English Language in Flux February 2014
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The connectedness of global society is changing the way people speak and communicate. Numerous driving forces—including the pervasiveness of the internet, the growth of social networks, the international popularity of television shows, the increase of immigration and urbanization, and the emergence of multicultural communities—are pushing languages and societies in new directions.
Changes in the English language will have a reach that extends far beyond English-speaking countries.
In the past few decades, some interesting hybrid languages have emerged. Examples include Hinglish (an informal mixture of Hindi, English, Urdu, and Punjabi), Spanglish (a mixture of Spanish and English), and Konglish (a blend of Korean and English). In 2004, Scan™ noted that these English hybrids were unestablished, informal languages that have primarily verbal usage; however, the past decade has seen significant growth in the use and development of these hybrid tongues. Likely, the influence of Web 2.0—the web as a participatory space that involves activities such as blogging and social networking—has had substantial influence in this development. By 2013, hybrid languages had matured, and their influence is spreading. Most people who use English to communicate and interact on the web do not count English as their first language. Thus, these hybrid languages are developing fast, resulting in the rapid introduction of new words and phrases. For example, the Konglish word skinship refers to close personal contact. The web has become an English-language melting pot, where users from diverse backgrounds are free to create new words, phrases, and dialects.
Television shows can also influence the way people speak—on both national and international levels. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC; Swindon, England) has studied the effect that television viewing has on the spoken accent of viewers in the United Kingdom. A recent ESRC study claims that avid Scottish fans of London, England–based soap opera EastEnders are picking up a slight Cockney accent. Reportedly, some Glaswegian EastEnders viewers now replace the th sound with the f sound. Hence, Glaswegian fans' pronunciation changes: Words such as think and tooth change to sound like fink and toof, respectively. This research did note that television and other forms of popular media "were only one of many factors that help accelerate language change" ("EastEnders turning Glaswegians Cockney says TV study," BBC News, 9 September 2013; online).
Of course, only some language changes involve virtual or media-based influences. Immigration can change the way the population of a region speaks. Some parts of the United States—in particular, the East Coast and West Coast regions—are increasingly heading toward a multiracial, multicultural society in which traditional class, cultural, and gender distinctions are fading. According to the United States Census Bureau (Suitland, Maryland), of the 55 million married-couple households in the United States in 2011, 13.2% consisted of spouses who are both foreign born, and another 7.4% had at least one foreign-born spouse. Such an introduction of new cultures to the United States will leave a mark on the language by adding new concepts, creating new terms, and changing the texture of language.
In the United Kingdom, significant immigration has occurred in the past 50 years, and many urban areas are now multicultural. Although English remains their language of choice, many young urban people now speak a common dialect, regardless of their social or cultural origins. Multicultural London English (MLE)—a hybrid dialect that combines elements of languages from the West Indies and South Asia with Cockney and Estuary English (a dialect common to many people who live in South East England)—is perhaps the most significant example of such a dialect. MLE variants have also emerged in other multicultural UK cities—in particular, Birmingham and Manchester—and linguists have determined that children pick up MLE at high school. In addition to having a vocabulary with a variety of distinct words, MLE uses verb forms in a way that differs from the use of verb forms in Standard English; for example, in MLE, the phrase we wasn't replaces the Standard English phrase we weren't. Moreover, MLE's speaking rhythm differs from that of Standard English, a change that linguists are extremely interested in. "English is usually spoken with a stress-timed rhythm, in which syllables are stressed at regular intervals. Speakers of MLE speak with a syllable-timed rhythm, in which all syllables are accorded roughly the same time and stress, as in French or Japanese" ("Argot bargy: Why urban teenagers speak the way they do," Economist, 2 November 2013; online). According to linguists, the rhythm in use by MLE speakers is causing some communications issues: Non-MLE speakers often struggle to understand MLE speakers.
Television shows' influence on language can certainly cross international borders. Young women are aware of—and some choose to emulate—socialite Kim Kardashian's vocal fry (a type of phonation at the end of a spoken sentence) whether they live in the United States, New Zealand, or India. Thus, a teenager from New York in the United States and a teenager from New Delhi in India may speak in a similar way. MLE is already homogenizing cultures and communities in London, and these changes suggest a couple of business implications. First, companies that wish to promote products and services need to be able to communicate effectively with consumers; their messages must take into account hybrid languages, new dialects, and perhaps vocal characteristics. Second, hybrid-language speakers may themselves need to adapt. Some experts believe that MLE speakers—many of whom are young people—may have difficulty finding jobs. Caroline Goyder, a professional public-speaking coach, reports that an increasing number of young people leaving schools in the United Kingdom are concerned that their language might be problematic in job interviews. In the short term, such a language barrier may prove to be a disadvantage, given that many young people are already struggling in the job market. Of course, this short-term disadvantage could turn into a long-term advantage if language changes become universal. Changes in the English language will have a reach that extends far beyond English-speaking countries. Given that English is the most important lingua franca, it has tremendous relevance for business negotiations and transactions that occur around the world.