Think you know English? Not so fast

In 5 seconds

Around the globe, 360 million people learned English as their mother tongue and another 990 million picked it up as their second language. But many are finding it hard to keep up with the new lingo.

English, they say, is the modern lingua franca, and has been for some time. The rudiments of its grammar are easy to grasp, the basics of Anglo-American vocabulary simple to learn, the portability of the language across cultures widespread.

Little wonder, then, that today English is the most widely spoken language in the world. From Antigua to Zimbabwe, some 1.35 billion people speak the language – about one out every five men, women and children on the planet.

For the vast majority, English is their second language; only 360 million have it as their mother tongue. There are far more native speakers of Chinese and Spanish in the world, yet English remains tops in its reach globally, thanks to its adoption by others.

Professor Heike Harting is one of those. Born, raised and educated in Berlin, West Germany, she has taught English at Université de Montréal since 2003, specializing in Canadian literature and criticism, postcolonial literary studies, and diaspora and globalization studies.

Slang, neologisms and borrowings

Despite her expertise, she never ceases to be amazed by the shape-shifting nature of the English language. And like many others who thought they'd mastered its ins-and-outs, she's surprised every day by how it keeps changing.

“I have a daughter who’s just turned 18, she’s a sciences student at Dawson College who’s also very strong in English studies, and sometimes when she speaks I do not understand her,” Harting says with laugh.

“She’ll use words like ‘donowall’ (to ignore someone), which comes from the Japanese, and I won’t have a clue what she’s talking about. Or the other day at ping pong, she played me into a corner and I couldn’t reach the ball, and she said ‘Ha, I juked you!’”

Slang, neologisms and borrowings from other languages give modern English a richness not found in other, more codified and regimented languages such as French, where change is slower to be officially adopted.

Far from being a monolithic, static language, English is remarkably adaptable, and that in itself is problematic. A language that changes faster than the ability of those who speak it to keep up poses all sorts of communication problems for even the most adroit speakers.

The reason, Harting says, is the speed with which new forms of English has been globalized by technology, especially through the influence of global platforms like TikTok and Instagram, videogames such as Fortnite and Candy Crush, and popular music like rap and hiphop.

Truly international communities

These communities are truly international, where English border-hops with ease.

“A lot of the ‘newspeak,’ as (George) Orwell would call it, come from the gamer and social-media communities, as well as from aspects of African-American culture that went mainstream via recorded music,” Harting says.

“So, for example, if you want to boast about how much money you’ll be making in your next job, you’ll say ‘I’m going to flex my income.’ Or instead of going home alone, you say ‘I invite you to my crib.’”

So rapidly are new terms being adopted, slang terms themselves have a short shelf life than before, she added.

“A year ago, for instance if you wanted to describe an amazing experience you had, you’d say it was ‘epic’. Now, it’s ‘pog,’ short for ‘pogger’, something people started throwing around on Twitch, a gaming channel. It’s really so Gen-Z.”

The names of the global platforms themselves – Google, Zoom, Teams, Whatsapp – contribute to a widening of the spread of English worldwide, a spread whose roots are partly a legacy of Anglo-American colonialism, Harting says.

“English is no longer the received English of the Queen of England. In my field, we say that English follows a dialectic of abrogation and appropriation: you take a term used in a colonial context, you dismantle it and you reappropriate it to a minor context.

'De-colonization, writ-large"

“What you get is an English that is no longer hegemonic. Those who learned it as their second language are now ‘writing back to the Empire’ with their own version of English. It’s decolonization, writ large and writ wide.”

In the late 1950s, with the publication of African novels written in English such as Things Fall Apart by Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe, came the emergence of what’s known as “the African palimpsest” of English overlaid by a variety of African dialects. Similarly, in the Caribbean, there is “Jamaican continuum English” – “continuous” because its development is constant and fluid – exemplified in such works as the Creole children’s classic Sprat Morrison, by Jean D’Costa.

“As someone who learned English as a foreign language,” said Harting, “I can attest that the nuances of English are expressed through your vocabulary – you create meaning and complexity and ‘linguistic capital’ by your choice of words. In German and French, by contrast, it is the complexity of the structure that you’re able to wield, that gives your expression meaning, not the complexity of the lexis.”

That’s what makes English unique, what makes it so malleable, she adds. “You can also add and subtract vocabulary. You can be very inventive with vocabulary, which why English is so poetic, in many ways.”

One of the downsides, of course, is that with so many varieties of English out there – not just one lingua franca but many – people can have trouble understanding one another, just as Harting does sometimes with her daughter. “But that’s also true for culture in general,” she says. “We live today in multi-stratified societies that emphasize the particular rather than the universal.”

And that's not necessarily a negative. In the gaming community, for instance, when a player in Japan faces off against another in Lagos and another in Berlin, and they then welcome in someone playing from Russia, they understand each other because they speak the same ‘gamer English.’ They feel in no way compelled then to turn around and explain their ‘game-speak’ to outsiders – it’s just not a priority.

So in the end, a little incomprehension might not be a bad thing. Language is communication, and communication evolves, and in all its incarnations and variations, it seems, English is here to stay.

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