About the Author

Mark Abley

Mark Abley was born in Leamington Spa, England, in 1955. From age six to twenty he lived in Lethbridge and Saskatoon. After winning a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Saskatchewan, he went to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship and received his Master of Arts degree in English Language and Literature. He and his wife live in Montreal.

For the past seven years, Mark Abley has been a contributing editor to Macleans's and a regular writer for Saturday Night, CBC Radio's "Ideas" and The Times Literary Supplement. He has also written for the Globe and Mail, Canadian Literature, The Listener, and the New Statesman.

Books by this Author
Beyond Forget

Beyond Forget

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Camp Fossil Eyes

Camp Fossil Eyes

Digging for the Origins of Words
by Mark Abley
illustrated by Kathryn Adams
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Conversations with a Dead Man

The Legacy of Duncan Campbell Scott
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Spoken Here

Spoken Here

Travels among Threatened Languages
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Excerpt

1: Patrick’s Language

An old man watches a milky ocean roll in to the shore. High above the waterline, two children are skipping barefoot along an otherwise empty beach, its contours defined and guarded by a pair of mangrove swamps. A long, low island nudges the western horizon. This could be an afternoon scene on almost any tropical coast: the heat rising off the sand, a hawk scouring the sky. In fact, the surf is brushing a remote edge of northern Australia -- remote, that is, except to the old man’s people, the Mati Ke, who may have lived in the area for tens of thousands of years.

One of the children pauses in her game. Among the fragments of driftwood and corrugated iron, the rusted fishing traps and crushed plastic bottles, she has found something different: a shell as long as her forearm. She looks up from the beach to the few scattered houses in the hamlet of Kuy. Then she calls to her grandmother, Mona, who is sitting as usual on a yellow foam mattress. Laid out on a verandah, the mattress gives a view of the sea.

The child uses her grandmother’s language, Murrinh-Patha. It’s also her own, and the daily language of a few thousand other people in the region. Most of its speakers live an hour’s rough ride away, in a town called Wadeye. The trip is possible only in a four-wheel-drive vehicle down a dirt trail that slithers inland through the silver-green bush, passing the corpse of a small airplane and fording the same creek twice before it links up with a gravel road that ends or begins in town.

Somewhere along that trail, as you skirt the treacherous pools of deep red sand or disturb a loud gathering of cockatoos, you pass a border. The border is no less real for its lack of fences, checkpoints, and customs officers. It marks the ancient division between the Murrinh-Patha land that includes the town of Wadeye and the Mati Ke land that includes the small outstation here at Kuy. In Aboriginal Australia, land and language are intimately related. Traditionally, the continent was de- fined and divided not only by its hills, creeks, and water holes but also by its hundreds of languages. Wadeye grew up in the 1930s as a Catholic mission, and the Mati Ke were one of several peoples who moved off their land and switched over -- out of a mixture of respect, convenience, and necessity -- to a daily use of Murrinh-Patha. They also learned English, so as to comprehend the noise of authority. At first, nobody realized that the Mati Ke language was slipping away.

From her home above a calm shore of the Timor Sea, Mona gives her granddaughter an encouraging shout. Then she turns to her husband, Patrick Nudjulu, to explain. Unless he is wearing his hearing aid, words are lost on Patrick. But as the old man of Kuy, he likes to know what’s going on. Besides, this is his land. Its stories belong to him.

Standing there on his verandah, his beard and flowing hair the color of the snow he has never seen, his skin as dark as wild grapes, Patrick has the gravitas of a biblical patriarch -- a tall one, with a sly sense of humor. Some days he doesn’t bother to put on a shirt. But if there’s any chance that strangers might be present, he always wears long pants and shoes. That way, it won’t be obvious that one of his legs is false -- the aftermath of leprosy in his youth. A slight film over his eyes betrays the arrival of cataracts. But he can still see down to the beach; he can dream; he can remember.

“I remember all,” he says in English, his fourth or fifth language. “I was born in my own bush here. Therefore I can’t forget.” He sips from a tin mug of tea that Mona has brewed up on the open fire pit at the far end of the verandah. “I dream in Mati Ke. See all the past.”

And maybe the future, too? “Yeah.” The old man is grinning. A few of his teeth are left. “Old future, and new future.”

In his dreams, the fruit of the peanut tree whose seeds are eaten raw in the wet season is mi warzu. That’s the name of the fruit in Mati Ke. But if he mentions the dream to Mona, he reverts to her more powerful language, Murrinh-Patha, and talks about mi kurl. The saltwater prawns that his grandchildren find among the mangroves are a dhan gi in his own tongue. But to Mona and the grandchildren, they are ku tha-pulinh. The delicious goanna lizard that roams the bush all year is a wayelh in Mati Ke. But to speak of it and make himself understood, Patrick has to call the lizard ku yagurr.

A wide-eyed boy about a year in age totters over from the mattress where Mona is sitting. Children no more than five or seven years old take turns looking after him, hauling him back to his grandmother for comfort if he falls. Patrick peels a mandarin orange and hands it, chunk by chunk, to the little boy. Conch shell in hand, the boy’s sister arrives beaming from the beach. Slumped beside Patrick’s bamboo fishing spear farther along the verandah, an older grandchild on the brink of adolescence looks on. He and his mother are visiting from their home in Wadeye. His shirt is army fatigue; his hair displays streaks of blond dye; his gaze is sullen.

Patrick too spent many years in town. His family began to give up the bush when he was a boy. Over the decades, he watched Wadeye evolve from a resting place of hunters and foragers to a sit-down community, dependent on the welfare subsidies that Australia’s government, possibly with noble intentions, has chosen to give Aboriginal people. Deprived of the old habits of life, unable to embrace the new, a host of men and women forfeited their pride. Patrick did not. Twelve or fifteen years ago, when the government was promoting the growth of outstations as a way for Aboriginal people to regain a spirit of independence and self-control, he led his wife and some of their extended family away from the frustrations of town and back to his own land, the place he knew by heart. Not that they were returning to the bark-and-bough shelters of his childhood. The government built bungalows at Kuy, and erected a small water tower, and hooked up electricity. Patrick’s house has solar panels in its corrugated roof. One of the other houses is equipped with a satellite dish, and the children of the outstation go there to watch TV.

The TV pours a quick, bubbling stream of English into their ears and minds; but primary school and family life take place in Murrinh-Patha. Sometimes Patrick speaks to his grandchildren in Mati Ke, and he claims they understand. Yet whether they grasp more than a few commands, a familiar phrase or two, is open to doubt. They answer him in Murrinh-Patha: the language of their parents, their friends, their doting grandmother. Words in their grandfather’s tongue trip haltingly, if at all, off their lips. What Patrick Nudjulu hears only in his dreams is another fluent speaker of Mati Ke.

The lone elder, the half-comprehending family, the stealthy invasion of other languages -- this scene is not unique to Kuy, or Australia, or the Southern Hemisphere. It is happening all over the planet, from the snow-peaks of the Himalayas to the humid rivers of West Africa and the shantytowns of great cities in South America. The phenomenon is not new, for languages have always been in flux; languages have always died. No one alive today can hold a conversation in Hittite or Nubian. But the sheer pace of change is unprecedented. On every inhabited continent, languages keep falling silent. New replacements are rare. Linguists believe that about six thousand languages still flow into human ears: the exact total is a matter of debate. By some estimates, a maximum of three thousand are likely to be heard at the century’s end, and fewer than six hundred of those appear secure. Within our children’s lifetimes, thousands of human languages seem fated to dwindle away.

They are vanishing under similar pressures. A few languages of high prestige -- English is the prime but not the sole example -- dominate the media and the marketplace, school systems and bureaucracies. Almost anywhere you care to go -- the Cayman Islands, the Andaman Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Galápagos Islands -- young people are absorbing the same music and watching the same movies, most of them from Hollywood. Local cultures, less forceful, less alluring, are swept aside. At the same time, economic patterns of migration and displacement mean that fewer and fewer small languages still have a vibrant local base, a spoken homeland they can call their own. Cities provide new opportunities; they also blur and erase old identities. A minority language can quickly come to seem a hobby for the old -- a quaint refuge from ambition, knowledge, progress. A minority language always depends on popular will. It dies as its voices fade in the midst of Palm Pilots, cell phones, and Walkmans. It dies as its remaining speakers find they have less and less to talk about.

The price of that loss is beyond estimation. We have grown used to giving cultural artifacts a dollar figure: so many thousand for a Yeats manuscript, so many million for a Ming porcelain. But a language is more than any artifact. You can’t slap a price tag on a language, no matter how small and obscure, any more than you can pin down the financial value of an ivory-billed woodpecker or a bill of rights. Mati Ke lacks the ever burgeoning scientific terminology of English and Japanese, nor does it enjoy a written literature. But like all other human languages, it is a full and rich expression of a way of life, a culture, an identity. Whether or not it ever makes sense to use the term “primitive society,” the phrase “primitive language” is an absurdity.

