What are, in your opinion, the most significant developments in English language and history during the twentieth century?
The main thing in the twentieth century was undoubtedly the arrival of the English language as a global language. This had been anticipated for some time, but it had never happened. It didn’t happen really until the 1990s - English becoming a language that is spoken in every country in the world either as a first language, second language or as a significant foreign language in schools. We've seen the extraordinary growth of the language from – well who knows, because people weren’t counting in the 1950s, but – to the best part of 2 billion speakers around the world.
This is an extraordinary phenomenon, which happened in the second half of the twentieth century because that was when people needed an international lingua franca at a global level. The number of countries that were talking to each other in the United Nations in the 1940s started at about 50. Now there are 192 countries in the UN, so the number of countries wanting to talk to each other has quadrupled over that period. With independence came a desire to be different linguistically, as much as anything else, from the colonial past. What happened was that English-speaking nations, traditional colonial English-speaking nations, continued to adopt English as their official language or semi-official language and started to adapt it to their own circumstances.
So you get the development of the New Englishes, as they’re called, in Nigeria, Ghana, Singapore and so on – just as, previously, American and Australian English developed. Now there are something like 50 or 60 of these New Englishes around the world and VERY different indeed from traditional British English, as can be seen from the dictionaries that now have 10,000–15,000 words LOCAL to their part of the world. You often go to a part of the world and you have difficulty understanding what has been said because you don’t have the vocabulary in common because of the cultural differences. THAT’s the main development, without a doubt.
So, do you think that it intensified during the 1990s?
Oh, for sure. Intensified because of the identity factor. You see, there are two forces driving language: the need for intelligibility, for people to understand each other; and the need to avoid homogeneity, where I want to be me and you want to be you. We want to be Nigerians, we want to be Ghanaians, we want to be Singaporeans AS WELL as understanding each other. So what’s happening is that English is evolving on a two-track course. On the one hand, people are learning Standard English, to understand each other, and on the other hand they are fostering their local variety of the language. In Singapore, for instance, educated Singaporeans speak Standard English – I can understand them. But on the street they speak Singlish. Now Singlish, Singaporean English, is a mixture of English influenced by Chinese and Malay. I can’t understand it, yet they call it a sort of English. It could be, in one sense, but really it’s a different language. So that is the kind of two-track development that you see all over the place and it happens in all countries. You and I are able to speak to each other because we have both chosen Standard English. I am not using my local Welsh English, though I could do, and you are not using you local Australian English, though you could do. We’re consciously avoiding that, but back in our own settings we’d slip into our local dialect with no trouble. So it’s that which has intensified. The diversity that reflects identities around the world.
And that must be coupled with the extent of globalisation taking place. Do you think that there is pressure internationally to learn English for your job, your career, for business?
Oh yes. These are the main reasons why a language becomes a global language, because of the power of the people who speak it. Power means different things of course. It means political power, economic power, scientific-knowledge power, cultural power, religious power and so on. But when you actually ask people, "Why are you learning English?" the answer is ALWAYS in terms of access to power to improve quality of life. The need to be “in the loop” on a global level. I’ve encountered this everywhere I go. The reason, generally, is NOT to enjoy English literature better, you know, and that sort of thing. It may be a factor, but no, the reason is to become more empowered in a world where international relations are increasingly critical.
Is it a vicious cycle? Does the snowball effect grow so large that it ends up splintering?
Yes. Well, splintering is certainly happening – good question – and that HAS to happen. As I said, if people ADOPT language they ADAPT it, so there is always a fragmentation driven by this need for identity. How far that fragmentation goes in the modern world, where there are so many forces fostering homogeneity and connectivity and communication through the Internet, is unclear. Already we have seen fragmentation to the extent that some formerly intelligible varieties are now unintelligible - Singlish in Singapore is an example. Another example is the pidgin language in Papua New Guinea, which is now a very developed language indeed. It’s used in newspapers, on radio, and the Bible has been translated into it. But I can’t understand it. So, English has already become a family of languages, like Latin and the Romance family of languages a thousand years ago.
How far that will carry on is unclear. It’s all so recent, and we’re talking hundreds of years for things to develop. At the moment these new varieties of English are chiefly identified by their vocabulary, rather than by changes to grammar or serious changes to pronunciation. So it does look, for the moment, as if the English language is holding together well - but in 500 years’ time, who knows?
What are the other forces? There must be a push and pull...?
