|Trans||Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften||16. Nr.||Mai 2006|
Stanislava Kostadinova (South-Western University of Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria)
This article regards the consequences of the use of English as a lingua franca, the motivation for the existence of a global international language, the choice of English to be that language, and the reasons for the extinction or the evolution of some languages whose bearers have been in contact with the Western culture and English language.
The use of English as an international language has brought about some lexico-semantic, morphological and even syntactic interferences. The question is whether English will be a better alternative to the national languages separating world cultures today.
It is important to find out whether the use of that global language would open doors for the multicultural interaction of emancipated cultures or will it put an end to original self-expression of smaller national traditions blending them in a unified global stream.
People know that communication and information means power; that is why they have always striven to possess the key to control that power. Nowadays time and space are easily bridged, but there are still things that separate people - different languages, religions, cultures. Problems arise when people belonging to different cultures have different expectations for the way one is supposed to talk, look, and behave. It is also a problem for two people speaking different languages to choose the language of communication, because the choice will mean that one of the languages has higher status than the other. That is why people need a language which does not bear deep marks of identity. According to Fishman, English is not "ideologically encumbered" (Pennycook following Fishman, 1988: 201) - that is why it happens to be that unmarked language which is used as a means for communication even in Asia, where many of the countries institute language policies which denigrate the use of English as the language of the former colonizers and, at present, the language of decadent Western values. English or Globish is a reflection of the globalized world. According to Samuel Huntington on the one hand a language which is unknown to 92% of the world population cannot be called a global language, but on the other hand a language which is used by people from different cultures, religions, nations in order to communicate may be called global. In this respect English is a means of communication and not a marker of identity. According to the same author, Chinese people regarding themselves as the leaders of Asia expect the other East Asian countries to start using Mandarin Chinese in parallel to English and eventually only Mandarin as a language for wider communication (Huntington, 1996). What is obvious is that the most powerful nation always strives to establish its power by expansion at every level and every sphere - economics, culture, religion and language. At present the West and especially the USA have the most powerful economy on the planet. Western societies are the most prosperous, and that encourages them to think that they are always right and better than other civilizations; and as it has happened in the past they try to convey their way of living to other countries, and eventually to rule other countries’ destinies. This Western aggression brought about the revival of ethnic, cultural and religious values in different countries threatened by Western cultural invasion. As Pennycook writes:
This Islamic consciousness has been undergoing a period of revival, perhaps in part in conjunction with or in opposition to what seems to be a global trend towards religious fundamentalism, perhaps also as a response to the threats posed by the spread of Western technology, knowledge and culture (Pennycook, 1996: 205).
Such reactions are typical of previous colonies of Western countries. The very fact that these people heard English for the first time from the missionaries whose aim was to turn Muslims into Christians makes them reject not only the language of the colonizers but also everything that comes from that world. On the other hand, there are factors that make them act in another way - the economic factors. If we compare Malaysia to Singapore (two former British colonies where the use of English has taken totally different directions), we will find the motivating factors for the use or non-use of English in the different quantities of natural resources of these two countries. The widespread use of English in Singapore may be explained by the lack of natural resources and the need for this country to become a trading centre in the global economy, while Malaysia is more determined to oppose the spread of English due to the country’s considerable natural resources and the consequent options for its development (Pennycook, 1996: 185). One may say that this comparison may well be true for all the other countries or regions - the poorer countries are more dependent on the outer world and on the rules imposed by the strongest economy (that is the US), while the richer countries do not need to trade so much and import goods from outside. That is why learning English is of less importance to them. These and many other facts led me to think that a common language cannot exist and to overcome the Tower of Babel is still and will always be an illusion of the people.
But still English is a basic factor in the development of many languages today. The Spaniards talk of Spanglish. In Singapore there is Singlish, while in Bulgaria people use so many English loan words that sometimes the message becomes swamped by jargon, i.e. the new information is so overwhelming that one cannot assimilate it. English is now being learnt by every young person in Bulgaria, and they all use it in their youth jargon. That, however, creates a barrier between generations. When this jargon is used in the media, many people are unable to understand the message. That phenomenon is common for countries in transition.
