymes that Shakespeare intended: in his day, “meet” and “mate,” “see” and “say” were homonyms. And an actor’s hardest challenge comes when very common words have altered in meaning. Addressing Ariel in act four of The Tempest, Prospero tells the sprite: “So, with good life / And observation strange, my meaner ministers / Their several kinds have done.” None of those words are unusual. But do you have any clue what he’s talking about? In that brief passage, “life,” “strange,” “meaner,” ministers,” “several” and “kinds” all mean something different to Prospero than they do to you and me. To avoid such perplexity, many theater directors turn the Bard into slapstick, forcing their actors to ham up every speech with overblown gestures and endless bits of stage business. Shakespeare’s plays and poems have, in truth, become profoundly foreign to most speakers of his own language. The same fate has befallen the work of his contemporary Miguel de Cervantes (they died a few days apart in April 1616), perhaps the greatest writer in Spanish. “For most readers,” the Hispanic scholar Orlando Alba told me, “it is very difficult (maybe impossible) to read and understand the original version of El Quijote. What students read in school is in fact a ‘translation’ to modern Spanish.” The difficulties occur in both the vocabulary and the grammar. Cervantes has been left behind by the language he did so much to shape and by readers who remain in his debt. Similarly, audiences who watch Shakespeare’s plays in a foreign language are liable to have a lot more fun than audiences who battle to decipher his English. The rapid pace of language change is making it harder and harder to produce his work in a way that an English-speaking crowd can comprehend.
Difficult, but maybe not impossible. “You don’t need to do slapstick to make Shakespeare come alive,” Leslee Silverman insists. “What you need to find is the emotional meaning behind the words. That hasn’t changed.” Silverman, who has achieved wonders as the artistic director of Manitoba Theatre for Young People, believes that “what the kids are hard-wired to feel is a response to the despair, to the compassion, to the big stories that are in language.” When her company put on Romeo and Juliet in 2001, “we gave it the eye candy—a fashion walkway, with the kids on the one side being Montagues, the kids on the other side Capulets. ”Dressed in club gear, they danced to loud funk music. But apart from adding a little slang— the friar, realizing that Juliet had swallowed poison, blurted “Holy jumpin’ Jesus!”—the production didn’t mess around with the language. Why not? asked a local critic. “If the stage was modern, the costumes were modern and the music was modern, then why wasn’t the English? Perhaps the contemporary pizzazz was for the kids and the diction meant to appeal to the cultural desires of the parents. Either way, this was the only shortcoming.” But for many, it was a shortcoming that effectively ruined the experience. “The children around me,” the critic noted, “had a hard time understanding what was going on.”
To Kim Selody, “language and its use is clearly the issue. Those parts of Shakespeare’s writings that have fallen out of use today create a barrier to understanding the story.” If we value the stories, we may have to detach them from Shakespeare’s spectacular words. That’s a painful task. But when Selody is asked to justify his rewriting of the Bard, he reminds his critics that a child in a North American city now may well be somebody who “speaks English as a second language and whose cultural history is the Ramayana epic poem. I always like to ask those who are in the club, ‘Do you know the story of the Ramayana?’”
Most of this book will examine language change as it affects English, although these pages will also have a good deal to say about Japanese and French. Yet the dilemmas that beset English seldom afflict English alone. The world’s most prominent languages are all in a state of flux. Let’s take a quick look at another tongue caught between the weight of tradition and the demands of the new: Arabic.
Of the world’s six thousand or so languages, Arabic and Hebrew appear to have the most invested in stability. Devout Muslims, like Orthodox Jews, believe their sacred texts are the immutable word of God. Christians, by contrast, read the Bible in translation, and their scriptures are subject to remorseless updating—in a twenty-first-century version from Australia, the Virgin Mary is described as a “pretty special sheila” who gives birth to “God’s toddler.” But in Islam, nobody can alter what God has said. Some Arabic texts from what we call the Middle Ages suggested that errors in language were also errors in morality—grounds, in fact, for damnation. So is Arabic immune to change? After all, the language of the Qur’an—fusha, to use its proper name—“is also the written language of classical Arabic literature, as well as the language of officialdom throughout Arab and Islamic history to this modern day.”