What are the forces holding English together internationally? Is it the institutions? Is it global business?
Standard English is the force. And what is Standard English? Standard English is, essentially, the written language. Essentially the PRINTED language, actually. The language of print. If you look at the newspapers of the world – in English – you find they are virtually the same. There are a few differences of spelling, British English/American English, but not many though. You get cultural differences like baseball – I don’t understand baseball. Headlines about baseball in American English don't mean much to me - but on the whole, it’s pretty identical. THAT’s the force holding everything together. It’s the written language, and the written language in science, textbooks and so on. And then, it's the spoken language, in so far as people speak this Standard English aloud - which is not actually that many people. You and I are basically speaking a written form of English now, though colloquial and informal, as you'll see when – as you WILL – you write it down.
So Standard English is what’s keeping everything together. And in so far as people have ACCESS to that, then that force is going to be maintained. The question now is: what are the institutions that maintain that presence? Traditionally, of course, it was the press. Then it was radio and television, and now – critically – it’s the Internet. But interestingly, the Internet is also fostering the identity side of things. You can put up on YouTube or any blog your own dialect and local way of talking and spell it in all sorts of crazy ways. It’s then out there and in front of everybody just like the Standard variety. So the Internet is also this push and pull force.
Where is it heading, would you say? Do you foresee any future trend?
It’s impossible to predict the future in language. Nobody’s ever been able to do that. Who would have predicted 1000 years ago that Latin would no longer be useful in 1000 years’ time? It’s the same with English. I wouldn’t even go so far as to predict that English was going to CONTINUE to be global language. It might be. The snowball effect could be so strong. But, you know, language ALWAYS reflects social considerations. Language is people, so it depends what happens to people. It doesn’t take a brilliant mind to think that in 100 years’ time or 1000 years’ time we’ll all be speaking Arabic, for instance, if certain things happened in the world. Or Spanish, or Chinese or anything. English is being held in place globally by a network of political and economic – mainly economic – factors. If America suddenly disappears, for whatever reason, will that alter English? A few years ago one would have said, without a doubt. But now, the numbers of English speakers have grown so much that even if America disappeared it seems likely that English would maintain its presence, simply because the bulk of people aren’t in America any more. They are in India and China. So with more people speaking English in India than in the ENTIRE native-speaking parts of the world combined, even if one of those parts disappeared, English would still have a VERY strong presence. I can’t actually see anything much happening in the next 100 years or so, but longer than that, who knows?
The development of printing changed the course of history for English, beginning a new period. Do you think that we are now in a new period, because of the Internet?
Yep, I do. I’ve got a book called The Language Revolution, which is basically arguing that in the 1990s, EVERYTHING changed. For three reasons. One, we got a global language for the first time: English. Second, we realised that half the languages of the world are dying because of globalisation and other factors. Third, along comes the Internet.
One must not underestimate the linguistic potential of the Internet. It is the sheer scale of it that is so impressive. It is now bigger than all the libraries of the world combined. We’ve never had anything like this before. And because of its speed it does mean that linguistic change is noticed by everybody more quickly than ever before – therefore language CHANGES more rapidly than ever before. “And we ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” It’s only been going for ten years or so, for most people, and it’s largely still a written medium, but audio is coming along. Skype, for example. I can hear Hilary now [in the other room] talking to somebody on it. Increasingly, with streaming media, multimedia and all the rest of it, we’re encountering audio – and therefore different accents and dialects – so what’s going to happen there, as chatrooms become more audio based? Will we get new spoken accents and dialects on the Internet? Of course we will. What are they? I don’t know, they haven’t come yet. But they will.
It will be a complete new dimension to what we have at the moment. The amazing thing about the Internet is that it has made the English-speaking world (every language-speaking world, of course) accessible. Ten years ago, if I’d wanted to read South African English I’d have to had to have gone to South Africa. Now, I just type in ‘South African Sunday Times’ into a search engine and I can read last Sunday’s paper. If I want to hear Singlish spoken, I can type in ‘Singlish’ and a thousand hits will come up, and some will have audio. It has just changed everything... and all I do is write books about it [laughs]. But predicting the future of it is very difficult.
Here's an example. My Language and the Internet, from 2001, doesn’t mention blogging and instant messaging, because it hardly existed then. I had to write a new edition in 2005. I add a chapter on blogging and instant messaging, but it doesn’t mention YouTube, MySpace or Facebook, because they didn’t exist then. So you see, predicting developments on the Internet just two years ahead is so hard, and that’s why it’s so difficult to answer: what’s the future of language?