Mati Ke, for example, arranges all the objects and beings in the world by means of a system of noun classes. You can’t speak of an object without also classifying it. There are ten of these classes, and they reveal an enormous amount about how Patrick Nudjulu understands his daily experience. A kind of red-flowering tree, for instance, is thawurr babarlthang -- thawurr being the noun class for trees, wooden items, and long rigid objects. The string made from the inner bark of that tree is nhanjdji babarlthang. You use nhanjdji in front of a broad range of substances both
manufactured, like the bark string, and natural: the wind, the sand, the sun. The tree’s edible seeds are mi babarlthang; all vegetable foods are prefaced by mi. And so on. Weapons go in the same class as lightning. Places go in the same class as times (Mati Ke, you might say, anticipated Einstein by several thousand years). Speech and language deserve a separate noun class of their own. This is how Mati Ke interprets the world.

Murrinh-Patha’s vocabulary is very different from Mati Ke’s, but the underlying syntax is similar. Its arithmetic stops at the number five. Yet without counting, a fluent speaker of Murrinh-Patha knows thirty-one different pronouns and thirty-five verb classes. The grammar and syntax of Mati Ke and Murrinh-Patha are just as elaborate, just as complex and intellectually demanding, as the grammar and syntax of any well-known European tongue. Being widely spoken does not make a language any better, more intelligent, or more perceptive than a language that has never spread beyond its birthplace. As the literary critic George Steiner once observed, “We have no sound basis on which to argue that extinct languages failed their speakers, that only the most comprehensive or those with the greatest wealth of grammatical means have endured. On the contrary: a number of dead languages are among the most obvious splendours of human intelligence.”

In Aboriginal culture, human life and the rest of the natural world are bound together by a system of totems -- a child grows up in the knowledge that she belongs to the totem of the bush yam, say, or the female kangaroo. The language reflects and embodies this understanding. In Mati Ke, nhanjdji marri is the name for the cycad -- an ancient plant whose tall, palmlike fronds are a familiar sight in the northern Australian bush. The cycad’s seeds, poisonous straight off the plant, can be made into a kind of flour after prolonged washing; those seeds, being eventually edible, are mi marri. But a defines the class for animals (and people, if you mean to insult them). So what are we to make of a marri? That’s the word, it turns out, for a kind of bush cockroach that inhabits dead cycad fronds. The class for higher beings -- spirits and also people, if you’re referring to them with respect -- is expressed by me. And me marri defines those people whose totems are the cycad and the bush cockroach. Aboriginal languages have fewer words in them than English does. But those words are held and balanced in an intricate web of relationships. Lose the vocabulary, and you lose the relationships too.

Back in town, in a windowless room of the local museum, a ginger-haired, Queensland-born electrician named Mark Crocombe works part time as coordinator of the Wadeye Aboriginal Languages Centre. He spends most of his time on Mati Ke and a few other local languages whose numbers are severely depleted. High above the bark paintings and black-and-white photographs on the museum’s walls, a gecko awaits mosquitoes. SLAYER AS GOD reads a piece of graffiti inscribed in neat capital letters outside the front door -- TV shows like Buffy having permeated most of the human world. Once in a while, when his other jobs allow, Mark Crocombe leaves the office, fetches a camcorder from his house, puts it on the passenger seat of his beat-up minivan, and drives out to Kuy. His aim is to record Patrick speaking Mati Ke.

Thanks to their sporadic efforts, Mati Ke will experience a kind of afterlife: a partial, disembodied future. Elsewhere in Australia and in dozens of other countries, too, anthropologists, linguists, graduate students, tribal insiders, and well-meaning outsiders are hastening to record the voices of elders. Every captured story is a small victory over time. Through the electronic power of CD-ROMs or the slightly older magic of cassette tapes and the printed page, students in decades to come will be able to gain a limited knowledge of a vanished tongue. But a CD-ROM of an extinct language bears an uneasy resemblance to a stuffed dodo. A museum specimen, lovingly preserved, can give scientists all sorts of useful information except, perhaps, what is most essential: how the extinct bird behaved in the wild. Likewise, languages are social creations, constantly being tested and renewed in the mouths of their speakers. They require use, not just study. You can no more restore a vanished language from a scholarly monograph and a software program than you can restore a population of cheetahs from a vial of frozen sperm and a National
Geographic film.

Hence the loneliness of Patrick Nudjulu: the gathering silence behind the old man’s eyes. Speaking to his wife, his children, and his grandchildren, he employs a language that does not come as naturally to him as breath. The grandchildren jostle around him on the verandah facing the milky sea. But occasionally he brushes them aside, looking out on the water and the powdery beach without saying a word.

The coastal outstation at Kuy was, from my perspective as a North American, the most remote place I would visit between the years 2000 and 2002. Likewise, Mati Ke and Murrinh-Patha were among the most distant languages from my own that I would hear: among the most foreign ways of exercising the mind. Living in Montreal, a city where English, French, and other languages are in daily contact -- usually friendly, sometimes bitter -- I had seen a good many statistics about language loss. But the statistics told little of the passions and arguments that arise from a language’s disappearance. And it was the emotions, not the numbers, that I cared about: the figures of speech, not the figures on a chart. I wasn’t sure I could imagine what it meant for men and women to feel the language of their childhood melting away. I wasn’t sure how much sense it made for them to fight back.

Eventually I embarked on a series of journeys, investigating the fate of linguistic diversity in places as discrepant as a village in the Canadian Arctic and an island off the Australian coast, a scrub farm in Oklahoma and a medieval city in Provence. In a few of these places, minority languages appear to be settling down into a comfortable oblivion; in others, the speakers of lesser-used languages are battling, not just to preserve a language but to strengthen and extend it. The tongues I heard are by no means a representative sample of the world’s endangered languages -- working without the help of researchers, secretaries, or graduate students, I did not have the resources to explore countries like Papua New Guinea and Cameroon, where hundreds of small languages survive. Still, I believe that the challenges facing hundreds, even thousands of minority languages are mirrored in these pages.

In Oklahoma, for example, I spent some time among the few remaining speakers of the Yuchi language. Yuchi is what linguists call an isolate: it bears a clear relation to no other living tongue. I wanted to discover what knowledge and understanding may die with Yuchi if it does indeed disappear. In the south of France, I hoped to see whether Provençal -- one of the great literary languages of Europe -- has a future as well as a past. Meeting speakers of Yiddish in several places would allow me to investigate the fate of a diaspora language. In Wales, the country where my parents were born, I was keen to discover how a Celtic language has, against all odds, remained vibrant beside the homeland of English. And so on.

Wherever I traveled, I tried to listen to the actual speakers of languages under threat -- the loyalists of minority cultures. How do people who know their language is endangered bear the weight of such knowledge? I wanted to see how far their defiance could stretch, and how easily resignation could take hold. I wanted to learn what steps can be taken to sustain and strengthen a threatened tongue. Above all, I wanted to test my own hunch that the looming extinction of so many languages marks a decisive moment in human history -- a turning away from vocal diversity in favor of what optimists see as a global soul and others as a soulless monoculture. In the end, should anybody care that thousands of languages are at risk?

That’s the central question I will attempt to answer in this book. But I have a confession to make. I work as a journalist, poet, and editor; I am not a professional linguist. Indeed, my knowledge of the entire discipline of linguistics is patchy and often cursory. These pages do not touch on constructional homonymity and depth-first parsers; such matters lie beyond my frame of reference. My defense is one of analogy. You don’t have to be a theologian to talk of God; you don’t have to be a veterinarian to describe cats. Besides, this book is not just about threatened languages but about the people who speak them. I beg the forgiveness of linguists for trespassing on their territory and perpetrating whatever blunders have found a home in these pages -- and I would gently remind them that their own voices are unlikely to be heard on the subject unless they speak out in terms that are lucid, intelligible, and free from jargon.

What will we lose if our abundance of languages shrinks to a fraction of what now survives? A speaker of English or Chinese might answer differently from a speaker of Mati Ke. The simplest response, perhaps, is this: we will lose languages that are astonishingly unlike any widespread tongue. Languages employ sounds and organize the mental world in ways that are natural to their speakers but can seem downright weird to other people. Nootka, one of the languages of Vancouver Island, is a case in point. As the linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf once noted, to express the idea “He invites people to a feast” Nootka requires but a single word: tl’imshya’isita’itlma. Literally, “Boiling result eating those go to get somebody. ”Not quite so literally, “He, or somebody, goes to get eaters of cooked food.” The Nootka would alter their speech -- adding hissing noises or extra consonants for effect -- when they were talking to or about children, fat people, short people, left-handed people, circumcised males, lame and hunchbacked people, greedy people (also ravens), and people with eye defects.

Or take Kakardian, also known as Circassian, which arises from that great hotbed of linguistic diversity, the Caucasus Mountains. It boasts forty-eight consonants -- more than double the number in English -- but two vowels at most. In linguistic circles, a few experts have doubted those vowels’ existence, suggesting that the language has no regular vowels. Can this be possible? To speak Ubykh, a language that originated in the same region, you’d need to get your tongue around eighty-one consonants. Abkhaz, which also belongs to the northwestern slopes of the Caucasus, had a special “hunting language” spoken by the local nobility on their journeys into the forests. The verbs would stay the same as in everyday Abkhaz. But to ensure good luck in finding and killing animals, hunters were forbidden to call objects by their workaday names. Therefore the hunting language contained an entirely distinct array of nouns, unknown to Abkhaz peasants and tradesmen.

