Thursday, December 27, 2012

The internet and language change

Im in ur internets, creolizin ur english

Dec 18th 2012,  by R.L.G. | NEW YORK - The Economist 

THERE are a lot of good questions to consider about the internet and language. There are equally many good questions to be asked about the future of English now that a majority of its speakers are non-natives.  But last week's BBC Magazine piece on the future of English online is a dog's breakfast of confused concepts, true but misleading facts, and otherwise misguided attempts to make sense of many related, but distinct, trends in English.
Fortunately, Jane O'Brien avoided the tsk-tsking, declinist tone of so many articles like this. She talked to some relevant experts. But to take just one core example, she seems to have misunderstood what they told her:
In previous centuries, the convergence of cultures and trade led to the emergence of pidgin - a streamlined system of communication that has simple grammatical structure, says Michael Ullman, director of research at Georgetown University's Brain and Language Lab.
When the next generation of pidgin speakers begins to add vocabulary and grammar, it becomes a distinct Creole language. "You get different endings, it's more complex and systematised. Something like that could be happening to English on the web," he says.
Take Hinglish...
No, don't take Hinglish. It's not a creole. It's a broad term referring to either English with a healthy dash of unique Indian vocabulary, or the Indian languages spoken with English words and phrases thrown in, or the speech of Indians comfortable switching back and forth quickly between two languages.  But it's nowhere near a full creole, and so is not a good pointer to what is happening to English online.

Ms O'Brien is right that linguists call an improvised contact language a pidgin. It will typically mix the two groups' native languages. The almost magical transformation to a creole is when children born in the contact situation learn the pidgin as their native language. Only then do we see "different endings...more complex and systematised". Creoles are internally consistent, with a fully functional new grammar. (Typically they use fewer word-endings than the parent languages do.)  Such creoles can even be national languages, as in Haiti and New Guinea. The fact that such perfect languages arise from such imperfect circumstances has long been fascinating to psychologists of language. The story of Nicaraguan Sign Language, developed by neglected deaf children, is a particularly exciting example of a full-fledged language arising from no ingredients at all. 

But this isn't what's happening to English online. Many non-natives write online in English. Some of them have distinctive varieties of English, but none are creolising the main body of English. Hinglish is not being learned or written by non-Indians. Singlish (from Singapore) is more like a real creole, an established dialect of English that is difficult for non-Singaporeans to follow. But again, it's not being learned by non-Singaporeans and thus changing standard English. Singaporeans use (usually quite good) standard English with non-Singaporeans. Many other non-natives are simply writing English full of the typical mistakes of a non-fluent speaker. But there are no children learning their first language from this broken English and regularising the mistakes into a new creole. The reason is obvious: children do not learn their first language from the internet.

Full article at The Economist

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