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Leslie Dunton-Downer discusses the rapidly evolving English language



If The English Is Coming! by Leslie Dunton-Downer sounds like a Palinism, maybe that's the point. Language—especially English—is malleable, and what initially sounds wrong can also make its own kind of sense and even end up as the norm.

The ostensible subject—the ascendancy of Global English—is just the main thread in this book, which traces the history of 30 words that have achieved global reach while also exploring the character of language itself, from its theoretical origins ("Proto-Indo-European," the common ancestor of all languages) to our current state of affairs, in which new technology enables one single Tweeter to refudiate centuries of linguistic convention.

English originally denoted the language spoken by the Angles, a people who rather inauspiciously made their way from their ancestral territory in modern-day Germany, "Angelin," to the former Roman stronghold of Britannia, and whose mother tongue, Ænglisc, has improbably developed into the new lingua franca (literally, Frankish language) of planetary discourse. And Dunton-Downer tells us how this came to be so.

But this book does much more than remind us of the complex history of languages or describe the ubiquity of Global English. It looks at how language itself affects our essential understandings. Speakers of the Aymara language regard what they can see as having already happened—the past—and the future, what can't be seen, is what's behind them. A counterintuitive notion to most of the world's speakers, but an idea that, using mere words, would be hard to refudiate.

Independent Weekly: Books for word people used to be the bastion of the prescriptivists like Edwin Newman and William Safire. Do you relate to any of the language curmudgeons?

Leslie Dunton-Downer: The curmudgeons, as you put it, which is a great way to capture that group, there's a place for them, just because in the history of the English language there has never been a kind of prescriptive, Platonic, rule-making body that decides what's right and wrong. There's no academy. The important thing is how people recognize that there is no one correct version of English, that we all use the language we use in different contexts, and so people at home might speak one way but if you're going to go on a job interview, you'd adjust your speech.

So do you think that in some cases it's OK to say "refudiate"?

Yes, I actually do! I wouldn't probably use it. It was introduced, and curiously the Oxford American English Dictionary has accepted it; I gather they made it the No. 1 word of 2010, so presumably there's been attention paid to it. What ultimately will happen is we'll just see if people start using it. [...] In a way, that's how a lot of words do get into English. Somebody creates a new word or makes a mistake, and it catches on, so there is an argument for that.

Like your example of chaise lounge?

Yeah, chaise lounge: the American pronunciation [came from] chaise longue, and that's now accepted in English, but even something like penthouse, which is in a sense a mishearing of the former version of the word pentiz, that's now the correct word. [...] So that kind of creativity, it's really what the life of a language is all about.

You featured 30 words to tell your story. Did you have to kill some darlings?

Cowboy, football, popcorn: These are words that have really interesting stories behind them, but a line had to be drawn because otherwise the work would have just become too long. "Canoe" is one that I would have liked to have written about.

Is it the nature of words to begin referring to one specific thing and then gradually begin to accumulate other meanings?

Interestingly some words just die out. Words can arise, and then their life span doesn't go anywhere and they're ejected, if you like, from the language. Our speakers have no use for them. And then others do seem to be proliferating in a way. I think the word "friend" is a great example because here's a word that in the Facebook era has now been used in so many ways and adapted, so you can defriend people, [it turns] a noun to a verb in the first place, that sort of thing.

In your book you talk about how the lingo on the campy Batman TV series got you interested in language. Kids discover words and lexicons in so many places that aren't necessarily "learning oriented." Baseball cards were my thing, and lyric sheets on the inner sleeves of record albums. I wonder where kids are discovering these troves of words these days.

That's really a transcending question. I have to agree with you that in our day you had these mysterious contacts with literary things. I think even song lyrics were so huge. People memorized songs without even thinking they were doing that. [...] I think it's much more now happening in the realm of people writing back and forth, texting, posting blogs and things like that. I'm surprised at how the 21st century has really become an era where the world of that kind of young person experimenting with language has become much more prosaic; it's in a world of prose.

One of the great moments in your book was your discussion of the Aymara people.

Once you think about that Aymara example, of the thing that's ahead being the past, it's really hard to stop thinking about that. Once you look at the world that way, you keep thinking, "Gosh, everything I'm seeing just happened. It's over." It really is funny if you start to look at things that way, it can start to become a kind of self-evident thing, but it takes a while to get used to it because at first it seems so wrong.

One of the amazing, intellectual things [about learning a second language] is that it helps you realize that even your own language is chockablock with all these things that make it one among many ways to see the world and to put the world together and to shape the world.

It seems a really good time to be a word maven. In additon to your book, there are recent books about everything from the lost art of sentence diagramming to a new book out just on the history of the word "OK." So despite a lot of hand wringing in this age of disappearing newspapers and texting English, it seems that people are suddenly very interested in language.

If you look back at another period where people were suddenly writing about language a lot, and lamenting the past and debating the future, debating what is and isn't English, it really does come [through technology]... You have the printing press as new technology, and then suddenly in the early modern period you've got the first dictionaries and the first proper debates about what English is, how to teach it—that moment was so vibrant. It's really Shakespeare's moment ... so I think we're in a moment that's very similar to that. And probably there hasn't been anything as lively and linguistically shaken up as the period we're in now since then.

It's that new dynamism, I suppose, that enables you to end this book on an up note. You say Shakespeare himself would marvel at the way English has developed.

Well I should qualify that and say that there are legitimate concerns about some of the negative sides of not just globalization of the English language but globalization in general. [...] But increasingly the prestige of English is not attached to any specific nation or a specific phenomenon, like Hollywood or the Internet per se. Increasingly, it's just about the fact that it is a global language. I think what people are missing is that in a short time we're going to have such a large number of nonnative speakers for every native speaker—I think right now the ratio is about 3:1 but it's expected to double and be 6:1 in the next generation. [...] It's really become the planet's language, and what the speakers around the world decide to say in English, and what they decide to do with English, is really a story that's going in its own direction.

I was surprised to read that statistic you had, about what country has the largest population of English speakers.

It is a real shock to people. Of course it doesn't mean that in China people are going around speaking English fluidly; the statistics reflect the number of people in China who have some degree of competence in English. That's a sheer population thing. If you have a billion people and you've mandated that they have to learn English in school, eventually you will get a figure that's pretty impressive. [...] Not so long ago there would be choices about which language to learn. They're all learning English. For example, there's a company in Japan that's now decided that English is the language that will be spoken in the workplace, even though almost everyone there is a native speaker of Japanese, of course. And then people in sub-Saharan Africa have voted to use English as their national language, in Rwanda. And now, of course, al-Qaida is actually putting out an English-language magazine called Inspire, which is ... something to note.

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