Absorbing Words From Other Languages Has Made English Syncretic !

Credit: Clarissa Watson/ unsplash
  • Who owns the English language? The answer to this question is no longer as straightforward as the English.
  • According to the latest figures from the British Council, English is “spoken at a useful level” by about 1.75 billion people.
  • People use English not only  as a first language, but also the hundreds of millions more who speak it as a second or foreign language.

English spread across the globe largely as a result of imperialism, as the language was imposed on colonies in Asia, Africa, Australia and the Americas. When these former colonies achieved independence, many chose to retain the use of English, usually to function as a primary working language and neutral medium of communication for their diverse populations.

Predominance Of English

Today, the predominance of English as a language of science, technology, business, diplomacy and entertainment has given many people around the world a strong incentive to acquire the language. From Brazil to South Korea, Spain to Indonesia, millions of people are learning English, and they too are making their own mark on its development. 

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has documented many of the words that these new communities of English speakers have added to the vocabulary. Many of these words are borrowings from other languages with which English is in constant contact, such as lepak (to loiter aimlessly) from Malay, deurmekaar (confused, muddled) from Afrikaans, kaveera (a plastic bag) from Luganda etc.

Speakers of world varieties of English are remaking its vocabulary to better express their identities, cultures and everyday realities. In Hong Kong, people exclaim to add oil as a show of encouragement or support, an expression literally translated from the Cantonese gā yáu, with reference to petrol being injected into an engine. In Nigeria, a mama put is a street-food stall, and its name comes from the way that its customers usually order food: they say “Mama, put …” to the woman running the stall, and point to the dish they want so it can be put on their plate.

Meanwhile, the Japanese have invented, and South Koreans have popularized, the word skinship, a blend of the words skin and kinship that refers to the close physical contact between parent and child or between lovers or friends.

Borrowed Words

In Oxford University Press’s Gift of Words campaign this year,  people who speak more than one language were asked to “gift” a word from their first to their second language, and vice versa. The responses received highlight even more words that multilingual English speakers felt they had to borrow from their other languages for lack of a direct equivalent in English: words such as saudade (nostalgic longing) from Portuguese. 

Calling these borrowed words “gifts” is an important reframing, as many value language purity over diversity and consider external influences a threat to the integrity of a language. But this is in contradiction to how language works, as the borrowing of words is part of the natural evolution of all living languages. English is particularly notable for its ability to absorb elements from other languages. 

Contrary to popular belief, it is multilingualism rather than monolingualism that is the norm, with various reports estimating that between 60% and 75% of the global population can speak more than one language. Changing our attitudes towards multilingualism and language variation is vital to fight the linguistic prejudice that causes people to be discriminated against for not using the “right” words or for speaking in the “wrong” accent. It is only when we share ownership of English, and embrace the language in all its diversity, that it can truly be a gift that everyone can benefit from.

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Source: Theguardian