Even more remarkable was an Australian language called Damin, spoken only by initiated men on three small islands in the Gulf of Carpentaria, due south of New Guinea. The daily language used by most of those men was called Lardil. After puberty, boys were circumcised (without anesthetic, of course) and taught Marlda Kangka -- a sign language. For a year, it alone enabled them to communicate with anyone who had attended their circumcision. Marlda Kangka was more than just a basic code: its signs allowed a boy to convey information like “Last night I saw my mother’s brother and father fighting in the bush.” The most succulent food around the islands was the dugong, or sea cow. And Marlda Kangka had separate signs for “large young female dugong,” “small female dugong,” “old male dugong,” and so on.

Marlda Kangka was just the beginning. After a year or more, young men who were brave enough moved on to the second stage of initiation: penile subincision. (Don’t ask.) The reward for enduring the pain was a second auxiliary language, Damin. Unlike Marlda Kangka, it was spoken. But like Marlda Kangka -- or Klingon or Elvish -- Damin was a deliberate invention. Its sound system enforced a contrast with the parent language, Lardil. M, l, r, and a few other Lardil consonants were absent from Damin, yet Damin speakers employed eleven sounds not found in Lardil. Four of them were click consonants, otherwise used only in southern and eastern Africa. That’s not all. Damin also demanded a “bilabial ejective,” an “ingressive lateral fricative,” and a “duplicated bilabial trill” (very roughly, pr-pr, with a roll for each r) -- consonants that are found nowhere else in the world. Damin had five types of “phonetic initiation” -- five ways for the vocal organs to produce sound -- more than any other known language.

Ken Hale, one of the few linguists to study Damin, called it an “intellectual tour de force,” for its structure was as amazing as its sound system. The language winnowed pronouns down to their essence. For any set of people including the speaker (that is, for the English terms “I,” “me,” “we,” and “us”), Damin speakers said n!aa -- ! representing a nasal click. For anyone and everyone else (“you,” “they,” “them,” “he,” “she,” “him,” “her”), Damin speakers said n!uu. The language’s lexicon was small: just a couple of hundred basic words. But by ingeniously manipulating those words, initiated men could express almost anything they needed to say. Suppose a Damin speaker saw a sandpiper in flight. “Sandpiper” was not in Damin’s lexicon. But the watcher could evoke the bird by saying ngaajpu wiiwi-n wuujpu: literally, “person-burning creature.” The phrase harks back to a creation story in which Sandpiper starts a lethal fire -- a familiar tale to all speakers of Damin. Likewise an ax was “honey-affecting wood”: a wooden object used to obtain wild honey. Because it imposed this rigorous, semi-abstract vocabulary on the familiar syntax of Lardil, Damin could be learned in a few days. Initiated men would speak it at ceremonial gatherings, but also while searching for food or just sitting around gossiping. Extreme suffering had brought a gift of sacred knowledge.

No ritual initiations have been carried out in the Gulf of Carpentaria for half a century. As a result, Marlda Kangka and Damin are extinct. Their parent language, Lardil, is endangered. Abkhaz continues to be spoken, although its hunting language does not. Nootka survives, barely, as does Kakardian. But the last fluent speaker of Ubykh died in 1992.Multiply this paragraph a few hundred times over. Such is the fate of our languages.

Mati Ke may never have had more than a thousand speakers. For millennia, that was enough. Then, under the accumulated pressures facing Aboriginal people in the late twentieth century, the language collapsed. A 1983 study found it had about thirty fluent speakers left. Now, all evidence suggests, there are three. And one of the three -- an oldtimer living in Wadeye -- might be annoyed to find himself on the list. For Johnny Chula knows his language not as Mati Ke but as “Magati Ge.” Words have a different ring when he utters them. His dialect is heavier than Patrick’s -- the terms are mostly the same, but they arrive with extra syllables, chunkier in the mouth. “Johnny’s the only speaker of Magati Ge,” Mark Crocombe told me. “But he’s too old now to work on the language.”

Most of the time, whether on the sandy paths of Kuy or in the streets of some burgeoning city, a language ends with a long sequence of whimpers. Even if the language has just one fluent speaker, that speaker will often keep in touch with some younger men or women who know how to produce a few sentences, or who remember a smattering of words, or who cherish some traditional songs. So it is with Patrick’s language. Near the pale waves of the Timor Sea, in lands where Mati Ke and its forerunners were probably spoken before the foundations of Sumer and Babylon were dug -- and before the great myth of Babel first entered anyone’s mind — not all knowledge of the language will vanish with his generation; Wadeye has a few middle-aged people who can stumble a short distance along the trails of Mati Ke. If the old man speaks with extra care, they can understand some of what he says.

Aloysius Kungul, one of Patrick’s nephews, knows more than any of these other partial speakers. “Aloy, he’s learning,” Patrick insists. “He’s learning, bit by bit.” But the confidence soon dwindles from his voice. “It’s difficult. I talk to him real slow.” Aloysius is Mati Ke by inheritance: his totem
animals are the masked plover, the mud crab, and the magpie goose, which distinguish the land around Kuy. Meeting him in Wadeye, I found him reluctant to say much about Mati Ke. It was his father’s language; therefore, in Aboriginal society, it became his language too. But his father did not pass it on. One day when Aloysius was approaching puberty, he overheard his father speaking Mati Ke. “What’s that language?” he asked. “It’s ours,” his father replied, offhand.

Flash forward a few decades: by Aloysius’s own account, “I can hear the language, but I don’t speak it, just a bit.” He pointed at his own head, where black hair drooped toward his eyes in unruly bangs. “I got it there. But it’s the speaking.” If he were to spend months with his uncle, the speaking would come. But Patrick lives at the outstation, and Aloysius in town. With every succeeding year, his chances of fluency recede.

Which leaves just one other speaker of Mati Ke: an old woman called Agatha Perdjert. “And she’s not real good at it,” in Mark Crocombe’s frank opinion, “because she left the Mati Ke country when she was fifteen.” More than half a century has elapsed since Agatha married a Murrinh-Patha man and moved to Wadeye.

The red dirt track between Kuy and Wadeye is rough even in the dry season; in the wet, it can become impassable. A whole section of road is liable to vanish beneath the spillover creek. But on occasion Patrick still makes it into town, riding high in someone else’s juddering machine down the straight road past the airstrip. In Wadeye, you might think, he could look up Agatha, so that they’d have a chance to revel in a language now almost unique to them. Maybe after all these years, Agatha has forgotten certain words. The salty billy-goat plum that ripens in the rainless months, mi kulurduk in Murrinh-Patha: what do you call that fruit in Mati Ke? Maybe Patrick has lost a phrase in a particular song, or Agatha no longer recalls the name of a headland where she camped as a girl . . .Ah yes, the plumis mi bakulin, of course.

But this is a fantasy, nothing more. Agatha is Patrick’s sister. The culture by which they live prohibits a brother and sister from conversing after puberty. They will never forage for missing words, never share their memories of childhood; any such conversation would be taboo. They must not even pronounce each other’s names. When they die, the soul of a language will die with them.

From the Hardcover edition.

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The Prodigal Tongue

The Prodigal Tongue

Dispatches from the Future of English
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Roarific
The Power of Language Change

Was I in Arcadia or Alhambra? Was I speeding past Temple City or City of Industry?

Somewhere amid the grind and spurt of traffic on a southern California freeway, I slipped a Coldplay disc, X&Y, into my car’s CD player. The morning sun lit up the distant, snow-clotted San Gabriel Mountains, a prospect as exhilarating as the opening song, “Square One.” As the lead singer, Chris Martin, evoked discovery, travel and the future, his tenor voice seemed to soar high above the choking swarm of vehicles; half consciously I swerved into the fast lane. But Martin’s tone soon darkens. Several of the cuts demonstrate loss, regret, uncertainty, and apprehension about what the days after tomorrow hold in store for us. An SUV was maintaining an aggressive stance inches behind my license plate, and I pulled back into one of the middle lanes.

The CD reached its fifth track: a haunting, nine-note melody, repeated softly, then with a surge of percussive volume. Martin sings about his fear of the future, his need to speak out. When an early attempt at reassurance fails, he probes deeper, asking if “you,” his brother, feel incomplete or lost. The song is called “Talk.” To the underlying rhythm of a drummed heartbeat, its lyrics summon up an anxiety specific to words and meaning: the feeling that other people are addressing him in a language beyond his grasp. It’s as though language has lost its ability to connect us— as though we’ve misplaced a key that would allow us, somehow, to understand what words have come to mean. Birds kept flying somewhere above Walnut or Diamond Bar, but all utterance now seemed strange, unfathomable. The guitar riffs swooped and rose to match the breathtaking, lethal grandeur of the California freeways, yet the song’s lyrics were bleak.

Back home in Montreal, I found myself continually listening to X&Y. So were millions of other people in dozens of countries—this had been the world’s top-selling album in 2005. One day I came across a futuristic, B-movie-like video of “Talk”; it showed the perplexed band trying to communicate with a giant robot. A version of the video on the YouTube website had been watched more than 442,000 times in the previous ten
months. Many hundreds of viewers had posted comments. Some of them were brief, uninhibited love letters. ace this song iz wick id lol ace vid, wrote a viewer from Britain. coldplay is the BEST!! added a thirteen-year-old Finn, using a Japanese screen name. vid. is kind of err. but the song is roarific, noted an American. A comment in English from China followed one in Basque from Spain and one in Spanish from Botswana.