You have talked about a ‘third medium’ of communication, after speaking and writing...
Computer-mediated communication, it’s not that the Internet is fundamentally altering the properties of individual languages. The English you read on the Internet is largely the same English that was there before the Internet. Instead, it’s the communicative potential that is different. You see, Internet communications isn’t like speech, for several reasons. First, it lacks simultaneous feedback: you and I talking now, you’re nodding and I’m shaking my head and so on. We’re seeing each other, all the time. That doesn’t happen on the Internet because when I’m sending a message to you I can’t see the response until later. Even in an iChat context, like Hilary’s having now, there’s a lag. The response can often be slow in coming back at you. Second, the Internet allows you to have simultaneous conversations. In a chat room you can pay attention to dozens of people at the same time and reply to them. You could never do that before. And third, the Internet allows you to cut and paste into an e-mail so that you can send your responses in between the bits of the e-mail. You could never do that before.
In relation to the written language, the Internet allows a more dynamic, animated form of communication. I can see the page changing in front of my eyes. If I go and look at BBC news I see a headline scrolling across the page. On some sites, advertisements pop up all the time. That never happened with traditional language. Then there is the fundamental property of the Internet - the hypertext link: I can click and go somewhere else. That didn’t happen with traditional written language. It’s all these properties of a general kind, all these opportunities for different kinds of communication, that make the Internet revolutionary, in my view.
From a linguistic point of view, what’s interesting about the Internet is that it is becoming increasingly multilingual, from an originally English-only position in the 1970s. It’s now less than half English, depending on how you count it, and there are over 1000 languages on the Internet now. “And we ain’t seen nothin’ yet” there either, because the total number of people who are online in, say Africa, is about 5% only. Mmost of the people of Africa, and therefore most of the languages of Africa are not yet online. But they will be one day.
It’s the multilingual opportunities that the Internet offers to endangered and minority languages that is especially important. It gives them a public presence. Take Welsh, for example. We’re in Wales, and Welsh is an endangered language. How do you get it to not be endangered? Well, by getting people to use it. How do you get people to use it, especially the young people? They are the future of a language. Answer: you put it on the Internet, and it’s cool. And that’s happening all over the world now. The Internet is actually offering a bit of salvation for minority languages that were really likely to die out. If you give them an Internet presence, then they may survive – in a real way, not artificially.
And if it’s a younger generation taking control of that, they can play with it.
It’s happening. There are dozens of chatrooms in Welsh, using all sorts of interesting language, which couldn’t have been the case 10 years ago. And yeah, they change the language now. This, of course, is a source of conflict. It has to be carefully managed because the older people in the communities say: [putting on a fuddy-duddy voice] “Hey, this language being used by these youngster isn’t the PROPER Welsh.” And you get the Fowler attitude turning up again. It can be a source of conflict between older and younger, but the older people will lose. They have to lose because it’s the young people who will take the language forward into the next generation. And language always changes. The only languages that don’t change are dead ones.
It’s a bit like how sharks have to constantly move to stay alive.
[laughs] Nice point. Of course it does.
Are regional accents in English becoming a marker of class, as opposed to region?
Accent change is complicated. There’s one trend that is like that, and another trend that is not. Three things have happened to accents in the course of the last century. One is that the originally prestige accent, Received Pronunciation (RP) – the posh accent – of England.
The one that we make fun of in Australia.
The one you make fun of in Australia, that’s right. That has virtually disappeared. It hasn’t entirely. It’s still being used by the Queen and so on, but less than 2% of the population of England use it nowadays and it’s on the way out. And it’s changing its phonetic character because of the SECOND trend. That is the growth of a more homogenised accent – Estuary English, as some people call it – a more downmarket variety of pronunciation, which has swept over a very large proportion of the country. This has affected all kinds of vowels that are used, traditionally, in RP. You hear it on the radio these days all the time. You will never hear the old pronunciation of RP, where the word ‘cup’, for instance, was pronounced with a very open front vowel. It’s become more centralised. And because of this trend, the accent is now felt to be more warm, more friendly, as it were. Less distant, less posh.
