Shine on You Crazy Doubter

26 March 2013

The English language is a peculiar beast. How often do we say things we don’t mean or things we don’t understand? A classic is the ‘I could care less’ line, which has so twisted ‘I couldn’t care less’ that now the meaning has changed to actually suggest that someone really could care less, but perhaps not much. Such is the way language evolves, purists be damned.

Yesterday I read an exchange that highlights this plasticity. One person wrote that a lack of evidence would “shine doubt on” a particular study. My immediate reaction was to think, no! And no again! Doubt is dull and certainty is  . . . bright. Doubt clouds our vision, right?

Well, maybe not so much. It’s all a matter of perspective. Doubt isolates weak hypotheses. It identifies flaws and reveals implications. Doubt, we could say, is the torch of knowledge, without which we couldn’t see beyond our presumptions. So, yes, shine doubt on everything, so we can see more clearly. Purists be damned.   

Babble On

25 January 2009

The Value of Minority Languages

2103512683_7bbf68822e_mLanguages are the commerce of life, the additions and subtractions of our days. Through them we communicate, but they often restrict us in what we can say, how we can say it. And when we can’t understand a language we baulk at the impediment to exchange, often without thinking much about whether there would have been any exchange anyway. People get uptight about minority languages in all countries, insist that they shouldn’t be part of the public conversation. To be an Australian, people will say, you must speak English. To be American as well, in the United States. But why? Surely a common language is convenient and translation for minority language speakers can be expensive, but so too are grants to sporting clubs, support for the arts, government-funded advertising campaigns, and so on. I’m sure you get the message.

We live in a world in which mutually incomprehensible languages are a fact of life. Voters in Nashville, a city of around 600,000 people, voted down an ‘English first’ proposal this week, which would have taken away translation support services for the 10% of the population who don’t speak English. Sure, Tennessee’s official language is English anyway, but this would have been a nasty jab at people who have recently arrived as refugees, and the long-term Spanish speaking population.

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Speaking in Tongues

23 June 2008

Michael Erard’s Flawed Take on the Future of English

Letters, by jmtimages, with Creative Commons licenceHistory has a habit of playing tricks on those who claim to see the future. Hindsight – that underrated ability to reflect rather than forget – makes easy mock of unquestioned presumptions as they fade into undignified obscurity. It’s common now to speak of English as the coming ‘global’ language, pointing to the multitudes who use it as their second tongue, but it’s impossible to predict what will happen next. Perhaps that’s why Michael Erard has a different take on the matter in the July issue of Wired.

Erard’s argument is that English, with a tightening grip on intercultural communication given the sheer diversity of its non-native speakers, will change rapidly to suit new circumstances. ‘Panglish’, or a global form of English with many linguistic influences, will emerge soon. This isn’t an original position – it’s been floating around the English-language media lately, with the Telegraph in the UK somewhat vaguely reporting a study mentioned in Scientific American last March. But Erard gives the Panglish line a little more substance, creating an important place for Chinese speakers of English in the change.

Writing first of English in the near future, Erard makes the unsupported claim that “by 2020 native speakers will make up only 15 percent of the 2 billion people who will be using or learning the language.” You could well ask why that particular year and not any other – futurists do like nice round numbers.

And by what calculation did Erard reach the figure of 2 billion people? He gives no answer but the inclusion of those only learning the language is a clue. It’s a guess, nicely rounded up. To include learners, who might never have a fully practical use for the language, as bona fide non-native speakers is a little like including passengers as train drivers. Well, you could argue, they’re both using the same vehicle.

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