THE LANGUAGE OF SHAKESPEARE, CAPTAIN KIRK, AND HYPERPLASMOID GOOBLEWOOFERS



© Andy Turnbull, 2006

Captain Kirk and his crew speak English as they boldly Trek the Stars and somehow all the assorted people, non people, energy beings and hyperplasmoid gooblewoofers they meet along the way speak English too.

I personally have some doubts about the goofblewoofers -- in my experience only the protoplasmoid variety speaks really good English -- but otherwise the use of English as a common language is one of the most authentic parts of the show.

English is already the dominant language on Earth and when intrepid space cadets do boldly go, they will speak English wherever they land.

All of them, wherever they come from, and not just because the U.S.A. will build at least some of the space ships. The fact is that English is no longer the language of the so-called "English speaking world." It belongs to the world at large.

You doubt that? Then tell me -- what's the biggest English-speaking country in the world. The U.S.A.? You jest!

China claims 500 million English speaking people, and they probably have close to 400 million. India has at least as many and the U.S.A. comes a distant third.

With apologies to certain publishers in the rebel colonies the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary is the ultimate authority on the English language, (sorry about that, Noah). It's printed in England but do you know where they sell it? The biggest single market is in Japan, land of the rising sun.

Many Japanese do not speak English well because they have trouble with the pronunciation, but most of them can read and write it.

And not just because of the American occupation after World War II, or the politics of the cold war. Japan recognized the future of the English language long before WWII, and at least one major Japanese company has had an English name from the start.

In 1931 Shojiro Ishibashi of Kurume, Japan, founded what is now one of the three biggest tire companies in the world. Ishibashi means "stone bridge" in English but the name of the company has always been "Bridgestone," with no translation required.

Many Japanese think North Americans must find their country very strange and foreign. No way.

Granted that the Sony, Hitachi, Panasonic and other familiar signs in Tokyo are more elaborate than in other cities, they're not strange.

And aside from the names of stores, many public signs are in English. Japanese too, in most cases, but lots of English. There are more English signs on the streets of Tokyo than there are in Montreal, a major city in mostly-English-speaking Canada.

Many road signs in Europe are English and virtually all air traffic around the world is in English. When a KLM plane approaches Amsterdam, the pilot calls the control tower in English.

Aircraft are even manufactured in English. Airbus Industrie, the giant European manufacturer of airliners, is a consortium of English, German, Spanish and French partners but the working language of the company, in all countries, is English.

English is the universal language because most people speak it. It's the first language of a few people -- quite a few, actually -- and the second language of billions. Most educated Indians speak a local language and English, educated Chinese speak a Chinese dialect and English and most Europeans speak their own language and English.

I started writing this essay at a McDonald's restaurant in Krefeld, Germany, where I ordered "Chinarollchen" in German, and found it came with "Kung-Fu Sauce," an English take-off on Chinese. At breakfast in my hotel this morning Japanese and other guests spoke to the hotel staff in English and I think I was the only person in the dining room who actually said anything in German.

Parked outside the hotel was a Fiat Cinquecento car, made in Italy. The left-hand drive model is not intended for sale in any English-speaking country, but beside the gas cap are the words "unleaded fuel."

In the nearby town of Viersen I saw local courier trucks with the name "German Parcel" on the side. The words "German" and "parcel" do not exist in the German language. In the same town, I bought a note-book at a store called "McPaper and Co."

But if Germans speak English that's appropriate, because for hundreds of years most of the people in England spoke a North German dialect. One root of English is the language of the North German Angles who, along with the Jutes and Saxons, invaded England about the middle of the 5th Century AD.

The Germans drove the original inhabitants and their language south to a new homeland in Wales, and most of the people of England spoke a form of German until about 1066.

Then the Normans invaded. They didn't drive the Germans out but they did drive them down and for years the Germanic serfs were ruled by French-speaking Normans.

Eventually the two groups mixed and, slowly, the language we call English was born. Besides the words of two other languages it also combines the grammar of both -- in general we use German grammar with words of Saxon origin and a variation of French grammar with the Norman words.

That bothers school-teachers, and some of them try to compensate for our lack of a consistent English grammar by teaching us Latin grammar. It doesn't work well with either root language, but no matter -- even English teachers ignore their own rules of grammar most of the time, and most of us ignore them all the time.

Schoolboys delight in the quote, usually attributed to Winston Churchill, about the ban on dangling participles.

"That," Churchill is said to have said, "is one rule up with which I shall not put."

Spelling is confused too, and schoolboys also delight in George Bernard Shaw's whimsical word "ghoti."

The first two letters, "gh," are pronounced as in the world "enough." The "o" is pronounced as in "women" and the "ti" are pronounced as in "fiction." Put them together and you have "fish."

But it's because English has no firm rules that it can and does adapt to the needs of a changing world. Already the biggest language in the world, perhaps with as many as two million words, English grows and twists and changes to encompass new developments in technology, politics and world culture.

Other nations may try to control their language but the English never had a chance. Now, while the ossified icons of the Academie Francais pompositate over each new word before it can be admitted to the French language, the leading edge of French culture and technology proceeds in English.

English has round heels. There are no rules and anyone, English speaking or not, can add new words to the language. Thousands of words from other languages have been naturalized, and are now considered to be English.

There are drawbacks to informality, and we're all familiar with the buzzwords and fuzzwords dreamed up by politicians and civil servants to impress and confuse the public.

Buzzwords sound sophisticated and the squibblers of the daily press love them. Some pretend to hold them in contempt, but they still pick them up and spread them.

Fuzzwords are the innocuous and potentially dangerous words that empire builders use to conceal their moves. A take-over becomes "administration," where secrecy is obviously against the interests of the public it is called "confidentiality," and discrimination is called "equity."

Fuzzed-out squibblers accept the new words, and many people never stop to think about what they actually mean.

Every new word has its day but only a few will last. Animals evolve by developing all possible mutations, but only the ones that prove useful will survive.

The buzzwords and fuzzwords will die, but the English language will continue to adapt. It must, because we need a world language.

Latin did the job once. Spread by the Roman Empire and kept alive beyond its time by the Roman church, it was a second language common to most of the western world through most of the middle ages.

But with no base in real life it could not evolve, and it died when technology outgrew it. In 1887 Polish doctor Lodovik Lazarus Zamenhof proposed a replacement. His "Langue Internationale" was an artificial language composed of root words common to many European languages, with logical and normalized endings.

Zamenof published his idea under the pseudonym "Dr. Esperanto." The name means "the hopeful one" in his proposed language.

Esperanto should be easy for Europeans to learn, but very few people ever learned it. English is irregular, illogical and very difficult to learn, but it's the language of choice for most of the world. Does that tell you something about human beings?

Maybe so. And if it does it could also explain why Captain Kirk will boldly go, some day. If the people of the world can learn English, they can do anything.

And when they do go, boldly or not, they will do it in English.

end


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