By Keira Ives-Keeler

13 June 2014 - 10:19

What's the future of English? Photo (cropped; levels adjusted) of dictionaries by John Keogh on Flickr under Creative Commons licence
'New forms of English are swiftly evolving.' Photo ©

John Keogh, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 and adapted from the original.

Linguistics expert David Crystal is in Russia to give a series of lectures. At the UK-Russia Linguistic Symposium at the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow, he described 'the future of Englishes' and the evolution of global varieties of English across the world. Keira Ives-Keeler of the British Council in Russia explains.

Advertising campaigns give an insight into how languages evolve

What role does advertising play in the evolution of languages and the relationship between language and cultural knowledge? Using the example of the well-known Heineken slogan, 'Heineken refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach', David Crystal explained how this initial phrase evolved with the help of word play. Over 30 years, the phrase came to represent an ad campaign with 300 variations on the same phrase, with the word 'parts' substituted with everything from 'parrots' to 'pilots' to 'poets'.

Understanding different cultures helps people understand different languages

David Crystal recounted the difficulties he had in explaining the Heineken campaign’s meaning to a group of Japanese English language teachers when they stumbled across a billboard for it whilst on a study trip to the UK. Their confusion highlighted the importance of cultural understanding as a tool for understanding languages.

He found it equally challenging to convey the same message and humour to an American friend when they came across the same billboard just a week later -- demonstrating that even native speakers often require cultural context in order to fully understand phrases in their mother tongue, as culture inevitably shapes the language that we use on a daily basis. As a localised national advertising campaign run exclusively in Britain, only those living in Britain and exposed to the campaign would understand the reference to 'refreshing the parrots that other beers cannot reach'. The phrase was utterly incomprehensible to anyone outside of that specific context.

New forms of 'English' are swiftly evolving

Crystal estimates that around 60-70 new 'Englishes' have emerged since the 1960s in countries across the globe. There are an estimated 400 million people who speak English as a first language and 7-800 million people who speak English as a second language. Around a billion more speak English as a foreign language. This means that now there is just one native speaker to every five non-native speakers of English -- an unprecedented situation in the history of languages. It also means that people are no longer exclusively looking to Britain. British English is now a minority amongst the many 'Englishes' that are spoken around the world.

'English is of no use beyond our shores', stated the Earl of Leicester upon returning from his tour of Europe in the late 1500s. Indeed, Chaucer asked why anyone would want to study English: a language 'with no literature' (as David pointed out, though, anyone lucky enough to have studied Chaucer would be able to confirm that his works are almost unintelligible to modern English speakers). And yet, in the very same year, Shakespeare emerged from his ‘lost years’ - a period from 1585 to 1592, when it was thought that the playwright was perfecting his dramatic skills and collecting sources for plots -- and produced some of his finest work. Just over a decade later, Walter Raleigh’s expeditions in the early 1600s saw American English take root within a matter of days, with terms such as 'wigwam' and 'skunk' appearing and becoming commonplace extremely quickly. It takes very little time for a language to evolve; this language 'of no use beyond British shores' grew from a population of four million speakers to two billion in just 400 years.

A language's development reflects the power of those who speak it

So how exactly did that happen? How did English grow so quickly and seemingly so unexpectedly? According to Crystal, in spite of the widespread notion that this is due, at least in part, to the fact that it is an easy language to learn, 'without any grammar', as some people have said, there is something much deeper behind the exponential growth of English as a global language. Crystal suggests that a language’s development is a direct reflection of the power of those who speak it. From the beginnings of the British Empire, to the industrial revolution in Britain, which brought significant technological and scientific developments and a number of influential inventions from English-speaking inventors, through to the continued economic power of the 19th century and cultural power of the 20th century, English has maintained its edge.

Speakers of English adapt the language to their local context

Turning his attention to colonial and post-colonial environments, Crystal suggested that even in countries where English was seen as the language of oppressors, complexities in the linguistic make-up of the local environment (for example, Nigeria where 500+ languages are spoken) meant that a 'better the devil you know' approach was adopted 'because at least everyone hates English equally'. This meant that English was adopted as an official language and then adapted to the local context. Within months of independence, thousands of new words appeared, linked to politics, food and drink, folklore and plants. Fifty years on, these words are featured in dictionaries of global English -- there are 15,000 Jamaican words and 10,000 South African words alone.

This trend of 'Englishes' in the plural shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon. But nothing lasts forever. Who knows whether English will retain its position as the widely accepted lingua franca. And if it does, then how many 'Englishes' might evolve? How can we prepare our students and in particular younger generations for this culturally diverse future?

Further information on David Crystal’s visit to Russia can be found on the British Council Russia website.

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