With the 2008 Summer Olympics fast approaching, the Chinese government has taken measures to clean up any signs of “Chinglish,” the trend of English fused with Chinese. Signs listing “Deformed Man Lavatory” and “If you are stolen, call the police at once” do not translate properly to their English-language equivalents of handicap bathrooms and abduction. Under the “Beijing Speaks to the World” program, a committee supervises the capital’s transition from Chinese English to American English in hopes of preventing Western ridicule for historically bad translations. Restaurant menus, signs, and pamphlets are undergoing careful inspection, and taxi drivers have even been told their annual licenses will not be renewed unless they pass a mandatory English test.1
However, the phenomena of English adaptations are not new. Ponglish (Polish English), Singlish (Singaporean English), and Hinglish (Hindu English) are gaining momentum and popularity abroad.2 By 2020, native English speakers will make up only 15 percent of the estimated two billion people who will use or learn the English language. Most conversations in English are between nonnative speakers. It is estimated that 300 million Chinese read and write in English, but do not receive enough practice, thus fueling the often-ridiculed practice of Chinglish.3
The widespread use of English brings up the concern as to how globalization is shaping the future of languages. An analysis of linguistic history, the growth of English as the lingua franca, the extinction of indigenous languages, and the measures that have developed in reaction to this trend will bring perspective into the evolving—and diminishing—world of languages.
Background into languages
Linguistic groups date all the way back to 3000 B.C. with the origins of languages falling primarily into Indo-European and Semitic descent. Indo-European groups encompass half of the world’s dialects, including Hindi, Persian, Norwegian, and English. It is one of the few language families not confined to one distinct territory because European languages spread through colonization, to regions such as North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, and Africa.4
In the Middle East, Semitic languages were derived from a tribal group in southern Arabia. Important civilizations like Babylonia and Phoenicia were of Semitic origin. Semitic languages include Arabic, Hebrew, and Amharic, and Tingrinya.
The globalization of conquest, trade, and religion created an overlapping of languages, but it also fortified linguistic divisions in the world. For example, the Roman Empire used linguistics to spread its influence. However, Rome’s territorial occupations inevitably split Western Europe into the realms of Romance and Germanic languages. Latin, the language of Rome, eventually evolved into the modern-day romance languages of Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French, while the Germanic languages of Danish, Swedish, and Dutch flourished separately. Interestingly English (considered a Germanic language), is a fusion of this segregation, a product of both Germanic and Romance origins.
English, the new Lingua Franca
Just as the Romans saw the diffusion of their language over seized territory as a mark of dominance, the modern day equivalent is a language’s label as a lingua franca. The French language held the title under Louis XIV and remained the lingua franca until after World War II, when English replaced French for this distinction. English is one of the three working languages of the United Nations General Assembly and one of the three among the European Commission. However, the role of English extends beyond diplomacy and is often referred to as the global lingua franca since it is regarded as such an influential cultural and economic force thanks to the streamlined distribution of American culture abroad.
Additionally, English is often used in foreign countries due to the mounting tension within countries to choose one local language over another. For example, Hindi was declared as the official language of the Indian government in the 1950s, but only one-sixth of the population speak Hindi natively—the rest of the population use one of 400 different dialects. English is thus seen as an ethnically neutral choice to avoid the conquest of one Indian culture over another.5
The same phenomenon is occurring in Iraq: Kurdish officials oppose doing business with the central government in Arabic and often insist on using English even if they know Arabic. English thus helps to muffle fears of cultural and political hegemony in both India and Iraq.6
The Death of Languages
Although the emergence of Chinglish and Hinglish does not necessarily pose a threat to the future of Chinese and Hindi, the standardization of a few languages is responsible for wiping out smaller, indigenous languages. Approximately half of the world’s languages have gone extinct in the past 500 years, and studies show that a language dies out every two weeks on average. In the next hundred years, another half of the world’s 7,000 languages are predicted to disappear as well. Of the 50 native languages in California, none are taught in public schools. It was also found that roughly 500 of the world’s languages are spoken by a population of a less than ten people.7
The disappearance of a language is tied directly to the death of a culture in some cases. Linguists have estimated that half of the world’s languages do not have a written form.8 For example, of the 231 endangered languages spoken in Australia, at least 50 of them have never been written down. History, traditions, and ways of life are passed down orally—with no text left behind for future generations—the world’s rich diversity will be forgotten.
Efforts to Preserve, Inform, and Adapt
Different endeavors are emerging in response to globalization and language extinction. The National Geographic has collaborated with Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Tongues to bring about Enduring Voices. The project has identified five global “hotspots” where native languages are disappearing most rapidly (see picture).
Researchers of Enduring Voices seek to understand the geographic dimensions of language distribution and determine how the diversity is linked to biodiversity.9 Many of the indigenous people have different ties and perspective on nature that science has not tapped into thus far.
To help spread awareness of such a wide range of languages and the cultures, people are bridging the gap to continue building a global village. For example, the website Global Voices aims to “aggregate, curate, and amplify the global conversation online” through tapping into international blogs, podcasts, and other user-sharing platforms that are not the English-language media.10
Naturally, with the interaction of various languages that utilize different phonetics and syntax structures, it is not surprising that the adaptation of English to other languages will lead to many hybrid languages that do not necessarily have “proper” English grammar and that emphasize different tones and intonations that are unique to the home languages. In different regions of China, sounds that begin words with “th” are often pronounced as the letters f, v, t, or d because it is easier to pronounce.11
Linguists believe that cultures will soon come to identify with these language fusion, in a phenomena known as “glocal English,” and incorporate the blend with local roots.12 The transformations could potentially lead to new languages in the future, leading to a trend counter to the one seen with native languages.
As English continues to grow as the global standard for communication, changes to the language are inevitable. Just as American scholar John McWhorter noted, “There is no such thing as a society lapsing into using unclear or illogical speech—anything that strikes you as incorrect in some humble speech variety is bound to pop up in full bloom in several of the languages considered the world’s noblest.”13
The emergence of Chinglish, among other languages, and the efforts to rid the city of Chinese English are short term adjustments, but in the long run it would not be surprising to see the normalization of blended languages. Languages are unique to cultural and historical context, and preserving what is left of the world’s linguistic heritage and witnessing the emergence of new ones are both important in expanding the linguistic melting pot.
1 Michael Erard. “How English Is Evolving Into a Language We May Not Even Understand.” Wired Magazine. June 23, 2008.
2 “After Hinglish, now it’s Ponglish.” Indian Express Newspapers. July 2, 2008.
3 Michael Erard. “How English Is Evolving Into a Language We May Not Even Understand.” Wired Magazine. June 23, 2008.
4 “History of Languages.” History World. July 8, 2008.
5 Hayden, John. “What Will Globalization Do to Languages? A Freakonomics Quorum.” The New York Times. May 28, 2008.
7 “About the Project.” National Geographic Enduring Voices. July 14, 2008.
8 “ Languages Going Extinct Fastest in 5 Regions Around World: One Language Dies Every 14 Days.” National Geographic. July 15, 2008.
9 “About the Project.” National Geographic Enduring Voices. July 14, 2008.
10 “How Global Voices Works.” Global Voices. July 14, 2008.
11 Michael Erard. “How English Is Evolving Into a Language We May Not Even Understand.” Wired Magazine. June 23, 2008.
12 Hitchings, Henry. “What Will Globalization Do to Languages? A Freakonomics Quorum.” The New York Times. May 28, 2008.
13 Abley, Mark. “The Prodigal Tongue.” Wall Street Journal. June 27, 2008.
* Picture Source http://www.nationalgeographic.com/mission/enduringvoices/