If I were more of a joiner, I might have signed up for the official Coldplay.com online forum, which boasts tens of thousands of members. The forum makes national borders immaterial—Latvians and Macedonians, Indonesians and Peruvians, Israelis and Egyptians all belong. To them it doesn’t matter that the band consists of three Englishmen and a Scot singing in a tongue that was once confined to part of an island off Europe’s coast. Now, wherever on the planet these fans happen to live, music connects them. So does language. As long as they’re willing to grope for words in the accelerating global language that Coldplay speaks, the forum gives all its members a chance to speak. Which is how the fifth song on X&Y ends. Martin admits that things don’t make sense any longer. But as the melodies collapse around him, he invites us to talk.

All sorts of borders are collapsing now: social, economic, artistic, linguistic. They can’t keep up with the speed of our listening, of our speaking, of our singing, of our traveling. Borders could hardly be less relevant on teen-happy websites like Facebook and MySpace. That morning, a Canadian in the exurbs of Los Angeles, I was listening to a British band while driving to meet a Mexican-American professor who began a memoir in Argentina full of sentences like this: “repente veo que ALL OF A SUDDEN, como right out of nowhere, estoy headed for the freeway on-ramp.” Routes are merging. Languages are merging.

That professor celebrates a promiscuous, unruly mix of words. But many people contemplate such a mix with annoyance and fear, emotions they also feel about other kinds of language change, like the chatroom abbreviations in those YouTube comments. When you first peer at the weirdly spelled, lowercase fragments of speech, or listen to the staccato interplay of tongues in major cities like LA, you may be fearful that everyone else is talking in a language you don’t speak. Is it mere unfamiliarity that inspires such unease, or is it something deeper?

Language enables us to feel at home in everyday life. But of late, language seems to have packed up its bags, slammed the door behind it, and taken to the open road. That’s where we find ourselves: on the move. Every few days, if not every few hours, we become aware of a new word or phrase speeding past us. There’s no going back, either—no retreat into the grammar and lexicon of the past. Our only home is this: the verbal space in which we’re already traveling. The expressions in that space are often amazing— a generation or two ago, before our use of language went digital, no one would have believed some of what we routinely see, hear and type.

Yet from time to time, I too feel lost. In the future, wherever we are, what in the world will we say?

The way other people use language sometimes troubles us. But the reasons vary wildly. It may be the particular version of English spoken in Singapore, Sydney or San Diego. It may be the way teenagers talk—Joan Didion, describing the “blank-faced” girls and “feral” boys of southern California, criticized their “refusal or inability to process the simplest statement without rephrasing it. There was the fuzzy relationship to language, the tendency to seize on a drifting fragment of something once heard and repeat it, not quite get it right, worry it like a bone.” It may be a pompously inflated polysyllabic phrase, a contortion of words in an ad, a noun that masquerades as a verb. It may be grammatical errors in a TV news bulletin, phrases abused on a radio talk show, spelling mistakes on a website. It may be the opaque language of bureaucracy—in March 2007, to take a random example, the Queensland Government Chief Information Office defined its task as “the development of methodologies and toolkits to strengthen the planning and project management capability of agencies.” Say what? “The QGCIO also plays an integral part in building relationships and identifying opportunities for collaboration between agencies, cross-jurisdictionally, with the ICT Industry and with the tertiary sector.” Even more than this kind of flaccid verbiage, my personal bugbear is the rhetoric of war, engineered to hide the truth: “collateral damage,” “friendly fire,” “transfer tubes,” or “the excesses of human nature that humanity suffers” (such was Donald Rumsfeld’s euphemism for the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib). There are innumerable reasons why people get irritated about language.

Irritation can lead to anxiety. If words no longer bear their proper meaning, or are no longer pronounced the right way, or are now being combined with other words in some incorrect manner, what verbal defacements might scar the future?

Experts keep trying to reassure the public. Even in 1929, the British linguist Ernest Weekley felt it necessary to observe that “stability in language is synonymous with rigor mortis.” “People have been complaining about language change for centuries,” says Katherine Barber, editor in chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. “They’re fascinated to learn that ‘travel’ started off as an instrument of torture—but they want the changes to stop now. I think people invest a lot in correct spelling and grammar because they worked very hard to learn it well in school—that’s why there’s a resistance.

They say, ‘It’s terrible, they don’t use the subjunctive anymore.’ But the subjunctive has been disappearing for centuries.” As the American scholar John McWhorter has pointed out, “There is no such thing as a society lapsing into using unclear or illogical speech—anything that strikes you as incorrect in some humble speech variety is bound to pop up in full bloom in several of the languages considered the world’s noblest.” Nobility, the linguists reiterate, is in the ear of the beholder. Many native speakers beg to differ.

Amid the commotion, rest assured: I have no ideological ax to grind. I’m not interested in persuading you to refine your punctuation, double your vocabulary or perfect your grammar. I write simply as someone who loves and cares about language; I believe its manifold powers of expression help make us truly human. Today the evidence of linguistic change, like that of climate change, is all around us. But I suspect that with both words and weather, we don’t always ask the right questions. “Is language declining?” may not be the smartest inquiry to make. It might be more rewarding to ask: “Why does language change provoke such anxiety? What kinds of change can we expect to see in the future? And how should we try to cope?”

More than two thousand years ago, the Roman poet Horace compared words to leaves in a forest: just as trees lose their withered leaves and welcome fresh ones, so too do words fall away to be replaced by the new. The process is continual, and older than any of our languages. Yet words seem unusually volatile now. “We are living at the beginning of a new linguistic era,” the eminent linguist David Crystal wrote in 2004. “I do not believe that ‘revolution’ is too strong a word for what has been taking place.” He based his assertion on three interrelated phenomena: the planetwide spread of English in the late twentieth century, the disappearance of hundreds of other languages, and the sudden dominance of the Internet as a means of communication. When these topics are looked at together, Crystal argued, “we encounter a vision of a linguistic future which is radically different from what has existed in the past.”

The nature of that difference is the central theme of these pages. Having devoted a previous book, Spoken Here, to the last-ditch struggles of minority languages, I promise to say little about that subject here. The awareness of a terrible loss—on average, a language goes extinct somewhere in the world every two weeks—underlies some of what follows. But loss is not the only story to be told. This book sets out to explore and interpret a verbal revolution.

On a bright October afternoon, I was standing in front of a class of sixteen
and seventeen-year-olds in a small town west of Montreal. Their English teacher had invited me to give a writing workshop in the high school library. The hour was nearing its end when abruptly I switched course. Instead of talking about metaphors and similes, sweet conclusions and dynamite beginnings, I asked each student to jot down a few words or phrases that older people would not understand, and then provide a brief definition for each term. I gave the class no advance warning. The risk was that this impromptu assignment would induce a yawn-filled silence, a retreat into heavy-lidded boredom. But instead the students—especially the girls, I noticed—set about the task with enthusiasm.

“You mean any words?” said a preppy-looking girl in blue. “Even the ones that aren’t in the dictionary?”

“Especially the ones that aren’t in a dictionary,” I replied.

I waited a couple of minutes—time was short—and asked for the results. Arms filled the air. Hands waggled. I’m a reader, a parent, a viewer, a listener; I thought that all together, the students might come up with a dozen words I didn’t know. So much for the vanity of age.

Cheddar, said the first, meaning “money, lavish earnings.” (I’ll give this and all the other definitions in the students’ exact words.) He got owned, said another: “rejected, shut down, beat up.” On the go, added a third: “it’s like going out, but not official.” I recognized some of the expressions, of course; even a senior citizen of fifty can comprehend eye candy and loaded, poser and flame. Did these innocent, cool teenagers really believe their generation had invented high? But as I stood there in the sun-dappled library, I realized that the majority of the students’ words and phrases left me bemused. What on earth was burninate? Was d-low somehow related to “below,” “delay,” “J Lo”—or to none of those terms? (Not wanting to keep the meanings secret—to d-low them, that is—I’ll suggest that you’d burninate something only if you had the fire-breathing powers of a dragon.) More generally, by what learned or instinctive command had these young people enacted their self-assured takeover of the language?

Before the bell freed them from the joy of learning, the students handed in the slips of paper on which they’d scribbled their definitions. I have them still: scraps torn from notepads and workbooks, a page from a disintegrating paperback, a yellow Post-it note with a smiley at the top. Overlaps were surprisingly rare; just one word—noob, meaning somebody new, ignorant or inexperienced—was defined three times.

Looking at the sixty-six words now, I’m struck by the diversity of their origins. A few emerge from the online world of instant messaging: rofl, for instance, which gathers the initial letters of “rolling on the floor laughing.” Others are abbreviations: sup, for instance, originally “What’s up?” and now a synonym for “Hi, how are you?” Almost anywhere you go, the power of hip-hop seems unavoidable: surely that’s how homie (friend) and foshizzle (I agree) migrated from America’s inner cities to a small, waspish town in Quebec. Hip-hop and cyberspace together encouraged the spread of phat, which morphed from “sexy” in the 1960s to “cool, great, wonderful” by the ’90s, and which is now widely regarded as an acronym for “pretty hot and tempting”—its original meaning, in short. Drug culture is just as influential; blame or credit it for fatty (an oversized joint), gacked (on speed) and pinner (a small joint). It’s unfortunate That’s so gay has come to mean “That’s
stupid, not worth my time.” But what could be the origins and adolescent meanings of lag and One and die in a fire?

