For a language that has been labelled the ‘lingua franca’ of today, English appears to no longer be a single and uniform language, but rather the source from which multiple other ‘Englishes’ have branched out. And while different dialects of English, such as Australian English and American English, have coexisted for centuries, ‘Standard English’ is diverging further away from the English native speakers know as it travels from country to country. This, predictably, raises the question of whether the English that is to be taught and learnt in a hundred years’ time will be the same English we use now or whether it will be a wholly disparate byproduct of the melting pot of a world we live in.
English Around the World: Kachru’s Circles
Braj Kachru simplified the divisions between how various parts of the world use English in his representative model in 1990. Kachru’s model comprised of three concentric circles, where the innermost circle is ‘norm providing’ (as it is where English is a native language), the second/ outer circle is ‘norm developing’ (and is where English is a predominant second language), leaving the outermost circle to be the ‘expanding circle’ (where English is a foreign language).
What many find striking about this model is the fact that the outermost circle is the largest, estimated to have around 1 billion people, whereas the outer circle only holds 300-500 million and the inner circle contains the least of all: 320-380 million. Moreso is the fact that the outer and expanding circles are where English is at its most dynamic, as it merges with and is affected by the languages already spoken there.
Prescriptivists- who take the view that there is an ‘ideal’ or correct way to use language – are concerned that the expanding circle of English will give rise to infinite changes to ‘Standard English’. In the past, the primary concern revolved around the clashing dialects of native English speakers that led playwright George Bernard Shaw to write, “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.” In the present day, however, the differences between the different versions of English have exceeded the boundaries of ‘dialect’; the current alterations of English are considered by many to be languages of their own.
In the outer circle, such as in Singapore and India, these languages may even have names: Singlish (for Singaporean English) and Hinglish (for the blend of Hindi and English). These new languages are predominantly used in casual settings rather than in official or business-related contexts; however, they are rapidly gaining popularity and character. For example, Norway has used Norweigan English to its advantage through code-switching’ in advertising. Litago, a brand of flavoured milk uses the catchy slogan, “Lita Ready! Lita Steady! Lita Go!”, language mixing Norweigan and English in a conversational and humorous way similar to that used in everyday life in Norway, showcasing just how widespread this new linguistic phenomenon really is.
In the expanding circle, English is still used as unconventionally- as it is sometimes mixed with the native language of its users- but often alters fundamentals of grammar and pronunciation. Japanese English, also known as ‘Jenglish’ or ‘Wasei-eigo’, for instance, simplifies English greatly, to the point where certain words are unrecognisable; Jenglish has replaced ‘suburb’ with “bed town” and ‘weighing scales’ with “health meter”. And while prescriptivists may consider this ‘wrecking’ English, it suits its users- and isn’t that the whole point of language- communication?
The reason that this is happening to English, of all languages, is its being as close to a lingua franca as a language could get, which infamous linguist David Crystal owed to “English turning up at the right time during these last 400 years or so which has produced the enormous cultural status that it has.” This allows English to fit in with Jared Diamond’s definition of a “language steamroller”- a language that spreads due to the strength of its people, wiping out the native languages of the places it goes. While the languages of countries in the outer and expanding circles are not being ‘wiped out’ completely, many youths around the world would describe themselves as feeling more comfortable speaking English rather than their own native tongue, meaning that, over time, Claude Hagege’s prediction may come to fruition. He believes that “by 2100, 90% of existing languages will cease to exist”- and this is not an especially outlandish figure considering that, already, only 6% of languages are spoken by 94% of the population.
None of this is bad news to English though, as it has grown so widespread that countries are instinctively blending it with their own languages in order to get through daily interaction. English is the official second language of at least 70 countries, making it an asset (as well as a necessity) in the workplace for almost any employee, and therefore, unsurprising that it has spread and evolved so much.
Why language prescriptivism does not help
As David Crystal once said, “Money talks… in English”- and if such creative language hybrids are to come out of our interconnected, globalised economy, can languages such as Chinglish, Spanglish and Wasei-eigo really be such a bad thing? Language exists to serve its users- it is a “means, and not an aim”- deeming it no disaster if Jenglish-speakers label prams as “baby cars”; all that matters is that the speakers are able to communicate efficiently and effectively. And while there will always be sceptics, such as H.G. Widdowson, who chose to see the unification of peoples through language as an uncontrollable, or even infectious, ‘spread’ rather than ‘distribution’ that threatens the English language, the words of Thomas Lounsbury stand. The 20th century Language and Literature Yale professor speculated that there has been,
“in every period of the past, as there is now, a distinct apprehension in the minds of very many worthy persons that the English tongue is always in the condition of approaching collapse”
– but that, quite obviously, English is still very much intact and in ‘avid usage’ worldwide. Of course, English has changed vastly and will continue to change. But that is the nature of language; it is “the creature and creator of society”, as Michael Halliday calls it; thus, it is only stagnant societies that have unchanging languages. To put things into perspective, speakers of Old English would find contemporary English totally unrecognisable, although ‘our English’ would not have existed had it not been for theirs. Through that lens, it becomes nonsensical to question and compare which English was ‘the best English’, especially since it is the speakers who give a language its power and importance rather than vice versa. In language expert Jean Aitchison’s words: “Purists behave as if there was a vintage year when language achieved a measure of excellence which we should all strive to maintain. In fact, there was never such a year.”
Furthermore, condemning a language simply because it is different to ‘Standard English’ is a highly outdated and even ethnocentric paradigm to harbour, which is why Paul Kerswill wholly avoided defining ‘Standard English’ to begin with. His view was that the idea of its being ‘correct’ or superior to other forms is closely related to the perspective of the particular language user. Before judging an object and fretting about its future, one must consider its purpose, and the purpose of language is to connect humans rather than sort their speech into hierarchies.
Overall, it is undeniable that English has reached the ends of the globe and that it has remoulded itself to suit its new users. This, however, is no cause for concern- especially as it is unstoppable. The best course of action would be to accept these language changes with open arms and minds, keeping David Crystal’s words before us:
“At any one time, language is a kaleidoscope of styles, genres and dialects”.
There is as much language change happening in the cyber realm as there is happening in the physical world, if not more, and that is also to be considered and accepted with an open mind. As for the future of English as a language, that is up to its users when the time comes! There may be one ‘melting pot’ form of English in a few hundred years’ time, but it could also be a ‘salad bowl’ language that has ‘picked and mixed’ terms from around the world in true Postmodern fashion- or there may continue to be a ‘standard’ form with local alternatives. Only time will tell. Until then, we must, like language descriptivists, note the minor alterations of today that could be the base of tomorrow’s speech and what this could be telling us about the world we live in. After all, as David Crystal has noted, “anyone interested in language ends up writing about the sociological issues around it”, taking us to the goal behind the communication language facilitates: living our days in harmony.