[9 January 2011]
English is often considered to be the lingua franca in many locations and situations around the globe today, for better or worse. Leslie Dunton-Downer delves into the genesis and cross-boundary associations of 30 commonly understood English words and phrases. She notes that “[t]here is an unbroken line of linguistic and cultural continuity between us, in our digital global world, and those tribes of long ago, in an environment that we must now strain to fathom.” Dunton-Downer wonders if English speakers in the future, will require special training to understand 21st century English as it was used before the Internet era began. How’s your understanding of Old or even Middle English?
Of the 30 commonly borrowed English terms in The English Is Coming!, it’s not surprising to see terms like “Taxi”, “Relax”, and “T-shirt” on the list, but I like Dunton-Downer’s starting point: “Robot”. “Robot” is followed by “Bikini”, which just about redeems the author for a slow start courtesy of a long introduction. The introduction is about the importance of English in various countries, with familiar stats on the facts such as China having more English speakers than the US does. Likely readers of this book are probably already aware that many English words pepper dialects around the world. Dunton-Downer enhances the value of her research by not only noting how English words have come to be used in other languages, but tracking how they’ve evolved during the adoption process.
“Shampoo” came to English during the expansion of the British Empire into the East Indies, from the Hindi word “champo”, meaning to massage. The author explains the importation of soap-related treatments back to Britain and on to the Americas, without missing the opportunity to explain unexpected spheres of influence: as competing companies developed ever-evolving iterations of haircare products, they looked for promotional pathways. “Soap operas” are so named because as a new, episodic TV standard, many of the initial advertisements that initially punctuated these dramas were for the new types of soaps and cleaning products. No doubt the intended audience of daytime “soap operas” were also ideal recipients of the message that shiny, residue-free hair was not only desirable, but now possible via a vast selection of fabulous new products.
There are other examples where an English term remains nearly unadulterated after adoption. “OK” is a global favorite adopted from the US, and its simplicity and brevity have rendered it immune to changes. Accompanying hand gestures may not translate, but the chances are good that anywhere you travel, people will understand the verbal “OK”. The real value in Dunton-Downer’s research is shown in one explanation of how “OK” came into existence. In the US in the 1840’s, Martin Van Buren’s presidential reelection campaign invented it, with the initials standing for Van Buren’s nickname, Old Kinderhook. Can you imagine the signs and rallying cries? “Vote for OK!”
The author clearly feels strongly that those who don’t incorporate at least some English into their knowledge base risk exclusion from global life. Some appreciation for the variety and beauty of various languages is welcome alongside the acknowledgment that English has become the common language of the world. Dunton-Downer notes:
Speakers of each language have their own way of putting the world together, their own palettes of words and concepts, each vibrating with a specificity that belongs to their language alone.
By exploring a finite list of terms that are increasingly understood around the world, Dunton-Downer has made a solidly researched addition to a growing discussion about the disproportionate impact of the English language on the global marketplace amid a sea of dialects that are fading from use.
For linguists and those who appreciate knowing how language influences society and culture, this book provides a glimpse into certain English terms that have made their mark on the world. With occasional tables, maps and text boxes to demarcate information that is separate from the main narrative, this book may be better picked up and read selectively than from cover to cover. No matter how The English is Coming! is approached, you’ll definitely learn something interesting about common English words and the affect they’re having on global interaction, as well a bit of history of how they came to be so important in the first place.