The Evolution of English

The English language originated in Britain, of course, but who will influence the direction it is taking now, the Americans or the British?

The popularity of English in the world is indisputable. However, it isn't the most widely spoken language. Mandarin Chinese is spoken by about 70 per cent of China's one billion people, whereas English is spoken by no more than 500 million. Of course, no statistics on the spread of English are authoritative today because of changes in the world in the twilight of the last century.

After the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the demise of the Soviet communist empire, we witnessed an explosion of English language learning in Central and Eastern Europe. This part of the world has realised that in order to fully understand and be understood by the Western world, people have to speak the international language. It is pertinent to point out that the English we use today hasn't always been like this.

Over the centuries the language has evolved in diverse ways. A reflection of this is in the vocabulary, which has grown from 100,000 words in 1550 to over 500,000 words and 300,000 technical terms today. With the growth of information technology, the World Wide Web and the Internet, thousands of new words have been added to the ever- growing list, for example, e-mail, plug-in, web page, etc.

The giant leaps in the field of information technology have also fuelled the unresolved American English versus British English debate. It's not only a question of spelling, grammar or vocabulary. On Internet discussion lists - especially those devoted to the teaching of English as a Foreign or Second language - this issue comes up again and again. Neither camp is willing to give up the leading position to the other! It's often a problem for teachers and English language schools: which version do you teach?

The popularity of the World Wide Web, pop music and Hollywood culture is powering the American version to the forefront. Most students of English are imbibing the concept of the American dream, and they come out of their bedrooms dressed in baggy Lee jeans, a Michael Jordan basketball shirt, Nike shoes and clutching their soft pillows emblazoned with 'I love the USA'. Some teenagers on the streets of Warsaw, Prague or Budapest swear better than Hollywood stars. Try ordering 'chips' at a McDonald's in Warsaw and you are likely to be faced with a blank look on the assistant's face. The magic word to wake her up is 'fries'.

In the world of computing it's the same story. Most programming software doesn't recognise British spellings. Try changing the background of your form by writing your code with 'Backcolour'. It will generate an error until you change it to 'Backcolor'.

Nowadays there is a lot of talk about mutant Englishes - Singaporean English, Chinglish, Nigerian English, Indian English etc. Who is really in control? What is the measure of correctness when a German is negotiating a deal with a Korean in an office in Holland? The question of culture is a very difficult one in situations like this. When teachers teach a language, they don't just pass on knowledge. They share their culture. Does that lead to inadvertent cultural imperialism or not? In their bid to speak English fluently, a lot of learners often tend to speak and behave like Americans or the British depending on the variety of English that teachers expose them to. Can this be said to be cultural imperialism?

At the rate at which we are going, who knows what will happen before this century gives way to the next? Maybe British English will go out of extinction like the dinosaurs. Then, will there be a need to build a Jurassic Park in honour of this version of English?

Deji Akala