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A Dolphin or a Lonely Transvestite? Thoughts on the story of English.

24 Oct

That puzzling headline is taken from a fascinating review article on Slate.com: “A Dolphin or a Lonely Transvestite? How best to talk about English in English.”

… But it’s hard to resist the urge to pick a particular kind of animal as the perfect emblem for English. McWhorter says it’s a dolphin among deer. He calls German, Dutch, Yiddish, Danish, and other close English relatives antelopes, springbok, and kudu. English has evolved so far away from the basic language body plan, he says, that it swims underwater and echolocates. McWhorter himself strays far from English-language dogma, which says that, first, our language is special because of its openness to new words and, second, that the displaced Celts had little to no impact on English. He argues that English grammar, thanks to the pre-English inhabitants of Britain, is what really makes it unique. Welsh and English are two of very few languages in the world that use something like -ing as a habitual way of marking present tense, not to mention a fairly unusual use of do, as in "Why does English use do in questions?" It can be no coincidence, says McWhorter, that these two languages coexisted for hundreds of years in England and both have these highly unusual features.

Abley says English is a mallard because the common duck’s indiscriminate interbreeding threatens indigenous duck breeds all over the world. In the same way, modern English infiltrates diverse languages everywhere. Today, English is spoken by billions of people all over the globe. Mandarin may have more native speakers, and Spanish and Hindi-Urdu have about the same number, but English claims a special distinction: It is so popular among language learners that there are more speakers of English as a second language than there are native speakers. English is now the language of urbanization and globalization.

You could as easily call English a whale for its size. Hitchings says there were about 50,000 English words 1,000 years ago. Now there are at least three-quarters of a million. Though the inflation began when English was spoken only in England, it continued apace when English began its migration across the world. It occurred via trade and during the Crusades, when words from Arabic like dragoman, algebra, crimson, and cotton entered the language. It continued in an extraordinary period of linguistic plasticity following the Renaissance: Between 1500 and 1600, approximately 39 of every 100 words in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary entered the language. English expanded symbiotically with the British Empire, which, at its height, covered more than one-quarter of the planet’s surface. The slave trade left its mark, too. Hitchings says that honkie, hip, and possibly OK come from Wolof, which was originally spoken in Senegal, Mauritania, and Gambia. English ballooned again by at least 90,000 words in the 20th century, a period characterized by many scientific advancements and not coincidentally turning up words like robot, from the Czech noun robota, meaning forced labor…

If this makes you curious about language and general and English in particular, good! English teachers – here is an area that I have found is fascinating to students, even ESL students who haven’t been speaking the language for all that long. In fact, they are, I find, often even more curious about such things than native speakers, I guess because the language is still a wonderful and challenging thing for them and not something to be taken for granted. Do consider exploring such things with your students.

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