People say: well, accents have disappeared. Well, no. That’s because of the third trend taking place at the moment. The old rural accents have died out to some extent. You’ll still hear them, but not as strongly as they used to be. But the new trend is accent reflecting ethnicity. The country is becoming multicultural. There are 400 languages spoken in London these days. Each of these language communities has its own accent, and speak English with that accent. And wherever you go in the country you will hear these accents. In Liverpool, for example, you’ll hear the old Scouse accent of Liverpool spoken in an Italian way now, in a Chinese way and a Jamaican way. Dozens of different ways.
That’s like in Australia.
Yes, it is indeed. The last time I was in Oz I noticed exactly the same thing, and it’s happening ALL OVER the English-speaking world. Not just the English-speaking world, because the whole business of movement that is facilitated by things like the European Union means that new accents and new dialects are coming up all over the place. So, it’s not that accents and dialects are dying out. On the contrary. They’re increasing. But they’re not like the old accents that people remember from their youth. “Ol’ farr-murs speakin’ lyke this,” that still happens but they are less dominant.
On the subject of a broadening of RP. Is it an intentional shift?
Oh, accent change is rarely intentional. The phenomenon in question - which in my business is called "accommodation", where I accommodate to you, I let my accent be influenced by yours, and you by mine - is a very unconscious process. And it takes time. Nobody can avoid it. People always instinctively copy the people they want to be like or want to be with. So, what has happened is that RP, which was originally associated very much with an upper-class, elite group (and thus always a minority accent), is becoming less common because people no longer want to be associated with that group. The group is still there, but accent always reflects class and social trends. Obviously, with a more democratic and egalitarian society you get a more egalitarian accent. You can hear it in the royal family; the Queen speaks traditional RP (though that has changed, from when she first came to the throne); Charles and Anne, also speak it; but William and Harry don’t. They use features that their grandmother wouldn’t be seen dead using, like glottal stops for instance. I've heard William and Harry say things like “ho’” [hot], dropping the final [t]. So you can see that even in the upper classes there have been changes away from that original very posh-sounding accent - which is not that old, incidentally. It’s only a couple of hundred years old. It’s a recent accent that came in with class in the late 1700s.
Going back to what you were saying about the third medium. Could it be said that hieroglyphics are, in a way, coming back through things such as smileys in text messaging. For example, I could get an e-mail from someone in any language but wouldn’t be able to understand it, but if it had a smiley I would understand that. There is increasing use of icons in technology.
Well, be careful. When you have a smiley, you think you understand it, but actually, smileys are highly ambiguous and you don’t quite know what the attitude that lies behind it. I often get smileys and I think, what does that mean? If that’s a smile, what is he saying here?
Hieroglyphics were never as ambiguous as that, but you’re absolutely right. Smileys are an example of a development that we also see in a rebus, which you also get in text messaging: C U L8R. That kind of thing. There's nothing new about this. Abbreviations of this kind exist throughout English-language history. They HAVE had a new lease of life with the Internet, but they are not as complex as hieroglyphics were – those were much more complicated things. They're an interesting feature of the Internet, but it’s trend that has been overhyped. In a book I did a few years ago, I collected as many examples of these things as I could find. There are about 500 of them.
And that’s more than most people would know.
AND, that’s the point. Nobody uses them. There are only six or seven that are EVER used, and only two or three commonly. And that’s another big difference from hieroglyphics. All the hieroglyphics symbols were commonly used. So this is a bit of a con really, the age of smileys.
A bit of a fad, a bit of fun. But people actually only use two or three of them.
Literacy levels are falling in the US, Australia and here. Why do you think that is?
Well, I query the supposition. Have literacy levels fallen, like people say? It depends on how you look at it. In 1975, there was a publication called the Bullock Report, "A Language for Life", and it started off questioning how language was taught in schools. It was very clever. It started off by saying, here are some quotations about language, and the quotations were: literacy is awful these days, it has never been so bad, it’s pathetic the way kids are in schools. Then the text tells you that they were written in the 1920s. You suddenly realise that people have been moaning about literacy for AGES.
So then you think, are things all right? And recently in the Times Educational Supplement, for example, there was a letter from an academic who wrote: ‘Things have never been so bad amongst university students. I am always having to correct their spelling and punctuation. It’s awful.’ The next week, there was another letter from an academic saying: ‘Sorry, your students aren’t like mine then. I don’t have any problems.’