A former communist state, Bulgaria was until recently oriented towards the leader of the communist world - Russia. It used to trade mainly with Russia and learning Russian was compulsory at school. The Russian language was the basic source of loanwords during the 45 years of communism. Today, after having experienced the disappointment of the communist system, most of the Russian borrowings have a rather negative connotation among Bulgarians and they are used ironically in most cases. There is a similar situation in the former British colony, Singapore, where old values and traditions have been replaced by Western-oriented lifestyles and value-systems. That is mainly due to the fact that being part of the English-speaking society is almost equivalent to being successful or having a higher social position. People who have studied in Chinese schools and universities have real problems finding jobs. This comparison is made because both countries have experienced periods of transition and consequent language changes, both of them so different in historical, cultural, religious and traditional background, and yet influenced by the same forces - Western values and the English language. These changes have brought about enormous gaps between generations. In Singapore, cases are not rare where a young person has difficulties to communicate with his/her grandparents because they speak different languages (Pennycook, 1996: 222). In Bulgaria, the breakdown in communication is also possible, though the reasons for it are quite different. The fact is that our parents used to study Russian, French and German, but there were few who studied English. Nowadays, they have real difficulties in understanding the flood of loanwords entering Bulgarian through English. The frequent use of English loan words, as has been observed, may lead to communication breakdown.
There have always been borrowings in every language and they do not endanger the existence of a language. The borrowing of words stimulates language development. According to Sapir, the most usual manner in which language A influences language B is through the borrowing of vocabulary. In this way the borrowing language is open to phonetic, morphological, or semantic influence. Or, as Sapir writes in Language, the possibilities of one language causing change in another through the usual cultural contacts of their users can also be explained at the phonetic, morphological, and conceptual levels (Sapir, 1921: 171). The transfer of one word is something greater than the mere transfer of its meaning. Through the borrowing of the English word gentleman for example, we borrowed not only the idea of a man who is polite and behaves well towards other people, especially women or a man of a high social class (cf. Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary), we also borrowed the real gentlemen and following the idea of a gentleman we created them in our society. It means that enriching one’s vocabulary is the same as enriching one’s knowledge of the world or vice versa, since language is the reflection of life.
However, many of the new loanwords are not adapted to the Bulgarian morphological system. Many borrowings from English do not accept the morphological markers for gender in Bulgarian; others are unable to form a plural. Words denoting persons like manager, doctor, minister and deputy have entered Bulgarian only with their form for masculine. This problem was studied in Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria 2000 years ago. Quintilian’s goal "was to determine whether Greek loanwords in Latin should be adapted to Latin or kept in their original Greek form, and whether the loans should be inflected following the Greek or the Latin pattern" (Zamora, 1998). On this issue, Zamora writes:
Since the lending and the receiving languages will have differences in their morphologies and phonologies, the migration will require changes. The loanword will not be identical to the original lexical item in the lending language. The migration may result in major or minor semantic changes; it will definitely result in changes in morphology and phonology, which may or may not be reflected in its spelling.
But still there are foreign words in Bulgarian that violate Bulgarian morphological rules. This is probably due to the prestige of English today, and as Quintilian observes, the fact that custom [usage] prevails over authority. And though I do not believe in strict definitions, formal categories and linguistic trends yet in this context I cannot refrain from mentioning the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which says that we are "at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for our society" because we cannot but see and hear and otherwise experience (Whorf, 1989). My question is, if there is any truth in this hypothesis what makes Bulgarians, who have always divided the objects in the world according to their gender and therefore have seen them accordingly, change their way of seeing the world according to the English custom? Does it mean that the non-adaptation of a foreign word somehow moulds the perception of the denoted object/concept by the speakers of the receiving language? I realize that when I hear the words minister, doctor, deputy - which as I have already said have entered Bulgarian without markers for gender - I regard these people only as specialists, whereas when I use the same words marked for gender I perceive the same people in a different way. This, of course, is my own opinion, but that made me think about the power of a language as a code system. Is it possible that the acquisition of foreign language skills changes one’s perception of the world and its objects?
