Monday, August 07, 2006

The marketplace of words

Language, the very stuff of law, attracts an extraordinary amount of legal attention. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for instance, has ordered his government to stop using words such as chat, helicopter, and that international favorite, pizza.

At the other extreme, Jean-Paul Nerrière, a retired vice president of I.B.M., has proposed to reduce international English into a formal but extremely limited language. The proposed lingua franca, Globish, would deploy a limited vocabulary of 1,500 words for the sole purpose of connecting speakers of different languages (including English). Grammatical niceties and literary beauty, under Mr. Nerrière's proposal, would take a back seat to simple communication. "Globish is not a language," he says. "[I]t will never have a literature, it does not aim at conveying a culture, values."

The Globish proposal in particular has drawn the ire of Ann Althouse, who (with her characteristic flair) slams Jean-Paul Nerrière's "infuriatingly dessicated" linguistic dystopia. I now write to reassure Ann that Jean-Paul Nerrière is about as likely to succeed in propagating Globish as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is likely to succeed in suppressing Global English.

What Monsieur Nerrière and President Ahmadinejad ignore is the remarkably adaptive nature of human speech. Language is perhaps the most powerful demonstration of emergence and evolution within human society. Neither governments nor idealists have enjoyed much success in regulating a process that evolves with each conversation, wholly beyond the reach of public and private lawmakers.

In a very real sense, Globish is an idea that came and went a lifetime ago. Basic English, the life's work of the English semioticist Charles Kay Ogden, aspired to reduce English to a core of 850 words for the purpose of facilitating global communications. Ogden's 1930 opus, Basic English, is listed on Amazon, but it appears to be unavailable. The last effort to publish Basic English appears to have taken place in 1968. (For a mere $1,350, however, you evidently can own the six-volume boxed set dedicated to the subject of C.K. Ogden and Linguistics.) Globish's path to linguistic and cultural oblivion, I predict, will be even swifter.

Global English -- the real variety -- will continue to evolve, in some cases by begetting offspring languages not readily understood by its native speakers. In places such as Papau New Guinea, this process of linguistic evolution has already spawned a fascinating new tongue. Tok Pisin (which figured prominently in my recent essay, First Person Plural) is an official language of Papau New Guinea. Tok Pisin has borrowed a very large part of its vocabulary from English, often imparting clever twists along the way. For instance, the feminine name Mary has become meri, the ordinary word for woman. In Tok Pisin, manmeri denotes people.

Better still, Tok Pisin creatively combines fragments of English, German, and indigenous Melanesian languages to generate new words:
  • haus meri = maid

  • haus moni = bank

  • haus sik = hospital

  • sit haus = toilet
Even English slang, as in bugger up, has yielded the very common Tok Pisin word bagarap. The best translation of bagarap, in turn, is fubar. As Saving Private Ryan demonstrated, fubar emphatically is not a German word, even if Tok Pisin does take its word raus directly from the language of Goethe and Schiller.

Ann, to the extent you remain unconvinced, perhaps this invocation of higher authority in Tok Pisin will suffice to convince you that speakers of English -- and of the many tongues that are evolving from it without official or officious interference -- will shape language perfectly well on their own:
Papa bilong mipela
Yu stap long heven.
Nem bilong yu i mas i stap holi.
Kingdom bilong yu i mas i kam.
Strongim mipela long bihainim laik bilong yu long graun,
olsem ol i bihainim long heven.
Givim mipela kaikai inap long tude.
Pogivim rong bilong mipela,
olsem mipela i pogivim ol arapela i mekim rong long mipela.
Sambai long mipela long taim bilong traim.
Na rausim olgeta samting nogut long mipela.
Kingdom na strong na glori, em i bilong yu tasol oltaim oltaim.
Blessed indeed are the rich in language, for theirs is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

See also VOA's 'Special English', which is 1500 words or so. The NYT had an article about it last week, which is now for pay, but the VOA's website has a pretty good description here.

8/07/2006 9:40 AM  
Blogger Jim Chen said...

Timothy K. Morris, through a comment on Althouse, has brought to my attention the Basic-English Institute, which describes itself as "Dedicated to the expansion of Ogden's Basic English." The Institute's resources include a Basic English template for Wiktionary.

8/07/2006 1:14 PM  
Blogger Frank said...

You might want to link to this program:

I'm sure they'd enjoy your insights!

8/07/2006 1:18 PM  
Blogger Frank said...

I also recommend Oz Shy's reflections on "languages as networks" in The Economics of Network Industries.

8/08/2006 8:24 PM  
Blogger Mike Unwalla, TechScribe said...

@Jim: At the other extreme, Jean-Paul Nerrière, a retired vice president of I.B.M., has proposed to reduce international English into a formal but extremely limited language.

Globish is not a formal language. Speakers of Globish are permitted to invent terms. The words in Globish are not rigorously defined, unlike the words in a formal controlled language such as ASD-STE100.

3/05/2010 5:54 AM  

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