So to speak


Rapid advances in technology, communication and travel have irreversibly altered the face of the contemporary world. Life without social networking sites, Skype and budget airlines offering easily affordable, if not free, means of erasing physical boundaries is hard to imagine. This effortless, cross-cultural interaction is characteristic of the steady process ever-flattening our world that is globalization.

In addition to the social and economic impact, the resulting transnational movement of people has changed the use of language. English, the most widely spoken language today in everything from business to academia, has been subject to linguistic migration. The transformation includes both the integration of foreign words in the English vocabulary as well as the influence of American expressions dominating the media today. The French ‘faux pas’, the German ‘Poltergeist’ or the Persian ‘pajama’ are just three examples of many foreign loanwords frequently used by English-speakers without so much as a second thought to their origin. Foreign words are estimated to account for two thirds of the English vocabulary.

Linguistic migration is criticized for sharing an alleged negative aspect with human migration: the loss of national identity. Foreign words threaten the existence of native languages as an intrinsic part of culture. Similarly, increasingly popular Americanisms find their way into what is regarded to be standard English. Like the grey squirrel, they sneakily invade the Queen’s English to thrive on British soil at the cost of native species.

Matthew Engel’s has noted in his Four Thought broadcast for the BBC how imports like ‘reliable’, ‘tremendous’ or ‘lengthy’ were received with mistrust when they first entered the UK in the 19th century, they have long become established vocabulary across the pond. In 1635, the Académie Française was founded as the official authority in France concerning all matters related to the French language. Until this day, the academy acts on its responsibility for securing the purity of written and spoken French to protect the French culture – especially with Anglicization on the rise due to the global reach US export goods shaping every aspect of our life. English, however, has no authority equivalent to the Académie Française. Consequently, it is a constantly evolving language. In fact, the Oxford Dictionary publishes an annual list of the latest words added to the English vocabulary.

Yet, heterogeneous national identities hold potential for greater intercultural understanding and tolerance, partially based on the successful integration of foreign expressions. Such linguistic expansion not only shapes and enriches the native pool of words but also makes up for a lack thereof. The English language seems in a way dependent on borrowing: ‘Schadenfreude’ or ‘déjà vu’ refers to a situation without a respective English synonym. Loanwords therefore make communication more diverse and stimulating as well as significantly easier for all parties involved.

Whilst it is still debated whether globalization is indeed a new phenomenon or simply the latest catch phrase for the on-going development of civilization, linguistic migration may have been enhanced in recent years, though in itself it is hardly a novelty. The history of the English language is colored by the distinct influence of foreign languages throughout centuries of settlement, conquest and migration. Initially of Germanic origin, early English experienced different periods of linguistic influence including Norman, Latin and French. A grasp of basic German and French is immensely helpful when reading Shakespeare regarding his loose borrowing of words from both languages, which were commonly represented in the English vocabulary at the time.

So, if the world is becoming flatter, so is our language: where human migration creates new multicultural identities, linguistic migration creates a new blend of English. It is the result of mutual exchange based on free borrowing. Or to quote the Canadian book reviewer James D. Nicoll, “the problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.” Given this track record, it seems as if English will continue to expand forevermore.

Susann Landefeld


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