The language of the English people, far from being insular linguistically and culturally, has become the most powerful vehicle of modern thought around the world. English arrived in various regions of Asia and Africa as part of British imperialism ~ as part of “the white man’s burden” ~ to dominate those who had been subjugated politically and economically.
In fact, it was introduced as an instrument to preserve the hegemony and hierarchy created by imperialist rulers. Admittedly, it ended the unhealthy sway of “European culture”. In two centuries, English stuck such deep roots in the lands of its implantation that the number of people who speak it as a second and foreign language has by now exceeded the number of native speakers.
It is now imperative to say that over time, through its abundant use as the first language, second language and official language across the globe, the British have had to forfeit ownership and proprietary rights over the language. As the use of English widens, it is becoming more localized with different cultures, absorbing words and expressions from those languages to make an English of their own. This language continues to bask on global sunshine.
The extent of variation in its usage, its structure and its pronunciation has become bewildering. No longer able to hold out against the onslaught from all corners, it is feared, the Queen’s English will soon become unrecognizable. There must be some substance in the agony expressed, some time ago, by the right-wing Cambridge academic John Carey: “World English is the worst thing that could happen to us. It will mean that English of England and the British Isles will come to be seen as just one dialect among the many… We will be engulfed by computer speak, international science speak, Unesco speak and international business lingo.”
The lexicographers of the new millennium are rather nonplussed to find that the growing status of English has stimulated the spread of the language like some tropical plant spreading its gigantic tendrils. English remains no longer the foreign oppressor’s language, nor is it exclusive or elitist; it has become the common property of millions of ordinary people across the globe. English can no longer be said to be a British language as originally held by James Murray in the first Oxford English Dictionary; it is now “a house of many mansions”, as Doris Lessing would have put it.
English could not remain limited to Britain. When the Mayflower sailed with all those English people who were later known as Americans, it went along too, and in the unexplored continent influenced by the Redskins, it flourished. When convicts were shipped to Australia, it overwhelmed the aboriginal language, and grew. And, when the settlers and explorers went to Canada and made homes there in the heart of the French domain, it reigned too. In the colonial era, to ensure that work went on smoothly and a new class was created,
English was taught to the natives, and in the process this language became a part of their politics. English in two centuries struck deep roots in other lands. One can see it as an interesting linguistic phenomenon in the Indian scenario that a larger number of Indians now speak and write the language than under British rule. The same was the case with many other countries as well, and today it is native language for more than 30 countries including Great Britain, Ireland, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. It is the second language in about 75 countries including India, Pakistan, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, while it is a foreign language for Japan, China, Russia, West Germany, Saudi Arabia and others.
By the end of the 16th century, the number of native speakers of English was said to have been between 5 and 7 million. Between the end of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign in 1603 and the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth lI in 1952, the figure grew to be around 250 million. Now an estimated 1,500 million or more are exposed to English, according to an observation made by David Crystal. The language has expanded rapidly with its rich vocabulary, of which 80 per cent is foreign – borrowed from Spanish, French, Hebrew, Arabic, Hindi, Urdu, Chinese and so on. Now we have Indian English, Australian English, Canadian English, Caribbean English, American English, New Zealand English, and even within Britain, Irish, Scottish and Welsh English.
There is one group in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka – generally called South Asian English. There is yet another group in the former British colonies in West Africa and another group in the former British colonies in East Africa. In the UK, too, there are different dialects of English. The language spoken in Wales or Scotland is different from what is spoken in the South. There are between 200 and 300 languages spoken in London alone. People sometimes say English accents and dialects are dying out, but more accurately it is a small number of rural accents dying out, replaced by new urban ones, some of which cool British youngsters find extremely exciting.
For instance, Jamaican and many Asian-English speakers use a different stress pattern stressing each syllable of a word instead of just one. Many Asian languages also have what linguists call a “question tag”, a one-word device to turn any sentence into a question. British-Asians have recently adopted the cockney-sounding innit? to stand in for their native question tag. Indonesians quite often combine an Indonesian suffix, prefix, preposition or possessive pronoun with an English word. In Singapore, the government finds the English trend a nuisance, which tends to blend English with words from other languages, such as Chinese dialects.
The English language as it is written and spoken on the English-speaking West Indian islands had really started as a pidgin ~ the means of communication between white English, French, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese masters and their black slaves. In 400 years of colonial rule, the pidgin attained a lovely and colourful colloquial form. Often the pattern was embellished with genuine English words.
The Americans, like Indians, went through a phase of getting rid of the British, but adopted their language and allowed it to flourish on American soil. The resultant language is somewhat different from its British counterpart, which prompted Bernard Shaw to say: “England and America are two countries separated by the same language”, since the latter has followed the former as a place where, in the words of Professor Higgins, “English has completely disappeared”.
The Americans have freed their language from the tyranny of passive voice. When the British signboard says, “Trespassing prohibited”, the American version would be, “Do not walk”. Yes is the only way of expressing agreement. America, on the other hand, with somewhat less cultured ancestors has its own way of saying yes. Yankees have a plethora of words replacing the bland yes with yep, yup, yeah and sometimes yass. The man from Cambridge, England and the man from Cambridge, USA speak two different tongues. The Englishman gets his railway ticket from a booking clerk; the American buys it from a ticket seller. One buys his toothpaste from a chemist while the other gets it from a druggist. “Don’t overtake” becomes “Don’t pass” in the US. When a receptionist in a British hotel asks, “May I help you?”, it really suggests, “What is your business here? You can’t be loitering about this place”.
In Britain, if you knock up a woman, you awaken her in the morning by banging on her bedroom door; in the US the same phrase means that you make her pregnant. An Englishman asked an American lady, “How many children do you have?” and it provoked laughter as ‘do’ meant ‘always’. An American lady was asked to remove her vest by a British doctor. He meant her undershirt, but in American English it meant underwear. The situation was embarrassing.
Interestingly, a decade ago, a body called the Queen’s English Society, in Britain, which had crusaded for good English for 40 years, collapsed owing to public apathy. It is ironic that the Society itself wrote and punctuated English so badly that no one took much notice.
(The writer, a former Associate Professor, department of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata, is presently with Rabindra Bharati University and is the author of the recently published book English, Quo Vadis)