Wednesday 26 February 2014

Living in a Multilingual World (The One About MLE)

Michael Rosen is an acclaimed British author who has written countless books for children and adults. Whilst not familiar with the latter that much, I am well acquainted with the former. We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, Sonsense Nogs and Tea in the Sugar Bowl, Potato in My Shoe are some of the titles I have read over the years. Michael’s imagination knows no limits.

That is why I was really looking forward to reading his contribution to Radio 2 and the New Statesman’s What Makes Us Human series. The name might ring some bells to some of you as, back in the summer when I was away from my blog, I uploaded a couple of articles from the series. Mr Rosen did not disappoint me. His essay was on history and what he called the “paradox” of it. Like his monthly “letters” to Michael Gove, our education secretary, his column was thought-provoking as well.

Reading Rosen’s wonderfully crafted write-up led me also down a path I had not considered before. On musing over what history represents for humans (I’m the bloke scurrying about trying to find out stuff to do with my great-grandparents or great-uncles and aunts. More history. Or I’m the bloke wondering why British people say “I’ve got” and Americans say “I’ve gotten”) Michael reminded me of the role language has played in the making of our history. As part of our human culture, regardless of nationality, gender, class or race, language is a key element of our identity. No two human beings speak the same way, have the same inflection or even pronounce words the same way. The current rising-intonation-at-the-end-of-affirmative-sentences epidemic sweeping the UK teenage population might mortify some, but, believe you me, these adolescents still sound British, as opposed to Australian.

Recently I have been hearing more and more people talking about the correct way we ought to speak English. Or rather, about the incorrect ways some people speak it. More specifically, there are self-appointed guardians of the English language who are terrified of a new phenomenon: the linguistic melting pot. We all know about the melting pot. New York is one, so is London and Paris does not lag behind. It is the confluence of different nationalities and races in one place. It is what makes an ordinary, run-of-the-mill city a metropolis all of a sudden. Language is a logical part of this process. So far, though, linguistic contributions had remained in the periphery with the host nation being able to fend off (unintentionally) most advances. Think of the RP accent that dominated the BBC for so many years. But the landscape has changed dramatically in the last decade or so. Regional intonations are frequently heard now on both radio and television. What could have been thought of niche accents years ago, are taking on a more prominent role nowadays, if not on mainstream media, at least amongst the youth. It is this last group that is calling the shots. They are changing the rhythm with which English is spoken, stressing syllables that are normally unstressed.

Without wanting to come across as a fence-sitter, I understand both camps. Those who criticise the expansion of what’s come to be known as Multicultural London English (although it’s not a phenomenon that only takes place in the British capital) might be striving for a linguistic structure that is easily accessible to all and perfectly understandable. I can sympathise with that feeling. As a non-native speaker, I find my language resources wanting when faced with a regional dialect or a slang-ridden sentence. Even those born and bred in English-speaking countries sometimes struggle with certain speech patterns. The desire for a linguistic level playing field is, thus, justified. Besides, with a job market getting narrower by the day, people need to show as many skills as possible. In order to do this, they have to be able to be fluent, confident speakers. Someone who ends her/his sentences with “innit?” is not going to get very far, no matter how much we protest and say that experience and the ability to perform the role efficiently is what counts.

However, that would be almost like denying the evolution of language. To me that would be as if the creationist movement suddenly took control of the way we spoke and built its own Royal Academy of the English Language. God made us this way and this is the way we ought to speak forever and ever. Again, I turn to Michael Rosen for a beautiful reflection on history: People all around us sing songs, tell stories of what’s happened to them, talk about their parents and grandparents, where they used to live. We remember some of this, and somehow it all becomes us. Becomes us. That is what happens to language, too. It becomes us. We become it. When we sing “Old pirates, yes, they rob I; Sold I to the merchant ships”, we forget about the objective case of “I” and lose ourselves in the message of redemption the song conveys. I say “ourselves”, I can’t vouch for you, but I do. When I talk to older people in my barrio who have lived in it for so long they can’t remember any longer, they tell me tales of exodus, of Cockneys migrating to Essex and Poles, Somalis and Turks replacing them. Whether the self-appointed guardians of the English language like it or not, this influx has an impact. On our lifestyle, our habits, our culture and, of course, it has a deep impact on our language. I have no other option but to (willingly) embrace it. Will you, too?

© 2014

Next Post; “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 2nd March at 10am (GMT)


  1. Some of the changes in language strike me as laziness and I reject them. Adding like to like everything is one of them.
    Others? Rich, exciting and evocative. So I am probably a fence sitter to some extent - fishing with delight for some new linguistic gems, and rejecting hackneyed phrases which add (to my ears) nothing.

  2. haha there are many that are just down right dumb. But for some reason they stick. Brain cells are lacking all around it seems

  3. Enunciation, not pronunciation, is the key with me in terms of the spoken word no matter if it is ancient or newly-invented.

    And, I have to say I sometimes give up on a television program produced by the BBC or on one with Hollywood actors attempting to emulate a Deep South (USA) accent because I cannot understand what some of the cast are saying. Often, the tenor of the voice plays a role in this; it is too high pitched or too nasal, for instance.