It was humbling to read an impromptu definition of scene, a word I thought I knew, that deployed a word I couldn’t quite pin down—“style (knock-off of emo).” Emo? It was even more humbling for me, a writer, someone whose livelihood depends on the rich and exact use of words, to realize how far the English language had slithered away from my grasp, not for reasons of ethnicity or culture but simply because of time. “But at my back I always hear / Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near,” wrote the poet Andrew Marvell in the seventeenth century. It’s not a chariot any longer; it’s a Dreamliner.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that all these expressions are destined to enter the permanent storehouse of English vocabulary. Many of them will be as fleeting as youth itself. Young men and women have always used slang as a weapon to cut their lives free from the nets cast by their elders— didn’t I aspire, unsuccessfully, to be a groovy freak? Older people have no reason to try and memorize the throwaway lexicon of the young. But the cascade of teenage slang I faced that afternoon can stand as a symbol of the astonishing rate at which new words are pouring into English. Nobody can control this breakbeat language; nobody can even keep track of it.

The language is both inherently permissive and amazingly powerful. Yet while it soaks up terms from dozens of foreign cultures and nations, English also infiltrates and penetrates most of the world’s other languages. Worry about the linguistic future is nothing unique to English-speakers. People around the world are struggling with verbal shock: angst about how we speak, how we read and write, the changing ways we communicate. Perhaps all this helps to explain why so many are convinced that language is deteriorating. It’s as though—regardless of whether the supposed peak of eloquence was attained in the era of Shakespeare, Goethe or Proust—the language of the twenty-first century must inevitably mark a sad decline in accuracy, grace or both. Nervousness about falling standards makes us resort to grammar hotlines and seek the stern advice of language mavens. Google the phrase “proper grammar,” and you’ll find, as of November 2007, no fewer than 394,000 hits.

If technological innovations are usually cheered, linguistic innovations just as commonly come under attack. A few years ago Prince Charles attacked the “corrupting” effect of American English, saying, “People tend to invent all sorts of nouns and verbs and make words that shouldn’t be. I think we have to be a bit careful; otherwise the whole thing can get rather a mess.” His late compatriot Alistair Cooke bemoaned “the disastrous de- cline in the teaching of elementary grammar.” But is language really in a state of free fall? Are speakers in the future condemned to be messier and less accurate than ourselves?

It’s easy for me to say that words are evolving fast. But I need to prove the
point. So let’s perform a brief test. If you look back at the eleven paragraphs you’ve just read, describing my visit to a high school—and if you leave aside all the students’ new expressions (noob, foshizzle, sup and so on)— you’ll still find at least thirty words and usages that did not appear in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1884–1928), the most ambitious and scholarly effort yet made to assemble a complete record of the language. Some of these terms are obvious: Google, hip-hop and instant messaging were all born in the late twentieth century. So, slightly earlier, were Post-its and smileys. According to John Ayto’s book Twentieth Century Words, “hotline” is believed to date back to 1955, “online” to 1950.More subtle, more thought-provoking, are recent coinages that evoke not technological inventions but concepts and ideas. The creators of the OED had no knowledge of “takeover,” a word that appeared only in the mid-1940s, nor “permissive,” a 1950s term, nor “inner city,” a phrase from 1968. “Ethnicity” dates from 1953; one particular ethnicity, “wasp” (meaning white Anglo-Saxon Protestant), had been around for centuries, although the word remained absent from the language until 1962.

The list goes on. “Senior citizen” arrived in 1938, a year after “workshop” began to signify something more than just a room full of tools. “Angst,” understandably, seems to have become an English word during the Second World War. Another wartime invention was “acronym.” Both angst and acronyms have proliferated since. “Throwaway” was unavailable to the OED’s first editors; so was “cool,” except as a term evoking temperature. Even “insecure,” in its common usage, arose only in the 1930s. Most surprising—given the ubiquity and apparent necessity of the term—the word “teenager” was not born until the early 1940s. “I never knew teen-agers could be so serious,” declared a writer for Popular Science Monthly in 1941. The first verifiable use of “teenage” goes back another generation, to (of all places) Victoria, British Columbia, where a 1921 article in the Daily Colonist declared: “All ‘teen age’ girls of the city are cordially invited to attend the mass meeting to be held this evening.” The OED’s staff had already finished work on the letter T by then, so anybody looking up “teenage” in the great dictionary is in for a shock: it’s defined as a country term meaning brushwood for fences and hedges.

In 1921 few people outside the Victoria area would ever read the Daily Colonist. A copy took days to reach the East Coast, weeks to travel overseas. Today the Times Colonist, like almost every other newspaper, maintains a lively presence on the Internet. With some clicks of a mouse, anybody who has access to a computer can learn about the city, keep up with its goings on, or send aggrieved letters to the editor. Thanks to technology, you don’t have to live in Victoria to stay abreast of the Victoria news. Besides, the growth of immigration, cheap air travel and a global economy means that no English-speaking city in the world is ethnically homogeneous. I used to believe this wide dispersal of readers and speakers would encourage a uniformity of language—a smoothing out of differences. Even if a few slang expressions varied from place to place, surely the varieties of English were destined to become ever more similar.

Now I’m not so sure. Admittedly, many dialects and accents have faded over time—as long ago as 1962, in Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck lamented the decline of American regional speech. The little town of Lunenberg in southern Nova Scotia was settled by Swiss and German immigrants in the eighteenth century, and until recently dozens of German-based expressions could be heard in the area: “struddle,” “mawger,” "gookemole,” “wackelass” and so on. Few of these terms, unfortunately, remain in daily use. Most of them have joined the silent, ever-growing army of lost words.

Yet robust dialects still flourish. Many people in Scotland, for instance, are convinced that their daily idiom, Scots, is so different from mainstream English that it should count as a separate tongue. In 2006 some portions of Trawlermen, a BBC-TV miniseries about fishermen off a coastal town in Scotland, had to be subtitled before being shown elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Matthew Fitt, a young writer appointed by the Scottish government to serve as National Schools Scots Language Development Officer, has written poems in which lines I can figure out (“be guid tae yirsel”) are followed by lines I find totally incomprehensible (“sic a drochle / a peeliewally”). Fitt invents words on occasion—“cyberjanny” was his coinage for a virtual concierge who made an appearance in a Scots cyberpunk novel—but more often he simply puts into writing the everyday idiom of Scottish people. Their accent can be so distinctive that many common words—“guid,” for instance—look weird in standard English spelling, like a fullback in a tutu.

If you wander down the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, you’ll pass a six-floor apartment building (a block of flats, I mean) on which a historic-looking plaque is kitted out with flags and emblems. But the plaque is far from old. The wording on it reads: al this wark was begun be dancon on 10 January 1989 and endit be them on 31 March 1990. The use of Scots on the plaque makes a strong cultural and political statement. Part of its meaning is that, in the face of the rampantly global, Scottish people are determined to value and promote the local. Yet every vibrant dialect, not just Scots, generates new expressions; and these expressions can get in the way of a shared understanding. Think of all the acronyms that speak volumes to insiders and say nothing to everyone else. TTC, for instance. If you’re a sports fan, you probably associate those initials with The Tennis Channel. Unless you’re a
sports fan living in Toronto, in which case you’d first call to mind the Toronto Transit Commission. Anyone moving to the city finds TTC an essential trio of letters to figure out. In the American South, the letters also involve transportation: Trans-Texas Corridor. But in Paris, TTC is a hip-hop band; in Singapore, South Carolina, Essex and Oklahoma it refers to a college (four different colleges, that is); and in Wellington, New Zealand, it signifies the Tararua Tramping Club. (“Tramping” means hiking, if you’re American, or rambling, if you’re British.) The initials also belong to a European research project, Timing, Trigger and Control, whose website helpfully notes: “The TTC system was initially developed by RD12, an LHC Common Project financed by EP and SL Divisions and the four LHC experiment collaborations.” TTC, in short, has dozens of disconnected meanings around the world.

For a stranger, mastering the language of a new place means getting to know its initials as well as its cultural and political references. And countries, like cities, have their own allusions, their own illusions. The playwright George Bernard Shaw once quipped that the USA and Britain are divided by a common language. It might be more accurate to say they’re united by a different language. North Americans traveling in Britain would be well advised to realize that “randy” means what they know as “horny”; otherwise they could be as baffled as a Chicago girl I once met in a Glasgow youth hostel who couldn’t fathom the reaction she caused by walking up to boys and saying, “Hi, I’m Randi.”

