One of the most troublesome topics in politics today: Should English be enshrined as this nation’s official language?
That is an absolute, unqualified Yes! Dear friends, English is not only America’s native tongue, but it is also well on the way to becoming the world’s speech pattern. Over the globe some 350 million people speak English, and it often seems the rest try to.
I really was of two minds on this issue until I read The Mother Tongue (English & How it Got That Way) by Bill Bryson, an American journalist living in England and working for The Times of London and The Independent.
Bryson reveals that demand is so great there are more students of English in China than there are people in the United States. It is the world’s common language of business, science, education, politics and pop music. In India there are 3,000 English language newspapers. Of the world’s 168 airlines, 157 fly on the language of Shakespeare. The six members of the European Trade Commission conduct their business in English although not one is an English-speaking nation. Germans now speak of “ein image problem,”; Italians program with “il software”; French pause for “les refueling stops”; Poles watch “telewizja”; Spaniards “flirt”; Austrians eat “Big Macs”; and Japanese dine on a “pikunnikki.”
There are very good reasons for this linguistic stampede. Our language is astonishingly flexible and commands a monumental vocabulary. One of the beauties of English is that even with a slim grasp of grammar any foreigner can get ideas across if he tries hard enough, as witness this warning to motorists in Tokyo: “When a passenger of the foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet at him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage, then tootle with vigor.”
Foundation of English’s strength is, of course, its giant vocabulary, fifty percent of which has been filched from other languages then sand papered and anglicized. The Oxford English Dictionary lists 615,000 words, but if you ring in scientific and technical terms the total runs into the millions. In comparison German has 184,000 words in common usage and French 100,000.
English is the only language with a book of synonyms, or a need for one. Our wealth of synonyms means we can express shades of meaning unavailable to other tongues. The French cannot separate “house” and “home,” “mind” and “brain,” “man” and “gentleman,” or between “I wrote” and “I have written.” Spaniards can’t distinguish a “chairman” from a “president.” And Italians have no way to express “wishful thinking.” Russians have no native words for “efficiency,” “challenge,” “engagement ring” or “take care.”
Flexibility of the parts of speech is a main key to English’s popularity. We can roam between active and passive verbs, saying “I kicked the dog,” or “The dog was kicked by me,” impossible in many languages. Our pronouns are mostly uninflected. In German if you want to say “you” then you must choose among “du, dich, dir, Sie, Ihnen, ihr” and “euch.” Choosing the wrong one can cause social problems. Another great godsend of English is that we have dropped noun gender, so we don’t have to start (one fancies from birth) memorizing whether each noun is masculine, feminine or neuter.
English tends to be concise. German is full of jawbreakers as “Wirtschaftstreuhandgesellschaft” (business trust company). Dutch firms often have names 40 letters long. We breeze along with labels like IBM, laser and NATO.
English is adaptable. As a ditch digger one can drift through life knowing only a few hundred words. As an ultra-prissy author one can sift through hundreds of thousands of words for just the right one. And it is usually there: “arachibutyrophobia” describes the fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth; “muliebrity” creates the state of being a woman. If you like to stare through windows the word is “crystoscopophilia.” “Ugsome” is a downright fetching ancient word meaning loathsome or disgusting.
Words can come into existence in various ways: by adding to them, subtracting from them, by making them up, or by doing nothing to them. OED lists 350 words which appeared by mistake or mishearing; thus “buttonhold” became buttonhole. “Sweethard” became sweetheart, and “catercorner” became catty-corner. One of the most embarrassing mistakes in English occurred when poet Robert Browning mistook the word “twat” for a nun’s headgear and used it in a poem.
Words are adopted, a practice at which English excels. We get “shampoo” from India, “chaparral” from the Basques, “ketchup” from China, “potato” from Haiti, “caucus” from Indians, “boondocks” from the Philippines, and “slogan” from the Gaels. As early as the 16th century English had appropriated words from 50 other languages.
Words are created. Until the late Middle Ages “hound” described a canine. Then “dog” appeared, a word unrelated to any other, and no one knows why. Others without a pedigree include, “jaw,” “jam,” “bad,” “big,” “gloat,” “fun,” “noisome,” “numskull,” and “blizzard.” Shakespeare contributed “barefaced,” “frugal,” “monumental,” “castigate,” “majestic,” “obscene,” “countless,” “dwindle,” “excellent,” “fretful,” “hint,” “hurry,” and “lonely” — along with one thousand others, most still in use today.
Words change by standing still. “Counterfeit” once meant a legitimate copy. “Crafty” was once a word of praise. Word drift includes “girl,” which in Chaucer’s time was any young person. Alteration of words over the centuries is most dramatically illustrated in literature: Thomas Hardy has one of his characters gaze upon “the unattractive exterior of Farfrae’s erection.” Dickens writes that “Sir Leicester leans back in his chair and breathlessly ejaculates.”
Words are created by adding or subtracting. We boast more than a hundred common prefixes and suffixes. With them we can take an inoffensive little French word like “Mutin” (rebellion) and turn it into “mutiny,” “mutinous,” “mutinously,” “mutineer,” and others, while the French have no way of retaliating. We also have six ways of expressing negation with prefixes: “a-, anti-, in-, il-, im-, ir-, and non-.”
So the silly drive to make us a multilingual society ain’t going to work. We’re speaking the big enchilada of languages now. Why should we, or our immigrants, settle for less?
Though, to be fair, nothing said here should deter anyone from learning a foreign language. As the saying goes, “He who knows only his own language doesn’t even know that.”