The words are those of Issa Boullata, a distinguished Palestinian scholar of the Qur’an. Its text was written down—having been, in believers’ eyes, revealed to the Prophet through the angel Gabriel—in what we call the seventh century. The fusha has provided a linguistic model ever since, one that is now heard daily on radio and television as well as in mosques and schools. Dubai even sponsors a lucrative competition, held each year during the sacred month of Ramadan, when boys and young men fromaround the world attempt to recite the 77,000 or so words of the Qur’an from memory, devoid of error or hesitation. Thanks to the fusha, Boullata explains, “if Arabs from different countries meet today, they will be able to speak in classical Arabic and have full understanding, especially in formal situations.”
Yet time has transformed the language’s very syntax. Most sentences in the classical tongue—the language of the Qur’an—follow a verb-subject-object order. But in daily life, the majority of Arabic-speakers now do what we do, and put the subject first. Not that they place much value on their everyday speech; most of them ascribe high value only to a form of the language that has been static for 1,300 years. They understand classical Arabic, they revere it, they love it—and they rarely hold a conversation in it. “If each person speaks in his or her own dialect,” Boullata adds, “they will still understand each other, but sometimes with humorous misunderstandings.” The confusion shows that in spite of the Qur’an’s majestic presence, Arabic has undergone dramatic change.
Stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf, it has a host of spoken dialects, some of which enjoy much higher prestige than others. The wealthy citizens of Beirut, for example, have tended to look down their noses at the accent of Palestinian refugees. Bedouins, villagers and city dwellers pronounce Arabic in different ways, often using different words to do so. So when pan-Arabic TV networks like al-Jazeera give voice to the colloquial language, they have to be careful not to confound their audience. Jokes and songs from one region of the Arabic-speaking world may be unfathomable in another.
Arabic has always been willing to accept a modicum of foreign words. For every al-jabr it gave to Europe, a faylasuf would arrive in return (think “algebra,” think “philosopher”). But since the early twentieth century, Boullata says, new inventions and scientific words “have been coming at such a fast speed that it was not easy always to find new Arabic terms, and people often resorted to adopting the foreign terms. So you have telefon, telefizion, teleghram, etc.” Some of the borrowings led to innovations: to make a phone call in Arabic is talfana. Journalists were often the first to coin a word “because they needed to describe new inventions quickly to the readers; hence sarukh for rocket, for example. Sarukh was derived from the verb sarakha, to scream; therefore a rocket is the thing that screams as it is shot up in the air. And this word is still used successfully.” The journalists outpaced the linguists. Like Persian, French, Spanish and many other languages, Arabic has an academy to guide and regulate it; in fact it has several. “But,” Boullata says, “what with scholarly discussions and debates, these academies are too slow in developing new terms in relation to the speed needed to use them in daily communication. A joke is told that they invented a term for ‘sandwich,’ and it is the following: al-shatir wal-mashtur wal-kamikh baynahuma (the divider and the divided and the mixed pickles between them).”
Today, whether in Algiers or Cairo, Damascus or Baghdad, a wide gap separates the simplified grammar and diction used in the congested slums from the elevated style deployed by intellectuals. As a mother tongue, Arabic is growing at a faster rate than any other major language, and its speakers are on average younger. The implications are political as well as cultural. “The calls for holy war that adorn the walls in slums throughout the Middle East,” Chris Hedges wrote in the New York Times, are written not in classical Arabic but in “a far simpler argot . . . Expressed in the cruder rhythms and pronunciations of street language, they become almost incomprehensible to educated Arabs, only widening a dangerous gulf between an elite that looks to the West and an enraged underclass.” The jagged divisions within Arab society are mirrored by divisions in the language itself. Hedges proposed an analogy: “What if 80 or 90 percent of Americans spoke every day in the brutal and angry cadences of gangsta rap, while the members of a feudal upper class mused over their own demise in Elizabethan English?”
Even so, the combined influences of Islam, economic modernization and the mass media reduce the likelihood that the various dialects of Arabic will splinter into separate languages. The lasting power of the Qur’an should never be underestimated. It gives God a mother tongue, from which any change can appear an unworthy deviation. English has no such stabilizing text: it feeds on novelty. Changes are its meat and drink. There remains, nonetheless, something a little uncanny about the process by which newborn expressions spread through society. Steven Pinker, who appears to know nearly everything about the inner workings of English, confesses in his 2007 book The Stuff of Thought that “the fortunes of new words are a mystery” and that “we still can’t predict when a new word will take root.” Pinker suggests that the most arresting neologisms are often ones that wither and die, for instead of merely naming something, they deliver an implicit editorial. “Soccer mom” has settled into American English, but the more recent “security mom”—a female voter worried about terrorism— may not last for long. Comment is free, and it goes out of date fast.
