Multilingual London: mosaic of “Englishes”

Although we tend to talk about English as if it is something monolithic, there are numerous Englishes. Tune into the conversations happening around you in a café or on the Tube, and you’ll make out a mosaic of variants.

So claims an interesting article entitled “Language can’t stay still – just listen to London” in London’s Evening Standard earlier this week. The author Henry Hitchings has just writen a book on “proper English” and relays a story which will sound familiar to many Londoners:

One reason for this is the large number of other languages spoken by Londoners – at least 300. Among the more prominent of these are Punjabi, Bengali, Urdu and Gujarati, as well as Caribbean creole, Cantonese, Polish, Arabic, Tagalog and Greek. On a recent hour-long bus journey, I heard Russian, Portuguese, Turkish and Yoruba. As passengers flitted between native and adopted languages, it was clear these had become intertwined.

As the article points out, English has always adapted and absorbed other languages producing a rich and varied vocabulary. There are perhaps fewer attempts to regulate English useage than, say, French usage. The Oxford English Dictionary might be ultimate arbiter in a game of Scrabble, but it tends to reflect widespread rather than desired or “pure” usage. There is no English language body which attempts to roll back “invaders” once they have become widespread.

English has prospered through assimilating terms from other languages, and engagement – in London and beyond – with speakers of foreign languages has enabled this, while also propagating hybrids such as Hinglish (a blend of Hindi and English).

This is all very well but where does this leave me professionally? My company expends a lot of time and effort trying to get language right: not just “sort of understandable” but absolutely correct. If you like, the “letter of the law” is absolute in our working lives, as we constantly strive for correct grammar and perfect punctuation. Does this run counter to the belief that language develops, is a living entity? Well, not entirely. Hitchings contends:

A descriptive approach to language change does not eclipse the cogent arguments for teaching in schools a standard form of written English. But the spoken language will always be elastic. It is the spoken language that is the great driver of change, and in London scarcely a day goes by without our noticing some addition or adjustment. This can be disconcerting, but English draws strength from being mobile and protean.

Hitching’s book, The Language Wars: A History of Proper English expands on this argument historically. As one reviewer puts it “[Hitchens] gleefully explains, over 28 chapters, organised pretty much chronologically while covering areas such as spelling, punctuation, pronunciation, obscenity and slang, that all attempts to prescribe ‘correct’ usage have always been outrun by ceaseless change in the language itself.”

I like to think of this as accepting that, while we always try to get language right, we also accept that what is “right” can – and must – evolve.

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