Teenagers in London are less and less likely to speak in the traditional Cockney accent, but they’re not switching over to the Queen’s English, nor even to the Estuary English adopted by their parents and older siblings. Instead, many of them use a new transcultural idiom that goes by the name “Jafaikan.” Besides the obvious Caribbean source, it draws on accents and words from Africa, South Asia and Australia. “Safe, man,” wrote a Guardian journalist in a piece entitled “Learn Jafaikan in two minutes.” “You lookin buff in dem low batties. Dey’s sick, man. Me? I’m just jammin wid me bruds. Dis my yard, innit? Is nang, you get me?” Migration is a fact of language. Now that the peoples of the world jam with their bruds on each other’s doorstep, it may be necessary to understand the differences between, say, a hijab and a niqab, a khemar and a chador. In large cities, isolation from other cultures is impossible. The more we mix, the more we match. And just as our words keep flooding into other languages, some of their words inevitably seep into ours. English has already adopted terms from at least 350 other tongues, including Choctaw, Twi, Nootka and Araucanian.

Languages change when a minority people asserts itself as strongly as Jamaicans in Britain and Algerians in France have recently done. There’s nothing new or alarming about this; Jewish immigrants to the United States a century ago had the chutzpah to make Yiddish a rich source of English expressions. Languages alter too when sheer proximity forces idioms to rub up against each other—to share a physical space is also to share a verbal space. In Montreal, English- and French-speakers routinely and genially wreak havoc on each other’s languages. Soon after a collapsing overpass had killed several people, I heard a Quebec official say on English language radio: “Circulation on Autoroute Dix-neuf will have a little perturbation.” In other words, traffic on Highway 19 will be chaotic.

Technological change can add to our verbal unease. On a trip to New York in 2006 I happened to pass a notice board at the entrance to East Green, a quiet area of Central Park, that still told passersby: “Earphones are required for listening to radios and tapeplayers.” The sign became outmoded as soon as the Discman and MiniDisc Walkman replaced the portable cassette player. In an era of iPods and MP3 players, the notice makes even less sense. The word “tapeplayers,” once so shiny, bears the scuff marks of age. To keep up with technology, the notice board would require a fresh noun every few years.

Over the next few decades, advances in technology will bring us a megaload of gleaming words. But more important, the whole feel and, so to speak, headspace of the future will be unlike anything we can foretell. Words don’t just give names to devices, they give flesh to ideas. Apart from the multitude of fresh vocabulary that speakers in 2100 will take for granted, and the subtly different threads of grammar that will knit their words together, it’s likely they will pronounce the language in different ways than we do. The sounds and rhythms of English, French and many other languages have undergone substantial change within the past century.

To hear exactly how a language alters, we’re lucky that the New Zealand Broadcasting Service sent mobile recording units around the country in 1946. The units had previously gathered soldiers’ and nurses’ wartime messages to their families at home. After the outbreak of peace, New Zealand decided to record the music being performed in outlying areas as well as the reminiscences of old-timers living there. “The recordings were made on fourteen-inch acetate disks,” the linguist Margaret Maclagan explained to Australia’s Radio National, “which were so soft that they didn’t actually want to play them very often, so most of the people who were recorded never even heard themselves. They made the recordings in people’s homes, or on farms or in the local town halls.” Surprisingly, perhaps, the music proved less popular than the stories, and so the mobile units went back on the road for another two years, harvesting the voices of more than three hundred people.

Why is this of any interest now? Because New Zealand English is a young dialect. Other varieties of English, from North America and the Caribbean to India, South Africa and Australia, were already well established by the second half of the nineteenth century, when most of these speakers were born. They are, Maclagan explained, “the first generation of European people born in New Zealand. So they’re the very first people who ended up speaking New Zealand English.” This means, unusually, that almost the entire history of the dialect exists in recorded form.

Radio National played the voices of a brother and sister, a Mr. and Miss Bannatyne, who were small children in South Island in the 1890s. Their given names appear to be lost. Even in the late 1940s, Mr. Bannatyne spoke in what sounded very much like an English accent; he would have pronounced the word “fish” with a vowel sound recognizable to English-speakers elsewhere. But Miss Bannatyne pursed her mouth and swallowed her short i’s: fsh, she would have said. That’s one of the most noticeable
qualities of a New Zealand accent. She had it. He didn’t.

What the New Zealand researchers found in those 1940s recordings holds true elsewhere. Women take on a new accent faster than men (this matters not only for its own sake, but also because mothers traditionally play the largest role in passing on language to children). People from a lower social class acquire a new accent more quickly than those from a higher class. And accents develop most quickly when people from many different places mix together. The more social flux and tumult there are in a community, the more likely its language is to alter. New Zealanders were fortunate to acquire their distinctive accent without rancor. In many countries today, mobility and social mixing have never been greater, and language can change with startling abruptness.

Even so, some kinds of change happen gracefully. Let’s consider Somalia for a moment. It’s hard to think of a nation more profoundly stricken by war, famine, displacement and ecological collapse. Somali culture, traditionally nomadic, was reliant on camel herding, and the decline of that practice has heightened the people’s vulnerability to the ever more frequent droughts that plague the Horn of Africa. Over the centuries, the Somali language developed an astonishing range of words to embody a herding culture—golqaniinyo, for instance, meaning “a bite given on a camel’s flank to render her docile during milking”; or uusmiiro, “to extract water from a camel’s stomach to drink during a period of drought.” What’s striking is the confident way in which Somalis have taken their old came-lrelated words and applied them to new purposes.

Their use of language is dynamic. Guree, for example, once meant “to make room for a person to sit on a loaded camel.” Now it refers to making space for someone in a full car or truck. More radically, gulguuluc used to mean “the low bellow of a sick or thirsty camel,” but today the word applies to a poem recited in a low voice. Haneed once signified “the left side of a cow camel where one stands when milking.” Its meaning has stretched to the point where the term now suggests good form or style. Yet the stretching is a natural evolution, nothing forced or jagged. If English would only change as elegantly as the Somali words for camel culture, few people would have a serious objection.

Fat chance. In today’s world many hundreds of millions of people speak English as a foreign language, with greater or lesser success. (One of them, translating an Israeli tourist brochure into English, recently turned a Hebrew phrase meaning “Jerusalem—there’s no city like it” into “Jerusalem— there’s no such city.”) As their language lunges off into uncharted territory, native speakers often resent the bewildering, graceless changes they have witnessed since childhood. Can English still be ours if we don’t know a phat from a fatty? If we respect traditional rules of spelling and grammar, will we soon be owned?

People with a different mother tongue are less likely to feel an intuitive bond to the particular version of English they learned. But they too can be upset by language change, especially if its effect is to make English seem even less straightforward, even harder to comprehend. Non-native speakers of the language far outnumber those for whom this is the tongue of earliest memory. And the future of English, some linguists now suggest, will depend heavily on those who did not speak it in their childhood.

I will have much to say in this book about the exhilaration that language change provokes, the creativity it embodies. But it can also be deeply problematic. It can leave older people voiceless in their own tongue. It can create havoc for lawyers, teachers, police officers and other professionals. It can divide a community. And what of the cultural loss it incites? The dramatic influx of new words into the language has left no room for thousands of old ones, which beat a quiet retreat into portly dictionaries and half-forgotten classics. Even the hardy survivor words carry meanings that swell or shrink over time.

The result, often, is confusion. We may think we know what a sentence or a paragraph means, but we can easily be deceived. When a language slams its foot down on the accelerator, the past shrinks and blurs in the rear-view mirror. Much of the difficulty we have in understanding the past is semantic—if its language consistently eludes us, so does its spirit, its psychology. The attempt to read any text from a bygone century can, in Coldplay’s words, make us “feel like they’re talking in a language I don’t speak.” And as history becomes unintelligible, we lose touch with the roots of culture.

Consider a few lines from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, still being used in many churches in the twenty-first century. Some of its wording goes back nearly half a millennium, to a time before William Shakespeare was born. I remember, as a boy, being puzzled by the invitation “Come unto me, all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.” Did I travail? Would I be refreshed? A few moments later, the priest declared Jesus to be “the propitiation for our sins.” The what? That verse was prefaced by the command “Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all that truly turn to him.” There the language floored us —not just me, but also the vast majority of worshipers. For “comfortable” doesn’t mean what we naturally assumed it did; it means, to quote the Oxford English Dictionary, strengthening or supporting.” That dictionary gives a dozen meanings for "comfortable”; nine of them were obsolete a century ago.

The Anglican prayer book employs the word in a geriatric sense that could only mislead contemporary readers. It’s a good thing the book doesn’t also—as far as I know—feature manure and commodes. To manure meant to manage or cultivate, which is why an Elizabethan author could say that England was “governed, administered and manured by three sorts of persons.” And a commode, when it sauntered into the language, was a tall headdress worn by fashionable women. Hence an otherwise inexplicable couplet by the minor poet Edward Ward: “Stiff commodes in triumph stared / Above their foreheads half a yard.”

More recent texts also run up against the shifting nature of language. As a university student, I learned a few favorite poems by heart. One of them was “Lapis Lazuli” by the Irish author William Butler Yeats. Its subject is the magnificent persistence of art in times of pain and horror. Written in the mid-1930s, as Europe lurched toward war, “Lapis Lazuli” is, I would still argue, one of the key poems of the last century. But, because of language change, it’s a poem that has become hard to enjoy—even, for young people, to take seriously.

