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July 1, 2008

Chinglish Linguistics: English as We Know It, Plans to Stick Around

China_map.pngIt may or may not be surprising to you that more people in China are learning English as a second language than there are people in the US learning English as a primary language.

English is the international language of business and will only become more so in the future. It is interesting to note that the Chief Executive of LG Electronics, Yong Nam, recently declared that all business at LG will be conducted in English, even at its corporate headquarters in South Korea.

Michael Erard, in a recent Wired magazine article, has his own take on how the Chinese might influence the English language long term. English, according to Erard, "is happily leading an alternative lifestyle without us."

Actually, it's been doing that for a long time, as have other languages when they served as the language of commerce or scholarship. Julius Caesar would have been hard put to understand the Latin of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Very little of the French used as a lingua franca in North Africa would win the approval of the Académie française. And then there's George Bernard Shaw's joke about England and America being "two countries separated by a common language."

Thanks to the Internet, however, native speakers of a language are now much more aware of the way others (mis)use their language. We've pointed out a number of instances on this blog before, with discussions of "Konglish" and "Engrish."

beijing-olympics-2008.pngThanks to the upcoming Beijing Olympics, the variant provoking the most comment at the moment is "Chinglish," English as employed by the Chinese, familiar to many of us from restaurant menus.

On the same day Erard's essay appeared in Wired, the Telegraph in the UK asserted that "English will turn into Panglish in 100 years."

Frankly, I doubt it. Even the expert interviewed by the Telegraph reporter admitted that she couldn't predict whether there would be one version of "Panglish" used across the globe, or "scores of wildly varying Englishes, many or most of them heading toward mutual unintelligibility."

We might, in fact, end up with both and neither.

If the Chinese speaker and the Hindi speaker want to converse in English, they're likely to need to use something closer to American or British English than to the English they speak with their countryfolk. One of the reasons they'd both be using English is because their native languages are so different from one another, and would therefore influence their use of English in ways that are likely to cause more confusion than using Hollywood English.

chinglish-1.pngFurthermore, the number of non-native speakers of a language doesn't seem to influence its use by native speakers.

While English has always been a voracious importer of foreign words, the only way Chinglish could come to dominate in America would be if there were suddenly more Chinese speakers than English speakers living here and they produced all of our movies, TV, and radio. And that still wouldn't be likely to stop the older generations from speaking the language they grew up with, any more than language reform movements in Germany or Holland have.

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Posted by Diane Prange at July 1, 2008 8:07 AM
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