And though loan words may bring about the innovation and development of a language, there is something else which really endangers the existence of a language and that is the adoption of metaphors. In their book Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World’s Languages, Nettle and Romaine explore themes such as globalization and displacement from traditional epistemologies and ontologies as a major reason for language loss. Following the ideas of Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors we live by (1980), they express the opinion that societies undergo rapid changes by adopting new metaphors that express and create a desire to be modern. According to the authors, there is a connection between cultures and their landscape. These connections are lost due to a desire to acquire language skills which are thought to be more profitable. The work of Nettle and Romaine abounds in statistical data. According to this data, 90% of the 250 Australian languages are on the verge of extinction (p. 9). It is all a question of power, given that power relationships play a central role in the process of language loss.
On the other hand, if we consider the number of English words used in everyday conversation - sixteen thousand out of half a million (ibid, p. 59) -, we will see that there is good ground for the rise of a local slang which is a mixture of the global language (English) and the traditional local language. Such a slang is Singlish - Singapore Colloquial English. In his article entitled "Improve your Singlish", Abley (2005) says:
The remorseless sprawl of English has given much of the world a lingua franca: ours [...] The impact on some minority languages has been severe. But lately I’ve come to realize that the spread of English can also have a very different effect: it has helped to create a space where new forms of language can emerge (The Times, 03. 12. 2005).
Singlish "grows out of a raw, rough, vibrant mix of English, Malay, Tamil, and the languages of China, Hokkien in particular." The author of this article begins with an expression picked up in a Singapore pub - "Last time policeman also wear shorts". He wondered whether that was a commentary on local fashion, but all it meant was: "That’s nothing new". Later on, he learnt that people speaking Singlish use local expressions almost every time they feel nervous or angry. A Tamil lawyer said to him: "Profanities come to me most easily in Hokkien." Of course, there are lots of Singapore expressions that do not come from Hokkien or any other Chinese idiom. For example the local equivalent of "I don’t know what" is "very what one".
There are plenty of examples of English being adapted to local traditions, dialects, phonology. A Jamaican singer, Sean Paul, has the following line in his song: "Me want fi see you get live ‘pon the riddim weh me ride." And as Abley says, Paul has not only adapted Jamaican dialect for an international audience but he also gets rich in the process.
With all these examples, one may clearly see that the standardizing force of the new lingua franca is not so strong. English is used by millions of people everyday and everywhere on the planet. But is it Standard English or some other kind?
The language is as elastic as a rubber band. [...] language is evolving at unprecedented speed - evolving? Dude, it’s morphing. The policeman has no shorts (Abley, 2005).
Until that point we have seen the two opposite processes going on together - English is both conquering new territories and devastating old languages and at the same time it is decaying at other places.
Or as Budhwar (2005) writes in The Times:
Has English achieved the status of the world language or is it becoming a mother tongue on foreign soils? Replacing the inherent variety of human expressions and thoughts in distant lands would be like cutting off the supply of oxygen. While it is an advantage to everyone that there are millions who use English in addition to their regional languages and their mother tongues, it would be wrong to confuse the role of a world language with that of a mother tongue.
What must be remembered is that every person and every people need to identify themselves and to feel that they belong to a particular place, cultural, religious and linguistic group. A collective mind also has borders, it cannot grow infinitely. The world will never become so united for a person to be able to identify himself with the whole human race. It may happen only if we discover life on other planets and when we start to communicate with alien creatures. Until then we will speak different languages in order to show our identities.
