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19 April 2023
Some are born great […] Some achieve greatness […] And some have greatness thrust upon them
Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Act 3, Scene 4, lines 1584-1588
Shakespeare is celebrated as one of the most influential and important writers in English, the poster boy for the currently most ubiquitous language in the world. So, when the United Nations had to decide on what date we should observe English Language Day, it chose 23rd April, Shakespeare’s birthday.
English Language Day is part of an initiative launched by the UN’s Department of Global Communications. Established in 2010, Language Days serve to laud the achievements of languages and recognise the roles they play in facilitating communication. The historical and cultural richness of any language cannot be denied; but in the last century, the success of English has been inimitable and its place on the world’s stage unequal to that of its counterparts.
To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I ey’d, Such seems your beauty still.
Shakespeare, Sonnet 104, lines 1-3
The English language has been a boon to us all, serving as currency for procuring opportunities. But as with most things, there are two sides of the coin: a shiny one and one a little more tarnished. It’s impossible to consider the all-embracing success of English without mentioning the more controversial aspects of its ascent to power. We know that throughout history, the languages of those in charge have driven other languages and their variants to displacement, endangerment or even extinction. For those who wish to delve deeper into the complexities and evolution of English, perhaps give the book <u>English as a Global Language</u> a read. In the book, British linguist David Crystal presents a comprehensive look at the power politics that gave rise to the status of English as today’s powerhouse language.
The sheer number of speakers, learners and would-be learners using English as a tool for professional and personal growth is staggering. An estimated 1.5 billion people are non-native speakers or learners of English. On the other hand, not everyone has the resources to learn English, but this is quickly changing. There have been great efforts to provide access to English language learning to all; advances in technology and e-learning methodologies undoubtedly play a significant role in achieving this goal.
The English language has been a crucial vehicle for the inclusive dissemination of knowledge, exchange of information, sharing of ideas and means of collaboration in all disciplines and domains. From academics to artists to activists, many voices that would potentially otherwise go unheard resonate across borders thanks to the almost globally understood medium that is English. The ever-increasing success of English is paradoxically raising more awareness of the fragility of endangered languages, particularly through the internationalisation of research related to language preservation. In addition to the efforts of the UN and UNESCO, initiatives such as the World Oral Literature Project and the Endangered Languages Project involve institutions all over the world in saving our languages – and use English as a vehicle for communication.
The language I have learn'd these forty years, My native English, now I must forego
Shakespeare, Richard II, Act 1, Scene 3, lines 456-457
Speaking of preservation, language purists have long lamented the so-called deterioration of English due to foreign influence and commonplace usage of informal lexemes and colloquialisms; ironically, English is one of the languages that has most heavily borrowed from others. The actual percentage of loanwords varies depending on the source, with the highest percentage reported at 80%. Do purists advocate speaking like Shakespearean characters? I will boldly assume that, no, most, if not all, English speakers - natives, non-natives, pedants or cowboys – would find it preposterous to write, “Could thou please explain wherefore thou were absent from yesterday’s department meeting?”
Similarly, it is fundamentally unreasonable to insist that the “Queen’s English” (or should that be “King’s” now?) is the only real or correct English, as though the language she spoke exists in a static or even stagnant continuum. In an episode of his social commentary video series “Soapbox”, British television personality David Mitchell criticises linguistic pedants, declaring that even the Queen herself would want speakers to use “her English” as they see fit. I agree with Mitchell that people should be able to use orthographic variations and local synonyms without being stigmatised (or, as our friends across the pond would write, “stigmatized”).
On the other hand (and I will make another assumption here and say Mitchell would concur), language learners should study grammar as it provides a framework for coherent communication in a given language; but they should also be made aware of the flexibility of the language and common, though usually considered less formal, conventions of its usage. For example, it is traditionally considered incorrect to say “if I was” instead of “if I were” for expressing the conditional or hypothetical, as in “If I were a bear”, but many people say “if I was” without being misunderstood.
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet
Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II, lines 890-891
The accepted and shared understanding among language users about the meaning behind a colloquialism frequently renders the utterance legitimate, often regardless of whether the combination of words makes actual sense at face value. In the same video, Mitchell launches into a diatribe against the use of the illogical “could care less” when people mean “couldn’t care less”. It’s true that “could care less” does not actually make sense – but neither does “raining cats and dogs” or quitting something “cold turkey” and yet, enough English language users understand what those expressions mean. So, why not say “could care less” to mean “couldn’t care less”? The conceptual gap is insignificant compared to making the leap from cats and dogs to rain or, even stranger, how a large chilly game bird can help you quit that smoking habit. The Darwinian-like changes of language are incremental, gradual and favour what can adapt to the needs of its users. For example, “Oriental” became antiquated and pejorative around the 60s and 70s; “wicked” came to also mean “excellent” in the 20s; and “woke”, which first appeared in the 40s, has always been politically charged but is now used to insult or empower depending on the speaker. In the capital of Europe, a form of “Euro” English has been developed by those who work for and with the European institutions, where people go on “missions” to hold “trilogues” with “perm reps”. Non-native speakers have created their own English colloquialisms understood and used daily by an international group of users. In fact, English is such a staple of communication that many international hubs, such as Brussels and Helsinki, are discussing making English an official language.
[W]e know what we are, but know not what we may be.
Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act IV, Scene V, line 2905
In a way, the English language gets “celebrated” every day by the very virtue of its ubiquity. Languages are living entities that have the potential to organically branch out into variants, each with its own unique grammar, lexicon and pronunciation. There is already an extensive list of English-based Creole languages recognised as natural languages. And currently, speakers and scholars alike are discussing and defending African American Vernacular English and Chicano, or Hispanic Vernacular English, as natural languages in their own right. Given the complexity and rich, multifaceted history of English, no wonder it has a day on which we can celebrate everything it has been, is and will be. Regrettably, I can’t delve into a more comprehensive analysis of the language as I have a word limit to stick to. That’s right, I ended my sentence with a preposition, something still considered incorrect in some circles – but I couldn’t care less.
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