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♦ How the Internet is changing our languages
‘Minglish’ steps in as a linguistoc bridge-builder

It’s bilingualism, but not as we know it!


hen China's population topped 1 billion in 1982 some demographers predicted that, if the country’s birth rate continued unabated, Chinese would rapidly replace English as the world’s dominant language.

Another hypothesis doing the rounds among the chattering classes around then was that, in time, only eight of the world’s languages would survive and that all others would gradually die out. Today, 7,000 languages are in daily use.

The surviving-languages theory was based on the numbers of people who spoke the world’s main languages either as a primary or as a secondary tongue. It was argued that the eight koines destined to endure were Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish, Russian, French, Hindi/Urdu, Arabic and Portuguese. (This last contender often surprised people until they realised that Portuguese is the national language in Brazil, whose 193 million inhabitants account for about half of the South American continent’s population).

Both these linguistic postulations have so far proved wrong – partly because neither prophecy had reckoned with the impact of the Internet, where English has since expanded its influence to become the lingua franca of cyberspace. In doing so, English has strengthened its traction beyond the Anglophone diaspora, albeit in forms that are occasionally unrecognisable to many of us.

The Internet was not the first technology to unexpectedly alter the natural progression of linguistic development.

When Johannes Gutenberg unveiled his printing press in 1440 his intent was to slash the time needed to produce and disseminate the written word. An unforeseen side-effect of his invention was to homogenise the spoken language. This was because, as people in dispersed regions all began reading the same texts, they gradually accepted this rendition of German as the ‘standard version’ of their language and adapted their speech accordingly – though some local vocabulary variations in the spoken language persist.

Curiously, the Internet seems to be having the opposite effect on English: far from standardising the language, it is spawning enclaves of ‘Minglish’ speakers: people of different regions or ethnic groups who, sharing no common language, communicate with each other through a form of English heavily mixed with vocabulary and phrases from their own and/or other regional languages. This enhanced pidgin frequently uses a greatly simplified grammar, along with a syntax which is sometimes baffling to mainstream Anglophones.

In Nigeria, for example, the main pidgin patter comprises English laced with vocabulary from the three main indigenous languages – Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba – much of it riddled with ‘bullets’ (grammatical errors, in the popular argot). In addition, many English words take on an entirely different meaning in local usage so that, in Nigeria for example, ‘vibrate’ means to exert oneself, someone who has ‘long legs’ is well connected and a well-travelled person is a ‘been-to’. Such expressions are not beyond decryption by an intelligent mind. However, when a Yoruba word or phrase is sandwiched between two English-based phrases, the meaning of the resulting Minglish is frequently completely opaque to outsiders.

In India, which depending on one’s view is blessed or burdened with 15 official languages and over 1,500 mother-tongue dialects, ‘Hinglish’ – a blend of Hindi and English mixed with Punjabi and Urdu – is becoming so widely used that Britain is even starting to run courses for its diplomats. The mix-n-match phenomenon is not confined to Hindi, as Bengali and Tamil have combined with English to form Banglish and Tanglish.

Unlike the pidgin varieties spoken in Africa, Hinglish is gradually being given a level of official status in India, where the Times of India reported that the central government had sanctioned its use to replace ‘difficult’ Hindi words in official documents. There has also been a relaxation of rules governing the written word, with an increasing number of ‘imported’ words being penned in Roman script rather than using the more complex Devanagari ( डऎवऩघढ़ ) characters.

It may be true, as some purists insist, that you can only be master of one language. The success of Hinglish seems to suggest that the answer to the bilingualism conundrum is linguistic cross-dressing.

As Africans and Asians modify English to suit themselves, the time may come when people ask not ‘Do you speak English?’ but, rather, may wonder which regional flavour of English you might prefer.

email: linguabites@wls.ie

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The Internet
was not the
first technology
to unexpectedly
alter the natural
progression of

In addition to
a unique syntax,
many English
words take on
an entirely
in local usage