    Language is constantly on the move. Of most interest to me is usage of the written word. As someone who learned as a young reporter that "proper/correct grammar" is dictated by whichever style book (or stylebook) the man who pays your salary places in your hands (and, there are many stylebooks in the world of journalism), I have had little patience with the strict grammarians of the world when they attempt to correct me.

    Another fascinating piece, CiL. Most "new words" are just fine with me.

  4. An interesting post, Cuban. I like to hear all the different dialects that we are graced with nowadays, yet I hate to hear TV announcers/reporters using incorrect grammar. It grates every time I hear a mispronunciation. Maybe if I was younger it wouldn't have the same effect.

  5. I love hearing a variety of dialects and languages. Makes the world more interesting :)

  6. Isn't it peculiar how we find some languages attractive and others irritating...begs the question of whether it has anything to do with past life identity *smiles*

    I find dialogues within Great Britain just as fascinating...Geordie and Irish accents totally mesmerize me. I could just sit and listen to them all day!

  7. Tan solo dejarte hoy mis saludos, una feliz semana.

  8. i guess i would be a fence sitter as well...the development of a lazy language scares me a bit....and the condensation of conversation to 140 characters and loss of true connection and emotion...but that goes even deeper than just language all plays together....

  9. One of the pleasures in blogging and meeting people from all over the world, all of us communicating in English, yet, in our own way adding spice to the stew, is noticing how English evolves and changes, and has certainly been enriched from each group.

  10. language always mirrors a certain culture...a certain time... little switzerland four languages are spoken actively... i think that's amazing...i'm fascinated with languages and i would love to learn some new ones..if i only were easier..

  11. I love the way language has evolved.

    When I first went travelling I believed that I spoke correct 'English' and all other versions were accents and dialects.

    Now - I think there is English English, and Australian English, and Indian English and American English, all of which are equally valid.

    And I'm happy for some of these words to seep into the English I speak (except for the American 'gotten', which brings out the pedant in me!)

  12. I loved your musings and the ponderings they evoke in me. The thing I love about the English language is how changeable and adaptive it is. Remember when google wasn't a verb?

  13. Language, like life, is always changing and developing.

  14. Very interesting. There is so much class and cultural bias wrapped up in language that i hesitate to go along with even minimal standardized structure. In the U.S., so much of American English has been absorbed from Black slang that there really should be no division. Because I'm educated, I can speak in a way that most people understand me but that doesn't mean that I can't understand or shouldn't try to comprehend people who aren't. By the Way, ordered my copy of Big Box!

  15. I see language as a living, breathing being. It evolves along with all other aspects of life. We have little choice but to go along for the ride - whether it's us personally or our generations to come. Stick with what matters to you (as I do for me), as far as personal use of language is concerned. But know that it is changing as we speak/type and there's not a thing we can or should do about it.

  16. Many thanks for your lovely comments.

    Have a great weekend.

    Greetings from London.

  17. Very interesting piece and comments and one that is most salient at this point in my life as I am doing a MA in Sociocultural Linguistics. MLE is very topical as you'd imagine.

    As a linguist, the party line is that there is no 'right' or 'wrong' way to speak a language. It's a question of context and appropriateness. Post-modern linguists emphasise being descriptive over being prescriptive, a direct influence of its related discipline, anthropology. By virtue of doing this course I am now a bit more of a fence sitter too although I still err on the side of pedantry, especially grammatic. Americanisms are a particular bete-noire of mine and I've been trying to flush any out of my personal lingo for years. Today I heard myself saying 'she's good' in the adjectival sense when I meant 'she's well' in the adverbial sense for instance and I berated myself. I am so much more aware now of when I deviate from the so-called standard.

    I don't much care about accent as long as one is articulate, grammatically correct (generally) and have an expansive vocabulary. For example there are certain maligned regional accents of which I happen to be fond; Scouse, West country and I don't mind a bit of brummy. It's also why I'm fascinated by Russell Brand who has a 'non-standard/RP' accent but is easy to understand and far more eloquent than most.

    Accent and grammar are often wrongly conflated. Also those who speak with RP get away with a multitude of linguistic 'sins' owing to the historical prestige of the accent.

    The problem also for me is coming from an ex-colony I feel some resentment towards how English has come to be the lingua franca at the expense of many indigenous tongues. So why should I defend its 'proper' use? I suppose it's the idea that whatever language it is there should be a standard from which to abrogate at least.
    Linguistic evolution is good and healthy (after the Romance languages all started off as dialects/vernacular versions of Latin before being codified) but you can't ALWAYS make it up as you go along. And as enriching as linguistic exchange can be, with a 'world language' such as English permeating so many spheres, it poses a risk to linguistic diversity. That's why I can't blame the Academie Francaise for trying to stem the tide, as futile as that often seems.

    I could go on and on. I don't want to bore you. Well done if you've read thus far.

    Thanks for being on the ball Cubano. I must look up this M.Rosen article in the NS. Their 'What makes us human' series has been insightful on the language front. Thanks for the tip or as our Yankee counterparts might say 'the heads-up'.

    Shalom, Tolita x

  18. Buen post, me encantaría aprender muchos lenguajes, hay tantos acentos geniales, saludos.



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