When people think of the spread of English worldwide, infiltration is the word that suggests itself. It can refer, on the one hand, to the surreptitious movement of troops into enemy territory, and on the other, to a liquid permeating a substance. But the milder metaphor of percolation is perhaps more valid when we speak about English.
The spread of the English language has not been smooth. It faces resistance from speakers of other languages. There are rumblings even in the immediate neighbourhood of England.
Not much is known about conflicts between English and the Scots language. But a government report earlier this year revealed that 64% of the people of Scotland do not consider Scots a language. According to Wikipedia, Scots has been undergoing a process of attrition. More and more features of Standard English are imported into it. The irony is that the language of the country which Voltaire considered the wellspring of European civilization is facing linguistic death.
It is a slightly different story with the Irish tongue. It received official recognition in Northern Ireland in 1998, and does not face a threat from English: The British government has pledged £20 million for the promotion of the Irish language in Northern Ireland. The fund would support 75 hours of TV in Irish for BBC and other outlets. Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has said, however, that he expects the government to honour its commitment to introduce an Irish Language Act.
Almost next door to London, on the west, is Cornwall. The Cornish language lay dormant for nearly 200 years. In 2002, there was a revival. The BBC headline read: “Back from the dead: UK’s new language”. Cornish is today seen as a symbol of Cornwall’s identity, as a repository of its culture. As a first step, the local government decided to replace road signs with bilingual versions. There are people who are committed to bringing the language back to life.
Farther north, Wales has two official languages, English and Welsh. The two enjoy equal status, but the Welsh assembly recently decided to assert its right to legislate on the use of the Welsh language (till now, the decisions had been taken at Westminster). The assembly wants to ensure that Wales remains a truly bilingual country, and public sector bodies are legally required to communicate with the public in both Welsh and English.
In March, the assembly introduced the Welsh Language Measure to “promote the use of Welsh and safeguard the Welsh language for future generations”. But more than legislation is required. Within the assembly itself, many members who are fluent in Welsh choose to speak in English. That doesn’t serve to promote Welsh.
On the continent, France continues to build barricades to stop English. In March, the French government announced a list of French words and phrases to replace widely used “Anglophone buzzwords” (The Independent). These French words were selected from suggestions made by schoolchildren in a competition. They were presented to the 18 ministerial committees that were to examine the words and recommend those that they approved. Some of the successful entries were “logiciel” for software, “baladier” for walkman, and “capital risqué” for venture capital. “Frimousses” for smileys and “sacs gonflables” for air bags were not accepted. The French have reason to be alarmed. In 1997, the European Commission got 40% of its documents drafted first in French; last year, the figure fell to 11%. French philosopher Michel Serres said: “There are more English words on the walls of Paris than German words under the (Nazi) Occupation.”
Another instance of resistance to English has come from Germany. In February, the German railway company, Deutsche Bahn, was asked to remove English signs from station premises and put up German ones. A retired headmaster in Bavaria had complained about the use of words such as kiss-and-ride, service point and hotline. German transport minister Peter Ramsauer remarked: “I know of no country in the world in which they show so little respect for their own language.” Kiss-and-ride was replaced with “Kurzzeitparkzone” (short-time parking zone), and hotline by “Service Nummer”.
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VR Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column