“Russian is essentially Englishovat”?

23 Jan

Daria Wallace

Thus spoke David Peterson, internet blogger and contributor to the website “Essentialist Explanations” – basically a long list of variations on the theme of “language x is essentially...”. Not the most inspiring of things, the result of an afternoon’s mindless skipping from link to link, but this particular phrase caught my attention for a number of reasons (apart from, that is, his creative adaptation of Russian grammar). While I don’t particularly agree with Peterson, his summary of the Russian language chimes in tune with a general sentiment towards English, not only from the Russian perspective, but more widely; and while these “explanations” are clearly not meant to be taken seriously, the idea of “Englishovat’” (or denglisch, or franglais) is by no means unrecognisable.

With over a thousand million speakers in the world, including approximately 328 million native speakers, English is currently the third most widely spoken language by population, and its hegemony is not always seen positively. More often than not, quite the opposite is true. Take France, for example, whose Académie toils tirelessly to hinder the appearance of Anglicisms in French common parlance. In the comments thread following a recent article in The Independent about language erosion, one particularly angry Frenchman launched into a polemical rant about the presumptions and ignorance of English-speaking nations, forcing others to speak their language by their refusal to learn others; about the nature of the English language itself, “undisciplined…bereft of concrete rules and structure”, not to mention “the appalling patois of ‘Amerenglishspeak’”.

I’d like to take this opportunity to point out that if English were truly bereft of structure, we would not understand each other. Even Yoda has to stick to the rules to a certain extent, and, more importantly, we notice his deviations from them. And American English is actually a perfectly legitimate means of expression (spell-check sometimes even prefers it); just ask Vonnegut, or Steinbeck, or Kingsolver, or Melville. If, as I think is probably the case, he was referring to slang, then I would suggest the problem is really one of register. All languages have grammar, a “correct” way of structuring sentences and expressing ideas, and yes, if David Cameron were to stand up and deliver a speech à la Ali-G we would probably find it highly inappropriate. But slang is in fact a remarkably creative use of language. As a means of communication it often contains strong meta-messages about the identity of the speaker, about the social group to which he feels he belongs, or about the tone he wishes to establish between himself and those he is speaking to. Has this guy never seen La Haine?! Slang is everywhere, and there’s nothing wrong with it; your use of it can even be a powerful creative tool.

More to the point, the argument confuses the symptom for the cause: English is widespread not because of the perceived laziness of its native speakers, but because of historical accidents and misdemeanours. The sweep of colonialism effectively wiped out many languages as a result of active and brutal suppressions, and the same can be said for the spread of Spanish, French and Portuguese. But English is not, as I have already pointed out, the most widely spoken language in the world – by number of native speakers, it comes in 3rd behind Mandarin and Spanish. Its power and international use have more to do with the political clout of its largest representative – the USA.

The apparent lack of interest in learning foreign languages is at most an adverse side-effect of this, and is perhaps also a little exaggerated. As a native speaker of English with dual nationality and a reasonable knowledge of three foreign languages, I still appear an “ignorant” English speaker if I go to Italy, or Norway, or Estonia, or Hungary…the point is, if you are Italian, or German for example, there is a much more obvious choice of which language to learn in terms of usefulness. Native English speakers have no such luxury. In fact, everyone else’s flawless command of English can become a hindrance to learning a foreign language, as the slightest grammatical error or confused pause can cause that Swedish shopkeeper to switch into English, for the sake of ease.

In the ubiquity of English, there is, however, an important lesson: “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy” is an aphorism quoted in the above-mentioned Independent article and one with a good deal of truth. In other words, the way a language is defined, or the choice of one language over another is very often political. In this respect, France has little to worry about. The desperate cries of lobbyists protesting that French is becoming little more than a regional dialect appear, if anything, a little melodramatic. No-one is obliged to speak any language but their local one; the choice to learn another is one of participation on a broader stage.

Equally, the choice to use one language over another can in fact be a direct expression of independence, of non-participation in a particular domain – as is the case with Welsh, Basque and Catalan (and French).Where this becomes more problematic is in the case of more marginalised communities, whose relative political powerlessness may prevent the effectiveness of any active use of their native language – a use which might even contribute to their further marginalisation.

Preservation in these cases is a delicate issue: while rejection of a native language can be seen as a rejection to a certain extent of cultural heritage, a rejection of the lingua franca decreases the ability to participate in more global political and economic spheres, thus paradoxically contributing to the demise of the community. This doesn’t mean, however, that two languages cannot be used alongside one another. Thus, while linguists and scientists can preserve a language in terms of a contribution to our knowledge of the variety of language, of human experience, to the canon of possible knowledge and expression; the decision to actively use one language or another is ultimately down to the community itself, an act of self-definition which is sadly not always free of restrictions.

Generally speaking though, language change is no bad thing, and, more to the point, it is unavoidable. In the words of Mark Twain, “ours is a mongrel language…borrowed, stolen, smouched from every unwatched language under the sun, the spelling of each individual word of the lot locating the source of the theft and preserving the memory of the revered crime.” And it is all the richer, all the more expressive for it. I personally find the discovery of hidden links between languages and unexpected roots to be a source of immense interest and enjoyment. There is no such thing as a pure language, and excessive demand for purity sounds just a little like xenophobia. While an exasperated Russian may find the words “biznes-lanch” and “kofi-breyk” a bit vulgar, he need only make the creative decision not to use them.

Language is more akin to a living organism than a solidly structured set of rules; it is the sum of our collective capacity for expression, culturally inherited but also subject to the individual’s imagination and experience. While it might not always seem so flexible in exam term when you’re poring over a grammar textbook, language is essentially fluid, and subject to change according to its general use. This is precisely the reason words from one language can be so easily acquired by another, and precisely the reason we all have little to fear. As long as there is variety of human experience, there will be words to express it. As soon as a language loses its flexibility, resists change, it loses its usefulness as a means of expression (even if it does not lose its value or its beauty). Of course some specific ideas, knowledge and means of expression will be lost over time, but surely this is inevitable even without the march of dominant languages over the globe. The idea that globalisation will lead to one homogenous tongue, wiping out our cultural differences is, quite frankly, laughable. More importantly, the influence of language is ultimately tidal, and the ebb is just as strong as the flow. It is unlikely that English will remain on top forever.


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