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The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches from the Future of English

Abley, Mark

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An exhilarating exploration of how the world's languages are likely to transform and be transformed by their speakers

Mark Abley, author of Spoken Here, takes the reader on a global journey like no other—from Singapore to Tokyo, from Oxford to Los Angeles, through the Internet and back in time. As much a travel book as a tour of words at play, The Prodigal Tongue goes beyond grammar and vocabulary to discover how language is irrevocably changing the people of the world in far-reaching ways.
On his travels, Abley encounters bloggers, translators, novelists, therapists, dictionary makers, hip-hop performers, and Web-savvy teens. He talks to a married couple who corresponded passionately online before they met in “meatspace.” And he listens to teenagers, puzzling out the words they coin in chat rooms and virtual worlds.
Everywhere he goes, he asks what the future is likely to hold for the ways we communicate. Abley balances a traditional concern for honesty and accuracy in language with a less traditional delight in the sheer creative energy of new words and expressions.
Provocative, perceptive, and often hilarious, this is a book for everyone who cherishes the words we use.

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About the Author:

Mark Abley, an award-winning journalist, writes for the Montreal Gazette, the Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. He speaks English, French, and a little Welsh. His previous book, Spoken Here, was named a Best Book of the Year by the San Francisco Chronicle and Discover magazine. He won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2005 for work on language change and the future.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Roarific
The Power of Language Change

Was I in Arcadia or Alhambra? Was I speeding past Temple City or City of Industry?

Somewhere amid the grind and spurt of traffic on a southern California freeway, I slipped a Coldplay disc, X&Y, into my car’s CD player. The morning sun lit up the distant, snow-clotted San Gabriel Mountains, a prospect as exhilarating as the opening song, “Square One.” As the lead singer, Chris Martin, evoked discovery, travel and the future, his tenor voice seemed to soar high above the choking swarm of vehicles; half consciously I swerved into the fast lane. But Martin’s tone soon darkens. Several of the cuts demonstrate loss, regret, uncertainty, and apprehension about what the days after tomorrow hold in store for us. An SUV was maintaining an aggressive stance inches behind my license plate, and I pulled back into one of the middle lanes.

The CD reached its fifth track: a haunting, nine-note melody, repeated softly, then with a surge of percussive volume. Martin sings about his fear of the future, his need to speak out. When an early attempt at reassurance fails, he probes deeper, asking if “you,” his brother, feel incomplete or lost. The song is called “Talk.” To the underlying rhythm of a drummed heartbeat, its lyrics summon up an anxiety specific to words and meaning: the feeling that other people are addressing him in a language beyond his grasp. It’s as though language has lost its ability to connect us— as though we’ve misplaced a key that would allow us, somehow, to understand what words have come to mean. Birds kept flying somewhere above Walnut or Diamond Bar, but all utterance now seemed strange, unfathomable. The guitar riffs swooped and rose to match the breathtaking, lethal grandeur of the California freeways, yet the song’s lyrics were bleak.

Back home in Montreal, I found myself continually listening to X&Y. So were millions of other people in dozens of countries—this had been the world’s top-selling album in 2005. One day I came across a futuristic, B-movie-like video of “Talk”; it showed the perplexed band trying to communicate with a giant robot. A version of the video on the YouTube website had been watched more than 442,000 times in the previous ten
months. Many hundreds of viewers had posted comments. Some of them were brief, uninhibited love letters. ace this song iz wick id lol ace vid, wrote a viewer from Britain. coldplay is the BEST!! added a thirteen-year-old Finn, using a Japanese screen name. vid. is kind of err. but the song is roarific, noted an American. A comment in English from China followed one in Basque from Spain and one in Spanish from Botswana.

If I were more of a joiner, I might have signed up for the official Coldplay.com online forum, which boasts tens of thousands of members. The forum makes national borders immaterial—Latvians and Macedonians, Indonesians and Peruvians, Israelis and Egyptians all belong. To them it doesn’t matter that the band consists of three Englishmen and a Scot singing in a tongue that was once confined to part of an island off Europe’s coast. Now, wherever on the planet these fans happen to live, music connects them. So does language. As long as they’re willing to grope for words in the accelerating global language that Coldplay speaks, the forum gives all its members a chance to speak. Which is how the fifth song on X&Y ends. Martin admits that things don’t make sense any longer. But as the melodies collapse around him, he invites us to talk.

All sorts of borders are collapsing now: social, economic, artistic, linguistic. They can’t keep up with the speed of our listening, of our speaking, of our singing, of our traveling. Borders could hardly be less relevant on teen-happy websites like Facebook and MySpace. That morning, a Canadian in the exurbs of Los Angeles, I was listening to a British band while driving to meet a Mexican-American professor who began a memoir in Argentina full of sentences like this: “repente veo que ALL OF A SUDDEN, como right out of nowhere, estoy headed for the freeway on-ramp.” Routes are merging. Languages are merging.

