Saturday, March 18, 2006

The (D)evolution of English


English no longer belongs to those of us who speak it as a native language. We do not have control over the language and we will not determine how it develops. In the world today, there are more speakers of English as a second/foreign language than there are speakers of English as a first language.

From the fleet sheet final word:

Telefónica of Spain set a record by using three languages and the periodic table in naming its local Český Telecom/Eurotel merger as Telefónica O2 Czech Republic akciová společnost. This is Spanglicz at its best! Telefónica could have reduced it to mere Czenglish by removing the acento agudo from the “o,” but this grammatical hodgepodge makes a statement. English might be the global language of business, but it’s increasingly foreigners who are setting the rules. The British Council found that communication in English sometimes goes smoother when no native speakers are present. Their superior command of the language can be a headache for those who just want to use their Czenglish, Denglish, Spanglish, Franglais or Spanglicz to get their point across. If native speakers want to remain in the boardroom, they’re the ones who will have to start making most of the language compromises.

I see this phenomenon every day in my work. Communication between Czech lawyers and a Hungarian client, for example, is all in less than perfect English. I hear my Czech colleagues speaking with our German colleague in English. I read the Prague Daily Monitor (, which is all in English, but mostly written by Czechs. And out and about in town, I hear many conversations in English in which none of the interlocutors is a native speaker. Reading Czech menus translated into English is often hilarious. There is a bakery in Prague 6 where chocolate-glazed donuts are presented as ‘darky donuts’ (one of my favourites).

Historically, English has always been influenced by non-native speakers. The earliest influences, which shaped our modern language, were brought about through invasions of Britain – the Scandinavian invasions of the 8th and 9th centuries and the Norman invasion of the 11th century. Just under one-third of our words in modern English are French.

While many speakers of other languages complain that English is invading their own languages (e.g. ‘computer’ or ‘Big Mac’), the same is still happening in the other direction. If you listen to a conversation between two Americans who live in Prague, we will use Czech words when there is no exact English equivalent. The word sídliště, for example, can be translated into ‘housing estate’ in British English or ‘housing development’ or ‘housing project’ in American English, but none of those really expresses the idea of a Czech sídliště so the word sídliště has become part of the Prague English dialect.

Some speakers of English do object to the invasion of foreign words and imperfect grammar, but there is simply no point in protesting as it is in exactly this manner that languages, including English, have always developed.

As James D. Nicoll has said:

The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffle their pockets for new vocabulary.

* Engrish is a Japan-based phenomenon. To see more, visit

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