When the aging Yeats wrote, “Two Chinamen, behind them a third, / Are carved in lapis lazuli,” he didn’t know how offensive the term “Chinaman” would become (except in the game of cricket, where it continues to refer to a particular type of delivery from a left-armed spin bowler).When Yeats said, “Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out, / Pitch like King Billy bomb-balls in,” he couldn’t predict that zeppelins would soon be a historical relic, even more antiquated than the expression “bomb-balls. ”When he used the phrases “hysterical women” and “all men have aimed at,” he didn’t know that feminists would dismiss such wording as sexist—his “men” refers to human beings, not just to adult males. And when the poet declared, “All things fall and are built again, / And those that build them again are gay,” he wanted to evoke a brave insouciance in the face of grief. He certainly wasn’t thinking about Judy Garland albums and rainbow bumper stickers.

As a euphemism or proud substitute for “homosexual,” the word “gay” became widespread only in the 1960s. Its origins stretch back much further, perhaps to the Victorian era—although a 1942 Thesaurus of American Slang gives no hint of its current meaning, which spawned the derisive usage I encountered among high school students. Cole Porter could have had no clue about the adjective’s future destiny when in 1932 he entitled a musical Gay Divorce. In “Lapis Lazuli,” Yeats used “gay” four times, making it the poem’s central word. But if you’re a contemporary reader who has grown up equating gay with homosexual, you’ll have a hard time forgetting the familiar meaning. The line “They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay” could well evoke an unwanted image of certain actors; and the poem’s slow, resounding conclusion—“Their eyes, their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay”—verges on the ridiculous.

So far I’ve been speaking about the vocabulary of the past. But there’s another difficulty: its syntax. The sentences we fashion today tend to be a lot shorter than they were in previous centuries, when authors were normally intimate with the rotund cadences of Latin and when they wrote out their texts by hand. Yeats grew up in the nineteenth century.His early readers had no telephones, no radios, no TV sets, no computers—the list of what they didn’t have is almost endless. But they did have one thing most of us lack: time. They didn’t need to hurry their reading. They didn’t gobble sentences like mouthfuls of fast food.

And so they expected, even welcomed ornately sculpted phrases. They were at ease with sentences so complex that the syntax resembles architecture, and with a formal register of language that strikes most of us today as puffed up. To the great reformer William Wilberforce, a hundred-word sentence was merely routine. One of his finest pieces of writing—An Appeal to the Religion, Justice, and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire, in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies—was published in London in 1823. A typical sentence begins like this: “For then, on the general ground merely of the incurable injustice and acknowledged evils of slavery, aggravated, doubtless, by the consideration that it was a slavery forcibly
opposed on unoffending men for our advantage . . .”

He hasn’t got to the main verb yet. He hasn’t even got to the subject.

Wilberforce’s lifelong struggle against slavery is the subject of Michael Apted’s 2007 film Amazing Grace. The good characters in the movie say straightforward things like “To hell with caution!” and “Remember, God made men equal” and “If there’s a bad taste in your mouth, spit it out.” The evil characters speak pompously: “We have no evidence that the Africans themselves have any objection to the trade. ”We can’t be sure, of course, exactly how Wilberforce talked; in conversation he’s unlikely to have waited more than thirty words before reaching the subject of a sentence. It’s clear, even so, that the film makes his enemies speak in an idiom reasonably true to the age—whereas Wilberforce, to appear heroic in our eyes, talks like us. We mistrust oratory. We like our heroes plainspoken.

Reading the past, we often stumble over the words we encounter. The words that are missing may be just as significant. Although Huck Finn is an adolescent boy, Mark Twain never conceived of him as a “teenager,” for teenagers had not yet, so to speak, been invented. Oscar Wilde was undoubtedly a pederast, but how much sense does it make to call him gay? If we do so, we pluck him out of the nineteenth century and deposit him in ours. People in the past lived free of concepts from our own time, just as we walk around in blithe ignorance of ideas that will seem self-evident to our grandchildren. Those ideas will rely on words that have not yet been born.

And then there’s Shakespeare, the supreme cultural icon for writers and readers of English. Without knowing it, we repeat his words every day of our lives; they’ve become part of the fabric of our mental life. Brevity is the soul of wit, but if there’s method in my madness, it might be too much of a good thing to lay it on with a trowel—there you have four Shakespearean phrases in half a sentence. He was an avid punster and word coiner too: the adjectives “vulnerable,” “laughable,” “barefaced” and “well-bred” all sprang to life in his plays. (So did “critic” as a noun and “puke” as a verb.) Knowledge of his work has often been considered essential to a humane education.

Yet in some eyes that notion betrays insufferable elitism. “It seems there are two kinds of people out there,” the playwright and theater director Kim Selody told me: “those who were taught the plays in such a way that they knew what they were about, and those like me who somehow missed the story. Those that know the stories are in a club. I remember being in grade ten and studying Macbeth. We were asked to read the play on our own. The teacher jumped to the poetry and metaphors and allusions. I never really knew what the hell was going on. By the time I got to theater school and college, I was too embarrassed to admit that I really didn’t know the stories and would just fake it.” There are, Selody is convinced, countless fakers.

In the late 1980s, by then an established writer for young people, he took the plots of The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and Twelfth Night and adapted them for children. A play called Suddenly Shakespeare was the result. “The main question I was responding to was ‘What the heck is going on?’ I purposely chose modern, simple language for the storytellers.” But his choice of words gave rise to dissent: “Some of those in the club felt I was ruining the poetry of his work. This was a conscious choice on my part, because it was the poetry and allusions that had kept the story hidden from me.”

Actors can work small miracles to get some of Shakespeare’s meaning across, even when a word has fallen out of use—“the multitudinous seas incarnadine” becomes a bit less puzzling on the lips of a good Macbeth. But no performer conveys the exact rhymes that Shakespeare intended: in his day, “meet” and “mate,” “see” and “say” were homonyms. And an actor’s hardest challenge comes when very common words have altered in meaning. Addressing Ariel in act four of The Tempest, Prospero tells the sprite: “So, with good life / And observation strange, my meaner ministers / Their several kinds have done.” None of those words are unusual. But do you have any clue what he’s talking about? In that brief passage, “life,” “strange,” “meaner,” ministers,” “several” and “kinds” all mean something different to Prospero than they do to you and me. To avoid such perplexity, many theater directors turn the Bard into slapstick, forcing their actors to ham up every speech with overblown gestures and endless bits of stage business. Shakespeare’s plays and poems have, in truth, become profoundly foreign to most speakers of his own language. The same fate has befallen the work of his contemporary Miguel de Cervantes (they died a few days apart in April 1616), perhaps the greatest writer in Spanish. “For most readers,” the Hispanic scholar Orlando Alba told me, “it is very difficult (maybe impossible) to read and understand the original version of El Quijote. What students read in school is in fact a ‘translation’ to modern Spanish.” The difficulties occur in both the vocabulary and the grammar. Cervantes has been left behind by the language he did so much to shape and by readers who remain in his debt. Similarly, audiences who watch Shakespeare’s plays in a foreign language are liable to have a lot more fun than audiences who battle to decipher his English. The rapid pace of language change is making it harder and harder to produce his work in a way that an English-speaking
crowd can comprehend.

Difficult, but maybe not impossible. “You don’t need to do slapstick to make Shakespeare come alive,” Leslee Silverman insists. “What you need to find is the emotional meaning behind the words. That hasn’t changed.” Silverman, who has achieved wonders as the artistic director of Manitoba Theatre for Young People, believes that “what the kids are hard-wired to feel is a response to the despair, to the compassion, to the big stories that are in language.” When her company put on Romeo and Juliet in 2001, “we gave it the eye candy—a fashion walkway, with the kids on the one side being Montagues, the kids on the other side Capulets. ”Dressed in club gear, they danced to loud funk music. But apart from adding a little slang— the friar, realizing that Juliet had swallowed poison, blurted “Holy jumpin’ Jesus!”—the production didn’t mess around with the language. Why not? asked a local critic. “If the stage was modern, the costumes were modern and the music was modern, then why wasn’t the English? Perhaps the contemporary pizzazz was for the kids and the diction meant to appeal to the cultural desires of the parents. Either way, this was the only shortcoming.” But for many, it was a shortcoming that effectively ruined the experience. “The children around me,” the critic noted, “had a hard time
understanding what was going on.”

To Kim Selody, “language and its use is clearly the issue. Those parts of Shakespeare’s writings that have fallen out of use today create a barrier to understanding the story.” If we value the stories, we may have to detach them from Shakespeare’s spectacular words. That’s a painful task. But when Selody is asked to justify his rewriting of the Bard, he reminds his critics that a child in a North American city now may well be somebody who “speaks English as a second language and whose cultural history is the Ramayana epic poem. I always like to ask those who are in the club, ‘Do you know the story of the Ramayana?’”

Most of this book will examine language change as it affects English, although these pages will also have a good deal to say about Japanese and French. Yet the dilemmas that beset English seldom afflict English alone. The world’s most prominent languages are all in a state of flux. Let’s take a quick look at another tongue caught between the weight of tradition and the demands of the new: Arabic.

