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July 18, 2008

Chinglish, Anyone?

"How English is Evolving into a Language We May Not Even Understand" is a funny and fascinating read for those of us who care about language. However, I must admit that as an English teacher, the news about how English is being changed by its non-native speakers makes me shudder. Sentences like "If you are stolen, call the police at once" or "Please omnivorously put the waste in garbage can" or "deformed man lavatory" just make me want to break out the red pencil. After all, I've spent my career trying to get students to use "Standard Edited American English" -- which is still the norm for both the academic and business world IF you live and work in America. 

On the other hand, I know that any spoken language is an evolving language, and while I most likely won't live enough to see "Chinglish" (the Chinese version of English) become an accepted dialect, I know that it may very well happen in the future. In some ways, such is the beauty and strength of the English language: it has proven incredibly adaptable and flexible as it has spread throughout the world. As Salman Rushdie has said, "The English language ceased to be the sole possession of the English [or the Americans] some time ago." So, I may just have to get used to how my native tongue is being altered by those who speak it as a second language and, at least, keep my mental red pencil in check!

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Rolley Haggard

If the word “evolving” connotes nothing more than “change”, then what does “devolving” connote? My point is, are we using the right word to describe what is happening to our language? Too much of the “evolving” that’s going on, I suspect, is not for the better. It may be inevitable in some sense, but these days the shapers of civilization (and I confess, I paused before I used that word) are not exactly inspiring hope on any front, including language. I completely agree with those who, seemingly with hyperbole, opine, “as goes the language, so goes the civilization.”

Along with the decline of precision in language will be the disappearance of the nuances that enable true understanding. Precision in language is arguably just as necessary to human progress as precision in math.

I'll say this much: If I ever see my surgeon text-messaging a question to a learned colleague for advice in this fashion -- “Use doohickey to cut orange-red tissue next to brownish organ?” -- I will thenceforward sign all my bill payments with an ‘X’.

Assuming I survive.

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