Saturday, December 19, 2009

English: refreshing the lexical gaps that other languages cannot reach

“If a language is not capable of creating new words to describe new advances, it will die.” These are the words of Alfred Gilder, terminology chief at the French finance ministry, speaking at a recent Swiss conference about the spread of English around Europe and the state of the continent's native languages. "Modernise or die!" was his message. There is a growing concern in many countries about the seemingly unstoppable rise of English as a global language and the effect that this is having on the health and integrity of other languages. So, when words like laptop and roaming, and a phrase like last but not least make it into another language - be it Swiss, German, French or Turkish - the native language takes another step towards losing part of its identity and global English takes another step into another nation's territory.

But why are speakers of other languages using these English words? Why don't they come up with their own new expressions in their own mother tongues? Well that's what Alfred Gilder would like to see, but it's hard to imagine it happening when English has become so ubiquitous and so, well...global. With English being spread through technology, commerce and culture around the world, it's hard to resist its influence. But perhaps there's something about the language itself that makes it attractive - something internal, rather than external - such as its adaptability and tendency to innovate. In short, the fact that English is constantly adding new words and phrases to its vocabulary could be the reason why it's spreading so quickly: it's refreshing the lexical gaps that other languages cannot reach, to nick Heineken's old advertising slogan. In effect, language change - so often derided by prescriptivists as leading to the degradation of our language - has helped push English to the forefront of world languages.

And returning to the article in The Journal of Turkish Weekly, where this conference was covered (linked from Macmillan Dictionary's language in the news roundup), there is recognition that this isn't a new thing, but it's something that is happening at a much swifter pace than ever before:

Of course borrowing words and expressions from other languages is a natural function of language development and English itself has absorbed countless influences in its history – from Latin, French and Hindi, to name but a few. What is different about the current dominance of English is that it is the first truly global language and it is spewing out words at a pace that other languages have no chance to compete with. This rapid evolution favours those who can ride the English wave but creates a language divide, akin to the digital divide, for those who are poor in English.


Where will this lead? At worst, it could lead to the deaths of certain languages around the world, some of which are nearly on their last legs, if this report is anything to go by.

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