Localized English

Newsweek Europe (probably need to subscribe) this week has a feature on Global English. The basic argument is that a) English as a skill is perceived as the key to jobs and a future, and b) English as a speaking system is simultaneously fragmenting into (national) local Englishes congealing around regional intermediate standards (Indian, Caribbean, African, Asian etc). This more or less echoes what David Crystal has been saying for some time.

In the article, Crystal is quoted as saying that never before in history has a population of second language speakers outpaced native language speakers, as is the case with English today, when you stack up Indian, African and other regional Englishes against the US/UK/Oz/NZ heartland. This may not be true. What about Latin in say the 4th century? Speakers in an arc from Palestine up to modern Romania, across Germania to the Atlantic coast of Gaul and down to Iberia might well have outnumbered pedigree Romani. The best place to find out more about all this in Nick Ostler’s splendid new book Empires of the Word, which offers a highly erudite yet stylish history of the world through its great languages.

Here’s another way to read the English story: the mindware product known as the English language is in the process of being informally localized. This is not due to an intentional push process engineered by the supplier, but to a pull side-effect created by local demand. The result is a hybrid mix of English and local language expressions that meet various communicational needs in the local community. The street is hijacking the language and retooling it with local smarts. Obviously school kids and others strive hard to gain a ‘correct’ core English accent when they speak, but we all know that you end up with a semi-localized accent unless you are extremely gifted, or young enough or brought up as a child in more than one linguistic culture. Do I speak French with a bit of an English accent? No, I speak localized French.

Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.


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