Internet’s unexpected impact
on spoken English
When China's population topped 1 billion in 1982 some demographers predicted that, if the country’s birth rate continued unabated, Chinese would rapidly replace English as the world’s dominant language.
Another hypothesis doing the rounds among the chattering classes back then was that, in time, only eight of the world’s languages would survive and that all others would gradually die out. Today, 7,000 languages are in daily use.
The surviving-languages theory was based on the numbers of people who spoke the world’s main languages either as a primary or as a secondary tongue.
It was argued that the eight koines destined to endure were Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish, Russian, French, Hindi/Urdu, Arabic and Portuguese. (This last contender often surprised people until they realised that Portuguese is the national language in Brazil, whose 193 million inhabitants account for about half of the South American continent’s population).
Both these linguistic postulations have so far proved wrong – partly because neither prophecy had reckoned with the impact of the Internet, where English has since expanded its influence to become the lingua franca of cyberspace. In doing so, English has increased its traction beyond the Anglophone diaspora, albeit in forms that are occasionally unrecognisable to many of us.
The Internet was not the first technology to unexpectedly alter the natural progression of linguistic development.
When Johannes Gutenberg unveiled his printing press in 1440 his intent was to slash the time taken to produce and disseminate the written word so that knowledge previously confined to a privileged few could be shared more widely and more rapidly. Until then, everything was penned by hand, and the task of writing a book – or even just copying a manuscript – often took years.
But, in addition to cranking up book production, Gutenberg’s invention also had an unforeseen result: as the written word became widely available, the desire to read spread like wildfire among the masses. Before Gutenberg, there had been almost no reading material available. And, if there was nothing to read, why would anyone bother learning the skill? But gradually this arcane past-time shifted from the realm of a few monks and scholars into the hands of the great unwashed.
Another unexpected effect of Gutenberg’s machine was that, as the printed word spread through Europe’s German-speaking regions, it started to homogenise the spoken language. This was because, as people in dispersed regions all began reading the same texts, they gradually accepted this rendition as the ‘standard version’ of their language and adapted their speech accordingly – though some regional vocabulary variations in the spoken language persist.
Curiously, the Internet seems to be having the opposite effect on English: far from standardising the language, it is spawning enclaves of ‘Minglish’ speakers: people of different regions or ethnic groups who, sharing no common language, communicate with each other through a form of English heavily mixed with vocabulary and phrases from their own and/or other regional languages. This enhanced pidgin frequently uses a greatly simplified grammar, not unlike text-speak, along with a syntax which is sometimes baffling to mainstream Anglophones.
In Nigeria, for example, the main pidgin patter comprises English laced with vocabulary from the three main indigenous languages – Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba – much of it riddled with ‘bullets’ (grammatical errors, in the current argot). In addition, many English words take on an entirely different meaning in local usage so that, in Nigeria for example, ‘vibrate’ means to exert oneself, someone who has ‘long legs’ is well connected and a well-travelled person is a ‘been-to’. Such expressions are not beyond decryption by an intelligent mind. However, when a Yoruba word or phrase is sandwiched between two Englished-based phrases, meaning is frequently completely lost in the resulting Minglish.
15 official languages
In India, which depending on one’s view is blessed or burdened with 15 official languages and over 1,500 mother-tongue dialects, ‘Hinglish’ – a blend of Hindi and English mixed with Punjabi and Urdu – is becoming so widely used that Britain is even starting to run courses for its diplomats.
Unlike the pidgin varieties spoken in Africa, Hinglish is gradually being given official status in India, where the Times of India reported that the Delhi government had sanctioned its use to replace ‘difficult’ Hindi words in official documents. There has also been a relaxation of rules governing the written word, with an increasing number of ‘imported’ words being penned in Roman script rather than using the more complex Devanagari ( डऎवऩघढ़ ) alphabet.
It may be true, as some purists insist, that you can only be master of one language, but the success of Hinglish seems to suggest that the answer to the bilingualism conundrum is linguistic cross-dressing.
As Africans and Asians tailor English to suit their own needs, the time may come when people no longer ask ‘Do you speak English?’ but, rather, may inquire which regional flavour of English another person prefers to converse in.