Ostraya, a lucky winner of the linguistic lottery
The expulsion of an Israeli diplomat this week took me back more than a quarter of a century, to the expulsion of the Soviet “diplomat” Valery Ivanov in 1983. Ivanov had been fingered as a KGB spy, and he was being thrown out for attempting to influence a senior A.L.P. figure, David Combe.
Surrounded by media at the airport, he gave a brief statement in Russian. As he turned to go, a voice rang out: “Could you say that again in Australian?”
Ivanov didn’t bother – he was gone. But the question stuck with me for one reason: it was the first time (though by no means the last) that I was to hear the language we speak referred to, not as English, nor as “Australian English”, but as “Australian”.
It’s probably not a coincidence that this happened just as the then relatively new Macquarie Dictionary had sold enough copies around Australia to make a wide impression on the public mind: a small but significant turning point in the national identity.
Since I make part of my living by trying to re-arrange the letters of the alphabet into relatively orderly and interesting patterns, I spend quite a lot of time thinking about the language we speak: its origins, its structure, its flexibility and its future. Most of us, though, treat the language as we treat the engine of our car: we scarcely ever look under the bonnet, and we don’t really care too much as long as it works.
I’ve written before about some of the dire consequences of this neglect – the proliferation of managerial gobbledeygook in which the bottom line is that ongoing situations impact outcomes at the end of the day - but it’s also worth pointing out how much pleasure and insight is to be had from understanding the history of the language we speak.
We can call it ‘Australian’ if we want, but in answer to the question “ Who is Australia’s greatest writer?”, I once heard the novelist David Malouf reply: “William Shakespeare”.
The fact is that we speak a language that was born on a foggy island off Northern Europe, but whose history has somehow made it uniquely adaptable to a globalised world.
The story of how this happened is entertainingly told in a new book, Globish, by Robert McCrum.
For him it is a revisiting of an old obsession: McCrum was the script-writer of the popular 1980s BBC TV series, The Story of English, in the 1980s.
But it’s in the nature of the story that he tells that there is a great deal new to say after the passage of 25 years.
The title comes from a French amateur linguistic historian, Jean-Paul Nerriere, who “noticed that non-native English-speakers in the Far East communicated more successfully with their Korean and Japanese clients than competing English or American executives”. He worked out that this “decaffeinated” English, which he named ‘Globish’, used a vocabulary of just 1,500 words.
Interviewed by McCrum, Jean-Paul Nerriere says he sees Globish, oddly, as a means of preserving the French language. Its spread, he confides, “will limit the influence of the English language dramatically”.
The book – without becoming a polemic - effectively becomes a long historical riposte to the Frenchman’s hopes.
McCrum’s point, essentially, is that English has survived and prospered because, unlike French, it has done very little to maintain its linguistic purity.
The Academie Francaise spent most of the last half century in a doomed effort to hold back the tide of neologisms, mostly from English. When I was Europe correspondent in the Eighties, they reacted to the Sony Walkman, for instance, by insisting it be called a “baladeur”, (from the word “balader’, to stroll or wander). A euphonious coinage, but quickly as outdated and irrelevant as the Walkman itself. Their attempts to enforce “informatique” for “software” fared no better. The list goes on.
McCrum, by contrast, uses the historical record to show how often the English language has been beaten and forced into accepting the new. First came the Saxons, who took British and turned it into a form of English. Then the Normans, who imposed French as the official language of Britain (lingua franca, of course, being the Latin for French language).
These, along with the Church’s insistence on Latin, ensured that English would be a mongrel thing, in which the strong bones of Anglo-Saxon provided a welcoming framework for any other languages that English-speakers came in contact with.
Hence, by the late 1500s, it was a language ready to explode with new vigour, primarily at Shakespeare’s hands.
Scholars attribute at least 1,700 new English words to Shakespeare.
According to the Shakespeare scholar and editor Jonathan Bate: “He gave us such verbs as “puke,” “torture,” “misquote,” “gossip,” “swagger,” “blanket” (Poor Tom’s “blanket my loins” in Lear), and “champion” (Macbeth’s “champion me to the utterance”). He invented the nouns “critic,” “mountaineer,” “pageantry,” and “eyeball”; the adjectives “fashionable,” “unreal,” “blood-stained,” “deafening,” “majestic,” and “domineering”; the adverbs “instinctively” and “obsequiously” in the sense of “behaving in the appropriate way to render obsequies for the dead.”
Most of us probably quote him unconsciously almost every day. Shakespearean phrases that have become commonplace, from Hamlet alone, include ‘cruel to be kind’, ‘mind’s eye’, ‘never a borrower nor a lender be’, ‘hoist by his own petard’, ‘north by northwest’, ‘to the manner born’, and ‘to thine own self be true’, to name just a few.
Less than a decade after Shakespeare’s death, the Pilgrim Fathers set sail for America. They were on the run from the prevailing culture of Jacobean England, but they took with them the language of Shakespeare and the King James Bible. Some words from that time – ‘dove’ for ‘dived’, ‘gotten’ for ‘got’- survived there while dying out in England. But many, many, new words grew in the new soil, and in regions of America, languages like French and Spanish further enriched the vocabulary. You could say that Shakespeare planted the field, but they took it to harvest, because it was the spread of English through North America which sealed the language – as we see now – as the world’s dominant tongue.
It’s thrived in many soils, but it’s in India that McCrum finds the strongest evidence that it’s English, and not the restricted vocabulary of Globish, that will be the key to economic survival in a globalised world. He takes us inside businesses – and not only call centres – where fluency in English is the key to what the novelist Aravind Adiga called “outsourcing companies that virtually run America now”.
Because English is currently so dominant, McCrum’s book occasionally takes on an almost triumphalist air reminiscent of British Imperial history books.
But when you see a country like Rwanda switching its official language from French to English (in 2008) so it can better trade with a wider market, it’s hard not to argue that by the simple accident of being colonised from London and not from Paris, Australia drew the lucky ticket in the linguistic lottery.
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