To a writer, the prodigal scope and diversity of English are both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because the language offers juicy specimens of almost any verbal trend you can imagine. But also a curse, because anything you say about English is liable to contradiction. In Melbourne, “garry” means to flirt; in Liverpool, it means an ecstasy tablet. What applies to a verb in Portland, Oregon, may not apply in Portland, Dorset, still less in Portland Cottage, Jamaica. The dispersal, flowering and transformation of English around the world raise a crucial question: will this remain a single language? Perhaps it will soon be an act of nostalgia to speak about English in the singular. For a time, the future may belong not to English but to Englishes.
Because of political, cultural and economic reasons, rather than strictly linguistic ones, today’s English has a charismatic power. Ambitious people everywhere thirst to master the language. But as other idioms blur into it, especially in Asia and Africa, and as the many kinds of English spoken outside Britain and North America become louder and more confident, the language may be approaching an irrevocable split. Indian English, for example, is distinctive not just in its word-hoard, but also in aspects of its grammar and phonetics. French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and several other languages all branched out of Latin. It’s conceivable that English will be the Latin of the new millennium.
Conceivable, but not inevitable. The combined influences of global business, media, politics, Hollywood and the Internet have an awesome linguistic power. They entail instant communication and instant comprehension, a requirement that may prove strong enough to pull English back from the brink of schism. The Roman Empire did not have CNN or Microsoft at its disposal. For the moment, a rough balance appears to exist between the forces working to pull English apart and those laboring to keep it united. The language’s long-term future depends on which tendency— the centrifugal or the centripetal—proves stronger.
Its short-term future promises yet more growth. In 1997 the British Council released a major report by the linguist David Graddol entitled The Future of English? The question mark is significant, for Graddol’s uncertainty matched his erudition. The growth of English, he argued, is unlikely to happen in a straightforward or predictable manner: “On the one hand, the use of English as a global lingua franca requires intelligibility and the setting and maintenance of standards. On the other hand, the increasing adoption of English as a second language, where it takes on local forms, is leading to fragmentation and diversity. No longer is it the case, if it ever was, that English unifies all who speak it.” Beyond question, fragmentation and diversity have grown in the past few decades. Yet unless democratic governments are replaced by totalitarian ones, it’s unclear who could possibly set and maintain the standards Graddol mentioned. I find it hard to imagine any organization with the breadth and authority to accomplish such a task. Still, for the first time in decades the heretical idea of regulating English is at least being discussed.
Graddol returned to the topic in a 2006 study, English Next. There he predicted that as early as 2010 or 2015, “nearly a third of the world population will all be trying to learn English at the same time.” The demand for teachers and texts will be intense. “One Korean Internet provider,” he notes, “is offering English courses for fetuses still in the womb.” Never in human history has a single language been so widespread. “English is now,” Graddol writes, “redefining national and individual identities worldwide; shifting political fault lines; creating new global patterns of wealth and social exclusion; and suggesting new notions of human rights and responsibilities of citizenship.” That’s an awful lot of power for any language to bear. But what exactly has this language become, and how might it change?
In the remaining chapters I’ll approach the linguistic future in a few sly, perhaps surprising ways. Texts that tell you precisely what to expect in the decades ahead are not just misleading, they’re fraudulent—nobody knows what the future holds, in language or anything else. This book is not a crystal ball.
The future has always been cloudy; it always will be. It’s best approached, I believe, by looking keenly and closely at what’s happening now in the world, without prejudices or preconceptions. Such scrutiny will reveal a few common themes. Whether it be the growth of chatroom speech among teenagers or the rise of mixed idioms like Spanglish, we’ll discover that people with little political or economic power can exert enormous influence on language. And whether it be the impact that English is having on Japanese or the effect that Asian languages are having on English, we’ll find a tension between the informal and formal registers of language —between the top-down and the bottom-up forces that lead to verbal change. Although the language may not be going to hell in a handbasket— what is a handbasket, anyway?—some of its speakers appear ready to burninate a noob.
Talk 2u l8r.