So what’s really going on? It isn’t an easy situation to establish. I certainly wouldn’t want to rely on government-testing targets and all that as evidence. Obviously it’s a mixed situation. Maybe there has been a decline, maybe there hasn’t. I don’t know. But whether there has or there hasn’t, certainly we should be concerned about maintaining standards of literacy. So the issue, rather than being one of diagnosis, is: let’s just make sure that kids are taught WELL about their language. If there has been a decline, it’s probably because there’s been an absence of formal language teaching in schools during the period 1965 to 1990. Grammar went out. Nothing was replacing it. Same thing happened in Australia. It’s not just grammar, it’s any formal language work. It all went out. It came back in Britain with the National Curriculum in 1992, but it took a while to build up steam because the teachers weren’t trained to teach about language.
That’s what led to people like Lynne Truss [Eats, Shoots and Leaves] being so successful, because she wrote a brilliant book which basically suggested to people: if you read my book it will solve all your punctuation problems. It didn’t, of course, but that's how it was perceived. She was going for the insecurity of people who didn’t have that kind of formal training. Now language work is back in schools. Kids are now getting formal work on language once again. They’ll get classes on punctuation, grammar and so on. And things should eventually improve.
But there are some surprises ahead, because – I mentioned that I’ve just written a book on text messaging – the hype about text messaging is that it’s a disaster. All the kids not knowing how to spell because they just use these silly symbols. But the evidence is showing that it’s quite the reverse. And this is the most interesting thing: that the more you text, the better your literacy scores. Then you think, why should it be otherwise? Because what is literacy? Reading and writing. Does it matter that you are reading and writing on your telephone rather than on a page? You are still getting practice in reading and writing. A study has shown that the earlier you get a mobile phone the better your literacy scores, for the same reason. But you say, “Hang on a minute. The spelling is all crap isn’t it?” No, it isn’t. When you actually analyse the data from a mobile phone, less than 10 per cent of the words are deviant spellings. Most of the time kids use standard spellings. They don’t write C U all the time, just occasionally, so you find that in fact, all the media hype that texting is a disaster for the world is actually beside the point.
If there has been a reverse in literacy, it’s going to move in the other direction pretty quickly now as people react to that myth and do something about it. Plus the National Curriculum. Plus the Internet, which is actually making kids read more than they EVER read before, and write – type. So, I’m quite optimistic about literacy, even though one does encounter cases where individual kids are having problems.
Would you say that corporate language is enriching or stripping the English language?
It’s just a variety. It’s just a way of communicating. Jargon is another thing that has had a very bad press. Why? Because the people who use it, use it stupidly – that is, they use it in contexts where it shouldn’t be used. If I speak jargon to you, why am I doing that? If you’re in my business, then my jargon is the same as yours. We get on fine, and jargon is a very convenient way of communication amongst people who are in the same business. If every time, instead of saying BBC to you, I said British Broadcasting Corporation, then we would have wasted so much time. But if we’re in the same business we can use the same jargon and not have a problem.
But, if somebody uses jargon to a group of people who are NOT in the same business, and deliberately does so, obfuscating the message, that’s when jargon gets a bad press – and rightly so. Why is the guy doing that? Has he no sense of communication? OR, is there a hidden agenda behind the jargon and is he deliberately trying to put one over us? Hence you get all the euphemisms of political administrations of the world saying things in jargon to hide the fact that 300 people have been killed by our mistake over there, and that sort of thing.
So jargon has two sides to it. There’s a good side to jargon. It’s a very important part of corporate communications. Without it businesses would not survive. The bad side is where people use jargon where it shouldn’t be used. So I just see it as a long-standing variety of language. ANY variety of language can be used or misused.
A kind of shorthand.
Yes, AND as well as a shorthand, it’s a shorthand that promotes solidarity and ethos. There’s an old phrase: "the chief use of slang is to show you’re one of the gang". And jargon is a kind of slang. It has the same purpose. “In our community we all talk in the same way.” Everybody understands it fine, but as soon as ONE person from outside comes in and doesn’t understand it, it’s the responsibility of the organisation to recognise that they have a different communicative level to achieve. And of course, some of these guys are SOO jargon trained that they can’t do that, and they just “shpiel” it out. That’s when jargon gets bad press.
That’s worse literacy in a way.
Absolutely! Because, any literacy theorist will tell you that the critical factor in literacy is audience: remembering who you’re writing for, or speaking for. If you forget that then that’s bad literacy.
Interview by Jesse karjalainen, whichenglish.com.