According to Fishman:
Language serves as an important instrument for protecting collective identity and communal cohesion. It is important because it marks the "at-homeness" of a people threatened by cultural homogenization. It has helped to preserve the identity of the Tamils in Sri Lanka; the Turks in Cyprus; the Québécois in Canada; the Ibos and Fulanis in Nigeria; and the Bamileke in Cameroon (Fishman, 1999: 80).
On the problem of ethnic identity and language, Fishman also writes:
It has been claimed that ethnic identity is intrinsically connected with language. Language interweaves the individual’s personal identity with his or her collective ethnic identity. There are several conditions that promote this connection. First, language is very significant to the individual as an instrument for naming the self and the world. Second, the upbringing of a child is dependent on linguistic interaction. Third, spoken language is one of the most salient characteristics of ethnic groups (Fishman, 1999: 144).
Some historians say that Western culture and the spread of English are already declining. It is predicted that the number of English learners will drop from two billion in 2015 to about 500 million in 2050, although the UK currently has a competitive advantage (The Times, 14.12.2004). According to some recent statistical data, the world is rapidly becoming multilingual and English is only one of the languages people are learning; Chinese, Arabic, and Spanish are also likely to be key languages of the future.
And yet, the fact remains that today English is the basic means of international and intercultural communication. The spread of English started in the 19 th century with the establishment of the first English colonies in Africa, Asia, and Australia. Its constant usage by both people whose mother tongue is English and people, who have learnt it away from the places where English is spoken by native speakers, has brought about changes in the Standard English language. The natural tendency for economy in language both in written and in oral form has resulted in the more intensive usage of elliptical sentences, in the adoption of an orthography which is closer to the phonetics of words in the US, many words acquiring new meanings, and many words being recently coined due to the higher flexibility and creativity of English which of course reflects the dynamic changes of the modern world. While in some societies, as in Singapore, English may be morphing, in the UK and the US it is evolving. This situation has led some linguists to demand an already overdue language reform. The Royal Society of Arts organized the first conference to discuss a spelling reform in May 1877. This led to the Spelling Reform Association of Great Britain, and a similar association in the US. But little has been done since then. Some linguists believe that the best decision would be to "achieve conformity in spelling by meekly adopting the customs of American orthography" or rather "a more courageous alternative would be to convene an Anglo-American or international forum on English standardisation (standardization), to reform the more prominent irregularities and inconsistencies of our language" (The Times, 23.04. 2005).
Finally, I think that three basic conclusions can be drawn:
Finally, I will say that it is not we who change the language; it has its own path and it lives a life parallel to ours. It is not we who have power over it; on the contrary, though it serves us we have to obey its rules.
© Stanislava Kostadinova (South-Western University of Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria)
Abley, Mark (2005) "Improve your Singlish" in The Times, UK, 3rd December 2005.
Budhwar, Kailash (2005) "Spread of English as Global Language" in The Times, UK, 24th January 2005.
Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (2003) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
"English is just one key tongue" in The Times , UK, 14th December 2004.
Fishman, Joshua A. (1999) Handbook of Language and Ethnic Identity, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Huntington, Samuel (1997) The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, New York: Touchstone.
Lakoff, G. and M. Johnson (1980) Metaphors We Live By, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Nettle, Daniel and Suzanne Romaine ( 2000) Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World's Languages, New York: Oxford University Press.
Pennycook, Alastair (1996) The Cultural Politics of English, London: Routledge.
Pressinger, Selwyn Hodson (2005) "English Language Reform Overdue" in The Times, UK, 23rd April 2005.
Sapir, Edward (1921) Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.
The Times Higher Education Supplement , UK, 12th October 2004.
Waters, Jen (2004) "Whither English?: Language Shifts with Cultural Changes" in World and I, Volume 19, No. 11.
Whorf, Benjamin Lee (1989) Language, Thought and Reality, Cambridge: M.I.T. Press.
Zamora, Juan C. (1998) "Quintilian on The Adaptation of Loanwords" in Bilingual Review , May-August 1998, Vol.23, No. 2.
1.5. Cultural Dynamism and Language Contact
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