Sunday, December 22, 2013

Bosonic and Sillytonian, Dude

Native speakers of English have the linguistic equivalent of the financial advantage held by citizens of a nation with an international reserve currency (dollar, euro, pound, yen, Swiss franc and precious few others). Exchanges, verbal and commercial, are just easier for them when away from home. By the accidents of history, English has become the de facto global language. Chinese has more native speakers, but only modest global reach; Mandarin won’t get you far in Amsterdam or Dar es Salaam. Spanish also has more native speakers, but it is of limited use in Zurich, Lagos, or Singapore. People who speak English as a first language number between 375 million and 400 million, but the people who speak it as second language are the folks who give English its international punch. When you combine native and non-native speakers, they total well over a billion, if you are generous with proficiency standards, and they are spread around the world.

That’s not to say native speakers of English won’t be baffled sometimes by versions of English they encounter elsewhere. As an example, Bill Bryson in his book The Mother Tongue quotes his travel brochure from Urbino, Italy: “The integrity and thus the vitality of Urbino is no chance, but a conservation due the factors constituted in all probability by the approximate framework of the unity of the country, the difficulty od communications, the very concentric pattern of hill sistems or the remoteness from hi-ghly developed areas, the force of the original design proposed in its construction, with the means at the disposal of the new sciences of the Renaissance, as an ideal city even.”  We can sort-of see what the author of that sentence was getting at, but that is surely more to our credit than to his. In fairness, though, it is more competent than any stab of mine at Italian likely would be.

English infiltrates other languages, often to the annoyance of language purists. So (to cherry pick just a few) Germans have Teenagers, Romanians board a trolleybus, and French wear jeans. The Japanese prefer to alter English borrowings so they roll off the tongue more like native words, e.g. erebata (elevator), chiizu (cheese), nekutai (necktie), and sarada (salad). If it’s any comfort to those purists, English at least returns the favor by absorbing foreign vocabulary easily, such as tycoon and honcho from Japanese,bamboo from Dutch (actually from a Dutch mispronunciation of a Malay word), and yogurt from Turkish, to take a few random examples.

The size of the English vocabulary (excluding most chemical names and scientific designations, which would drive up the figure into millions) is often guesstimated at about 600,000, a number that grows by about 25,000 per decade. In truth, nobody really knows because there is no official body that decides what is and isn’t English. There is no equivalent to L'Académie française which holds the reins on French. The closest to a standard dictionary is the OED (Oxford English Dictionary), and the editors merely try to keep up with current vocabulary and usage rather than dictate what it should be.

The OED updates four times per year. This year’s December update added 500 words and modified 1000 definitions of existing entries. The list of new entries is remarkably tame this time, and is mercifully light (or should I say “lite,” which is in the OED) on the texting abbreviations of the sort added last year. A few samples:

Bureaucratese – The dense language of officialdom. (I’m surprised this wasn’t included years ago.)
Vacay – vacation. (Does this phonic curtailment irk you as much as me?)
Virtuecrat –  Someone, especially in authority, who preaches his or her own morals as a cultural imperative. (The person described is irksome, but I like the word.)
Badassery – The behavior, attitude, or actions of a badass (What else?)
Bosonic – Of or regarding bosons. (Though a particle physics term, this might catch on outside the lab if we use it slangily. Since forces are carried by bosons, I see some real possibilities for this, as in, “What you're saying is like totally bosonic, Dude!”)
Emoji – icons used in texting. (Borrowed from Japanese, the word is not etymologically related to “emoticon” but probably was picked up by English-speakers because it looks as though it is.)
Cramdown – a court ordered settlement, bankruptcy resolution, or reorganization, as in “cram down their throats.” (The OED doesn’t mention divorce settlements, but I suppose they would qualify.)
Sillytonian – a silly person (n.) or in the manner of a silly person (adj.). Though new to the OED, sillytonian is not a new word: it was popular in the 18th century. (Even a cursory glance around indicates that this word is ripe for revival.)

Are native English speakers so famously monoglot because they need to keep up with their own language?  I doubt it, because most of us don’t keep up with it. Laziness is a better explanation. We can get away with being functionally monolingual, so most of us are – if indeed we are even that. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, “The average reading level is at the 8th- to 9th-grade level” in the US and “one out of five read at the 5th-grade level and below.” These numbers haven’t budged in nearly two decades, and, despite large real increases in school budgets since the ‘70s, actually are worse than four decades ago. Maybe we need to outsource English.

Help may be on the way, though, thanks to teens’ passion for texting. According to a study conducted by City University in London, texting improves “phonological awareness and reading skill in children.” But then a University of Winnipeg study shows that teens who text 100 times or more per day (a pretty average number, strange as that sounds to older generations) are more likely to be shallow and unethical. Referencing Nicolas Carr (The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains) who hypothesized that heavy social media use is associated with cognitive and ethical superficiality, Dr Paul Trapnell of the University of Winnipeg said “The values and traits most closely associated with texting frequency are surprisingly consistent with Carr’s conjecture that new information and social media technologies may be displacing and discouraging reflective thought.” Damn, it’s always something.

Marianne Faithfull Broken English

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