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A thousand words

02/28/2013

I recently read that it takes an aspiring writer a million written words to fully develop a style of their own.  “Bloody hell!” I thought.  How long does it take to write that?  Maybe a thousand words a day for something like three years.  Who on earth has time to write that much?  On the other hand, we spend so much of our time communicating that much of this should be second nature, but when so much of our interaction is non verbal and informal this can be very difficult indeed.

In colloquial speech in South Africa,” having a thousand words” means an argument.  In Ireland complaining is often referred to as “giving out.  English is such a globalized language that there is considerable variance in spoken form throughout the world, even amongst native speakers.  I remember a job I once had in the Australian Outback, when I had just sat down to lunch in the mess hall.  Someone asked me how I was, and I replied, “Fine and you?”  A silence suddenly descended on the room, as people nearby began staring at me.  I repeated my initial response, a little more slowly, and things became visibly more relaxed.  To this day I do not know what they initially heard, and am not sure that I even want to.

Our common language has grown from nine million native speakers in the time of Elizabeth I to hundreds of millions of native speakers in the 21st century reign of Elizabeth II.  It is the international language of business and tourism, not to mention much of the world’s media, and is constantly evolving.  Big corporations have been very proactive about adding new benchmarks to our linguistic paradigms, while various professions have jargon which is almost impenetrable to laypersons.

Changing socio political realities have also had their own effect on the language, spoken as it is by so many people in so many countries.  While on that subject I must mention one word which did the rounds in the old South Africa.  This word was borrowed from Arabic, and means unbeliever.  It became used as a term of racial abuse, by white South Africans who did not know its original meaning.  The irony was that it applied to them in its original form, being as they were non Muslims.  I must admit I do not feel comfortable using it, although those who have watched Lethal Weapon will have heard it.  It s in the dictionary, and in my Colliins paperback edition it comes between kabloona and kaftan.

How kabloona got into the English dictionary I am not quite certain, but it means someone who is not of Inuit ancestry.  This, I suppose, is testament to the colonisation of North America by Britain, and its subsequent victories over the Spanish, Dutch and French.

Kaftan, of course, is an item of clothing worn in the East, which was also very generous in giving white South Africa a racial slur with which to disparage their compatriots.  This word, I might add, was also used by missionaries in the nineteenth century, a group of people who were more enlightened than many at the time.  In an age when evangelism and vocal religion is out of vogue, it is easy to forget that they did attempt to curb heinous labour practices and other abuses which were practised at the time.

The missionaries, of course, did something else besides the spread of Christianity.  They opened hospitals and schools, the latter of which greatly assisted the spread of the English language.  It appears that God and Mammon favour the dulcet tones of perfidious Albion, perhaps reversing the Biblical injunction against the tower of Babel.  One does not wish to become overly confident though, with our current economic woes, impending climate change and violent religious fundamentalism, it may be premature to celebrate the end of history.  Or maybe the end of history might mean just that.

As Francis Fukuyama’s book highlights, the end of the Cold War seemed like a Godsend for the English speaking world and its liberal democratic and capitalist model.   This time, however, it meant that the United States was the biggest global power and not the United Kingdom.  The global reach of the entertainment and information technology in the former have had their own implications for the spread of English and its continuing evolution.  Here in the Netherlands, the fluency of the Dutch at English is often ascribed to their English language television programming.  Learning another language is always easier when it is entertaining.

The English language has now become the second language of choice for everyone.  A German backpacker once informed me that, “English belongs to everyone.”  I have often observed groups of non native speakers conversing in it, often when it is the only common language which they have.  French people will speak to Chinese people in English, likewise Russians and Spanish speakers, or Scandinavians and Africans.  This language has proved as adept at globalisation as any product which you can buy over the internet in a matter of seconds.

It is proving a money spinner for new graduates now entering the workplace and finding their job prospects to be poor.  Many friends of mine are now in Asia or South America teaching after having completed a TEFL.  The flip side of this is that while English is ever expanding, many smaller languages are dying out.  Gaelic numbers its speakers in tens of thousands, while the native languages of the Khoisan in South Africa has all but died out.  Both of these countries were British colonies for much of their history.

Any writer must surely deplore these losses, even though lazy English speakers such as myself find it easier to communicate in just one language.  It was not until the nineteenth century that a philologist called Wilhelm Bleek wrote down the Bushmen language, a language noted for its clicks.  It had not been written down in two centuries of colonisation, and its rich history of culture and religion was almost lost to history.

The brothers Grimm were also philologists, part of a nineteenth century drive to study and standardize the language spoken by ordinary people.  The stories they left us with are still enjoyed by millions.  While English is and has been imposing itself upon the world, where are our other languages and stories going?  Or will English eventually go the same route as Latin, and splinter into a variety of vernacular languages which lose their original flavour through modernisation?

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3 Comments
  1. I owe someone an apology for my response to them calling me a Kabloona. Who da thunk?

  2. Thanks for the engaging essay. I like the idea of English morphing into dialects that morph into new language groups. As a translator (from the Latinate splinter languages of Italian and French) into my native English, I hear a great deal about what is lost in translation and very little of what is gained. It’s as if it never occurs to people that if a particular piece of literature or even a newspaper or a website was not available in English they might have no access to the material at all. I hate the idea of any language being lost, but I am glad that there is a language that functions as the medium for cross-cultural communication.

    • Indeed. I am trying to learn Dutch, and even though it is similar to the Afrikaans I was taught at school I struggle. I am a typically lazy English speaker I am afraid 😦

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