English Faces 21st Century Challenges

The pre-eminent French language society L’Académie Française is stepping up its activity. Its barely concealed contempt for English language intrusion into the beloved français is legendary, but there are some signs that the protective veneer is wearing thin. Through the medium of the internet and the arena of business, English continues to relentlessly chip away at the French resistance, as it usually does wherever it meets a challenge. Word has it that the Germans are also becoming wary of the virulence of English language influence and are renewing their efforts to safeguard their culture from the long term effects of anglicization.

The English language seems to have a mind of its own, with its remarkable agility, the readiness to bow and bend, to change its girth and to add variety to its flavors, swallowing up tranches of other languages in its quest to maintain linguistic supremacy. And perhaps there’s a lesson in there for the gatekeepers of the other languages to learn:  better a reed that bends in the wind than the brave oak that snaps.

In assuming the title of lingua franca to the world, English has played philanderer and has borrowed or just plain taken possession of any word or expression that feels untranslatable or that tickles its fancy, regardless of the source. Our intrepid tongue has hardly met another it didn’t like.

Take the undersea volcanic earthquake epicentered off the west coast of Sumatra on Boxing Day 2004, for instance, which gave rise to the deadliest tidal wave in recorded history. Only that it was not as a result of tides, and there was no English equivalent for the phenomenon, so the news networks kept recycling the Japanese term tsunami and the old tidal wave went into remission.

We don’t ever think that English has become bastardized, taking on foreign words with such careless abandon, but rather that the language has become richer, more nuanced and subtle. And yet the French hauteur is so uncharitable and out of place, since English holds quite an impressive inventory of Gallic words and phrases which have been worming their way into the language for centuries, long before one single English dialect was canonized supreme.

But even as this universal language has played the field with regard to its boundless vocabulary and standard dialects in myriad linguistic communities, there is one area that remains more fiercely guarded by the gatekeepers ensconced at Oxford: the holy of holies, the grammar, or the science of the language. Mess with the lexicon all you want, but the grammar is off-limits. The rules that provide skeletal structure to the language have been traditionally non-negotiable, except in rare cases where overwhelming popular usage (or misuse) prompted a grudging and sober acknowledgment of even the most trivial change of the rules. Time magazine had predicted some time ago that the use of whom will disappear by the end of the 21st century, just as use of thee, thy and thou died by the end of the 18th Century except in Quaker circles or with those who insisted on speaking the language of the King James bible.

It has been accepted that spelling variances do exist among the dialects of Standard English, the chief being those between Standard British and Standard American English usages, and the jury is still out concerning the pesky flammable and inflammable, meaning the same on opposite sides of the Atlantic, though dangerous if indiscriminately used in an international milieu. Still, one tiny character is threatening to drive dour English language grammarians over the edge, and that is the frequent non-standard use of the apostrophe, a punctuation mark with its primary functions as marking possession, contractions and omissions.

Incorrect usage is perceived to be on a scale now endemic, and has been the source of frequent heated debates in the birthplace of the language. The British founder of the Apostrophe Protection Society — yes, there now exists one — was awarded a 2001 Ig Nobel prize (a parody of the Nobel awards and a play on the word ignoble; go look it up) for his efforts to “protect, promote and defend the differences between plural and possessive.”

And in the meanwhile, in Britain, the OCR, the Oxford Cambridge and RSA Examinations board, stated in its October 2004 report that “the inaccurate use of the apostrophe is so widespread as to be almost universal”, and a further 2008 survey found that close to half of the adults polled in the United Kingdom routinely used the apostrophe incorrectly. Quelle horreur!

At first glance, the confusion arises with the possessive pronouns yours, hers, ours, its, theirs, and whose with who’s as in who is. It worsens with the arbitrary adding of the apostrophe to precede the s in pluralizing nouns, especially where the plural form requires the addition of an e. Hence, one bench becomes two bench’s, and every other plural noun is laced with the punctuation, the result of hypercorrection. But the problems are more complex than can be explained without this becoming a grammar lesson, and they are causing the hair of the English language purists to stand on end.

Fortunately our own Jamaican Creole faces no such threat from its mother tongue or any other. It already boasts an English lexicon base, but stubbornly retains its simple skeletal structure and coins new words and idioms as certain elements of the culture see fit, being more of an intruder into other languages than it is itself threatened by them.

The punctuation anarchy used to get on my nerves until I realized that with the ubiquity of the internet and the institution of text messaging, the world’s premier language would soon have greater challenges to face, when Cambridge and Oxford are faced with abridged English, in the form of text messagespeak. Resistance may be futile. The French Academy and the German language watchdog group may have to forego the fight to keep English at bay, when they also come face to face with this real enemy, perhaps one of the most salient expressions pertaining to the emerging Zeitgeist of the 21st Century.

     

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