THE WORLDS LANGUAGE
More than 300 million people in the world speak English and the rest, it
sometimes seems, try to. It would be charitable to say that the results are
Consider this hearty announcement in a Yugoslavian hotel: "The flattening of
underwear with pleasure is the job of the chambermaid. Turn to her
straightaway." Or this warning to motorists in Tokyo: "When a passenger of the
foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet at him melodiously at first, but
if he still obstacles your passage, then tootle him with vigor." Or these
instructions gracing a packet of convenience food from Italy: "Besmear a backing
pan, previously buttered with a good tomato sauce, and, after, dispose the
cannelloni, lightly distanced between them in a only couch."
Clearly the writer of that
message was not about to let a little
ignorance of English stand in the way of a good meal. In fact, it would appear
that one of the beauties of the English language is that with even the most
tenuous grasp you can speak volumes if you show enough enthusiasma willingness
to tootle with vigor, as it were.
To be fair, English is full of booby traps for the unwary foreigner. Any
language where the unassuming word fly
signifies an annoying insect, a
means of travel, and a critical part of a gentleman's apparel is clearly asking
to be mangled. Imagine being a foreigner and having to learn that in English one
lie but the
truth, that a person who says "I could care
less" means the same thing as someone who says "I couldn't care less," that a
sign in a store saying ALL ITEMS NOT ON SALE doesn't mean literally what it says
(that every item is not on sale) but rather that only some of the items are on
sale, that when a person says to you, "How do you do?" he will be taken aback if
you reply, with impeccable logic, "How do I do what?"
The complexities of the English language are such that even native speakers
cannot always communicate effectively, as almost every American learns on his
first day in Britain. Indeed, Robert Burchfield, editor of the Oxford English
, created a stir in linguistic circles on both sides of the
Atlantic when he announced his belief that American English and English English
are drifting apart so rapidly that within 200 years the two nations won't be
able to understand each other at all.
That may be. But if the Briton and American of the twentysecond century
baffle each other, it seems altogether likely that they won't confuse many
othersnot, at least, if the rest of the world continues expropriating words
and phrases at its present rate. Already Germans talk about ein image Problem
and das CashFlow
, Italians program their computers with il
, French motorists going away for a weekend break
stops, Poles watch telewizja
, Spaniards have a
, Austrians eat Big Macs
, and the Japanese go on a
. For better or worse, English has become the most global of
languages, the lingua franca of business, science, education, politics, and pop
music. For the airlines of 157 nations (out of 168 in the world), it is the
agreed international language of discourse. In India, there are more than 3,000
newspapers in English. The six member nations of the European Free Trade
Association conduct all their business in English, even though not one of them
is an English-speaking country. When companies from four European
countriesFrance, Italy, Germany, and Switzerlandformed a joint truck-making
venture called Iveco in 1977, they chose English as their working language
because, as one of the founders wryly observed, "It puts us all at an equal
disadvantage." For the same reasons, when the Swiss company Brown Boveri and the
Swedish company ASEA merged in 1988, they decided to make the official company
language English, and when Volkswagen set up a factory in Shanghai it found that
there were too few Germans who spoke Chinese and too few Chinese who spoke
German, so now Volkswagen's German engineers and Chinese managers communicate in
a language that is alien to both of them, English. Belgium has two languages,
French and Flemish, yet on a recent visit to the country's main airport in
Brussels, I counted more than fifty posters and billboards and not one of them
was in French or Flemish. They were all in English.
For non-English speakers everywhere, English has become the common tongue.
Even in France, the most determinedly nonEnglish-speaking nation in the world,
the war against English encroachment has largely been lost. In early 1989, the
Pasteur Institute announced that henceforth it would publish its famed
international medical review only in English because too few people were reading
it in French.
English is, in short, one of the world's great growth industries. "English is
just as much big business as the export of manufactured goods," Professor
Randolph Quirk of Oxford University has written. "There are problems with what
you might call after-sales service; and delivery can be awkward; but at any
rate the production lines are trouble free." [The Observer
, October 26,
1980] Indeed, such is the demand to learn the language that there are now more
students of English in China than there are people in the United States.
It is often said that what most immediately sets English apart from other
languages is the richness of its vocabulary. Webster's Third New
lists 450,000 words, and the revised Oxford
has 615,000, but that is only part of the total.
Technical and scientific terms would add millions more. Altogether, about 200,00
English words are in common use, more than in German (184,000) and far more than
in French (a mere 100,000) The richness of the English vocabulary, and the
wealth of available synonyms, means that English speakers can often draw shades
of distinction unavailable to non-English speakers. The French, for instance,
cannot distinguish between house and home, between mind and brain, between man
and gentleman, between "I wrote" and "I have written.."
Copyright © 1990 Bill Bryson.
Excerpted from The Mother Tongue
by Bill Bryson.
Copyright © 1990 by Bill Bryson.
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be
reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
All rights reserved.