20 December, 2010

How English evolved into a global language

As the British Library charts the evolution of English in a new major exhibition, author Michael Rosen gives a brief history of a language that has grown to world domination with phrases such as "cool" and "go to it".

The need for an international language has always existed. In the past it was about religion and intellectual debate. With the technologies of today, it's about communicating with others anywhere in the world in a matter of moments.


As a translator and linguist, I've always felt soooo lucky that English is my first language. It can be learned at so many levels; it can be massacred by English MT and foreign language speakers alike, and still keep its basic meaning relatively intact; it is quite mutable and adaptable -- can be concise and brutal or expansive and flourish-ridden. It's not easy to truly learn well -- few people have a ferrous-like grip on the grammar -- and yet the basics can be picked up quickly by speakers of many different language families.

Upon a quick search for a quotation that was printed in the NYPL Writer's Guide -- one decrying nobly and eloquently the need for good grammar in order to be a good communicator, lest the creative human mind read any other meaning into what you have written other than the one you intended to express -- I found instead a much more succinct, if less eloquent, expression of this:

Grammar is important. Capitalization is the difference between helping your Uncle Jack off a horse, and your uncle jack off a horse. Rather lurid, but the point hits home quickly.


Chez said...

Meh, context is everything. Few of us pronounce our capital letters, and you can find arguments for capitalisation of all kinds. Germans can similarly come up with plenty of arguments for retaining their current system, for making it clear if they're talking about "der gefangene Floh" or if it's more interesting to know that "der Gefangene floh".

Bill Chapman said...

An interesting posting! In my view, English is fairly widespread but far from universal. Have you ever considered learning and using Esperanto? I recommend it. I've been using it on my travels for many years.

Katy Zei, Katherine Zei said...

German isn't quite as global a language, though it certainly does possess linguistic devices that are quite handy. But who is asking them not to retain their system? Certainly not I.

In business, English is/was fairly universal. It could get supplanted by Spanish and/or Mandarin (or Russian, or German... my crystal ball broke, can't see the future anymore ;) sometime relatively soon. But Latin wasn't ousted as a business (i.e. church) language for centuries, and it's hard to compare the two.

Esperanto is a useful, general tool if you can't resort or learn a lot of other languages. But I wouldn't recommend it learned to be used on a regular basis, or in replacement of other languages. I speak six so Esperanto would be a bit superfluous, I think.