That professor celebrates a promiscuous, unruly mix of words. But many people contemplate such a mix with annoyance and fear, emotions they also feel about other kinds of language change, like the chatroom abbreviations in those YouTube comments. When you first peer at the weirdly spelled, lowercase fragments of speech, or listen to the staccato interplay of tongues in major cities like LA, you may be fearful that everyone else is talking in a language you don’t speak. Is it mere unfamiliarity that inspires such unease, or is it something deeper?

Language enables us to feel at home in everyday life. But of late, language seems to have packed up its bags, slammed the door behind it, and taken to the open road. That’s where we find ourselves: on the move. Every few days, if not every few hours, we become aware of a new word or phrase speeding past us. There’s no going back, either—no retreat into the grammar and lexicon of the past. Our only home is this: the verbal space in which we’re already traveling. The expressions in that space are often amazing— a generation or two ago, before our use of language went digital, no one would have believed some of what we routinely see, hear and type.

Yet from time to time, I too feel lost. In the future, wherever we are, what in the world will we say?



The way other people use language sometimes troubles us. But the reasons vary wildly. It may be the particular version of English spoken in Singapore, Sydney or San Diego. It may be the way teenagers talk—Joan Didion, describing the “blank-faced” girls and “feral” boys of southern California, criticized their “refusal or inability to process the simplest statement without rephrasing it. There was the fuzzy relationship to language, the tendency to seize on a drifting fragment of something once heard and repeat it, not quite get it right, worry it like a bone.” It may be a pompously inflated polysyllabic phrase, a contortion of words in an ad, a noun that masquerades as a verb. It may be grammatical errors in a TV news bulletin, phrases abused on a radio talk show, spelling mistakes on a website. It may be the opaque language of bureaucracy—in March 2007, to take a random example, the Queensland Government Chief Information Office defined its task as “the development of methodologies and toolkits to strengthen the planning and project management capability of agencies.” Say what? “The QGCIO also plays an integral part in building relationships and identifying opportunities for collaboration between agencies, cross-jurisdictionally, with the ICT Industry and with the tertiary sector.” Even more than this kind of flaccid verbiage, my personal bugbear is the rhetoric of war, engineered to hide the truth: “collateral damage,” “friendly fire,” “transfer tubes,” or “the excesses of human nature that humanity suffers” (such was Donald Rumsfeld’s euphemism for the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib). There are innumerable reasons why people get irritated about language.

Irritation can lead to anxiety. If words no longer bear their proper meaning, or are no longer pronounced the right way, or are now being combined with other words in some incorrect manner, what verbal defacements might scar the future?

Experts keep trying to reassure the public. Even in 1929, the British linguist Ernest Weekley felt it necessary to observe that “stability in language is synonymous with rigor mortis.” “People have been complaining about language change for centuries,” says Katherine Barber, editor in chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. “They’re fascinated to learn that ‘travel’ started off as an instrument of torture—but they want the changes to stop now. I think people invest a lot in correct spelling and grammar because they worked very hard to learn it well in school—that’s why there’s a resistance.

They say, ‘It’s terrible, they don’t use the subjunctive anymore.’ But the subjunctive has been disappearing for centuries.” As the American scholar John McWhorter has pointed out, “There is no such thing as a society lapsing into using unclear or illogical speech—anything that strikes you as incorrect in some humble speech variety is bound to pop up in full bloom in several of the languages considered the world’s noblest.” Nobility, the linguists reiterate, is in the ear of the beholder. Many native speakers beg to differ.

Amid the commotion, rest assured: I have no ideological ax to grind. I’m not interested in persuading you to refine your punctuation, double your vocabulary or perfect your grammar. I write simply as someone who loves and cares about language; I believe its manifold powers of expression help make us truly human. Today the evidence of linguistic change, like that of climate change, is all around us. But I suspect that with both words and weather, we don’t always ask the right questions. “Is language declining?” may not be the smartest inquiry to make. It might be more rewarding to ask: “Why does language change provoke such anxiety? What kinds of change can we expect to see in the future? And how should we try to cope?”

More than two thousand years ago, the Roman poet Horace compared words to leaves in a forest: just as trees lose their withered leaves and welcome fresh ones, so too do words fall away to be replaced by the new. The process is continual, and older than any of our languages. Yet words seem unusually volatile now. “We are living at the beginning of a new linguistic era,” the eminent linguist David Crystal wro...

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