Of the world’s six thousand or so languages, Arabic and Hebrew appear to have the most invested in stability. Devout Muslims, like Orthodox Jews, believe their sacred texts are the immutable word of God. Christians, by contrast, read the Bible in translation, and their scriptures are subject to remorseless updating—in a twenty-first-century version from Australia, the Virgin Mary is described as a “pretty special sheila” who gives birth to “God’s toddler.” But in Islam, nobody can alter what God has said. Some Arabic texts from what we call the Middle Ages suggested that errors in language were also errors in morality—grounds, in fact, for damnation. So is Arabic immune to change? After all, the language of the Qur’an—fusha, to use its proper name—“is also the written language of classical Arabic literature, as well as the language of officialdom throughout Arab and Islamic history to this modern day.”

The words are those of Issa Boullata, a distinguished Palestinian scholar of the Qur’an. Its text was written down—having been, in believers’ eyes, revealed to the Prophet through the angel Gabriel—in what we call the seventh century. The fusha has provided a linguistic model ever since, one that is now heard daily on radio and television as well as in mosques and schools. Dubai even sponsors a lucrative competition, held each year during the sacred month of Ramadan, when boys and young men fromaround the world attempt to recite the 77,000 or so words of the Qur’an from memory, devoid of error or hesitation. Thanks to the fusha, Boullata explains, “if Arabs from different countries meet today, they will be able to speak in classical Arabic and have full understanding, especially in formal situations.”

Yet time has transformed the language’s very syntax. Most sentences in the classical tongue—the language of the Qur’an—follow a verb-subject-object order. But in daily life, the majority of Arabic-speakers now do what we do, and put the subject first. Not that they place much value on their everyday speech; most of them ascribe high value only to a form of the language that has been static for 1,300 years. They understand classical Arabic, they revere it, they love it—and they rarely hold a conversation in it. “If each person speaks in his or her own dialect,” Boullata adds, “they will still understand each other, but sometimes with humorous misunderstandings.” The confusion shows that in spite of the Qur’an’s majestic presence, Arabic has undergone dramatic change.

Stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf, it has a host of spoken dialects, some of which enjoy much higher prestige than others. The wealthy citizens of Beirut, for example, have tended to look down their noses at the accent of Palestinian refugees. Bedouins, villagers and city dwellers pronounce Arabic in different ways, often using different words to do so. So when pan-Arabic TV networks like al-Jazeera give voice to the colloquial language, they have to be careful not to confound their audience. Jokes and songs from one region of the Arabic-speaking world may be unfathomable in another.

Arabic has always been willing to accept a modicum of foreign words. For every al-jabr it gave to Europe, a faylasuf would arrive in return (think “algebra,” think “philosopher”). But since the early twentieth century, Boullata says, new inventions and scientific words “have been coming at such a fast speed that it was not easy always to find new Arabic terms, and people often resorted to adopting the foreign terms. So you have telefon, telefizion, teleghram, etc.” Some of the borrowings led to innovations: to make a phone call in Arabic is talfana. Journalists were often the first to coin a word “because they needed to describe new inventions quickly to the readers; hence sarukh for rocket, for example. Sarukh was derived from the verb sarakha, to scream; therefore a rocket is the thing that screams as it is shot up in the air. And this word is still used successfully.” The journalists outpaced the linguists. Like Persian, French, Spanish and many other languages, Arabic has an academy to guide and regulate it; in fact it has several. “But,” Boullata says, “what with scholarly discussions and debates, these academies are too slow in developing new terms in relation to the speed needed to use them in daily communication. A joke is told that they invented a term for ‘sandwich,’ and it is the following: al-shatir wal-mashtur wal-kamikh baynahuma (the divider and the divided and the mixed pickles between them).”

Today, whether in Algiers or Cairo, Damascus or Baghdad, a wide gap separates the simplified grammar and diction used in the congested slums from the elevated style deployed by intellectuals. As a mother tongue, Arabic is growing at a faster rate than any other major language, and its speakers are on average younger. The implications are political as well as cultural. “The calls for holy war that adorn the walls in slums throughout the Middle East,” Chris Hedges wrote in the New York Times, are written not in classical Arabic but in “a far simpler argot . . . Expressed in the cruder rhythms and pronunciations of street language, they become almost incomprehensible to educated Arabs, only widening a dangerous gulf between an elite that looks to the West and an enraged underclass.” The jagged divisions within Arab society are mirrored by divisions in the language itself. Hedges proposed an analogy: “What if 80 or 90 percent of Americans spoke every day in the brutal and angry cadences of gangsta rap, while the members of a feudal upper class mused over their own demise in Elizabethan English?”

Even so, the combined influences of Islam, economic modernization and the mass media reduce the likelihood that the various dialects of Arabic will splinter into separate languages. The lasting power of the Qur’an should never be underestimated. It gives God a mother tongue, from which any change can appear an unworthy deviation. English has no such stabilizing text: it feeds on novelty. Changes are its meat and drink. There remains, nonetheless, something a little uncanny about the process by which newborn expressions spread through society. Steven Pinker, who appears to know nearly everything about the inner workings of English, confesses in his 2007 book The Stuff of Thought that “the fortunes of new words are a mystery” and that “we still can’t predict when a new word will take root.” Pinker suggests that the most arresting neologisms are often ones that wither and die, for instead of merely naming something, they deliver an implicit editorial. “Soccer mom” has settled into American English, but the more recent “security mom”—a female voter worried about terrorism— may not last for long. Comment is free, and it goes out of date fast.

To a writer, the prodigal scope and diversity of English are both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because the language offers juicy specimens of almost any verbal trend you can imagine. But also a curse, because anything you say about English is liable to contradiction. In Melbourne, “garry” means to flirt; in Liverpool, it means an ecstasy tablet. What applies to a verb in Portland, Oregon, may not apply in Portland, Dorset, still less in Portland Cottage, Jamaica. The dispersal, flowering and transformation of English around the world raise a crucial question: will this remain a single language? Perhaps it will soon be an act of nostalgia to speak about English in the singular. For a time, the future may belong not to English but to Englishes.

Because of political, cultural and economic reasons, rather than strictly linguistic ones, today’s English has a charismatic power. Ambitious people everywhere thirst to master the language. But as other idioms blur into it, especially in Asia and Africa, and as the many kinds of English spoken outside Britain and North America become louder and more confident, the language may be approaching an irrevocable split. Indian English, for example, is distinctive not just in its word-hoard, but also in aspects of its grammar and phonetics. French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and several other languages all branched out of Latin. It’s conceivable that English will be the Latin of the new millennium.

Conceivable, but not inevitable. The combined influences of global business, media, politics, Hollywood and the Internet have an awesome linguistic power. They entail instant communication and instant comprehension, a requirement that may prove strong enough to pull English back from the brink of schism. The Roman Empire did not have CNN or Microsoft at its disposal. For the moment, a rough balance appears to exist between the forces working to pull English apart and those laboring to keep it united. The language’s long-term future depends on which tendency— the centrifugal or the centripetal—proves stronger.

Its short-term future promises yet more growth. In 1997 the British Council released a major report by the linguist David Graddol entitled The Future of English? The question mark is significant, for Graddol’s uncertainty matched his erudition. The growth of English, he argued, is unlikely to happen in a straightforward or predictable manner: “On the one hand, the use of English as a global lingua franca requires intelligibility and the setting and maintenance of standards. On the other hand, the increasing adoption of English as a second language, where it takes on local forms, is leading to fragmentation and diversity. No longer is it the case, if it ever was, that English unifies all who speak it.” Beyond question, fragmentation and diversity have grown in the past few decades. Yet unless democratic governments are replaced by totalitarian ones, it’s unclear who could possibly set and maintain the standards Graddol mentioned. I find it hard to imagine any organization with the breadth and authority to accomplish such a task. Still, for the first time in decades the heretical idea of regulating English is at least being discussed.

Graddol returned to the topic in a 2006 study, English Next. There he predicted that as early as 2010 or 2015, “nearly a third of the world population will all be trying to learn English at the same time.” The demand for teachers and texts will be intense. “One Korean Internet provider,” he notes, “is offering English courses for fetuses still in the womb.” Never in human history has a single language been so widespread. “English is now,” Graddol writes, “redefining national and individual identities worldwide; shifting political fault lines; creating new global patterns of wealth and social exclusion; and suggesting new notions of human rights and responsibilities of citizenship.” That’s an awful lot of power for any language to bear. But what exactly has this language become, and how might it change?

In the remaining chapters I’ll approach the linguistic future in a few sly, perhaps surprising ways. Texts that tell you precisely what to expect in the decades ahead are not just misleading, they’re fraudulent—nobody knows what the future holds, in language or anything else. This book is not a crystal ball.

The future has always been cloudy; it always will be. It’s best approached, I believe, by looking keenly and closely at what’s happening now in the world, without prejudices or preconceptions. Such scrutiny will reveal a few common themes. Whether it be the growth of chatroom speech among teenagers or the rise of mixed idioms like Spanglish, we’ll discover that people with little political or economic power can exert enormous influence on language. And whether it be the impact that English is having on Japanese or the effect that Asian languages are having on English, we’ll find a tension between the informal and formal registers of language —between the top-down and the bottom-up forces that lead to verbal change. Although the language may not be going to hell in a handbasket— what is a handbasket, anyway?—some of its speakers appear ready to burninate a noob.

Talk 2u l8r.

From the Hardcover edition.

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