In the 153 years since Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of Species” his theories have been challenged many times. With such diversity of opinion on the origins of mankind, it’s no surprise that there are many views on how language originated. Noam Chomsky is among those who argue in favour of discontinuity theory. Rather than language use evolving in humans as a gradual process, Chomsky believes that a single random mutation occurring in one individual approximately 100,000 years ago lit the fuse for the emergence of the language faculty in humans. Suddenly, out of nowhere, someone was speaking not just grunting. A “big bang theory” for linguistics and the human brain.
If this theory is correct and language began with the radically new sound of one individual voice, then the leaps forward we’re taking now are attributable to a global choir of voices, many of whom are speaking different forms of familiar tongues.
English has been a global lingua franca for three centuries, and it remains the most commonly-used language on the internet. But a glance at online usage figures for the first decade of the 21st century reveal the rise of other languages.
Between 2000 and 2011 online use of English increased by 301%. Superficially impressive, but the increase for Portuguese over the same period was 990%. For Chinese it was 1,478% and for Arabic a remarkable 2,501%
For English to retain its lingua franca status in this new era it must surely follow the theories of Charles Darwin. Adaptation and survival of the fittest applies not only to species but to language.
Unlike French, which has a central linguistic authority, English has no official “standard” version. Each of the billion native speakers in locations as diverse as New York, Sydney or Johannesburg has as much right to claim their version as the “norm” as those in Downing Street or Buckingham Palace. And this democratisation of English is being taken much further by those who speak it as a second language.
Second language English users now outnumber native speakers, and the explosion in online activity has created a platform for informal communication which may drive English forward as a 21st century language, but in a different form. Texting and use of social media have proved to be invaluable in preserving less popular tongues, with texting now common among speakers of 5,000 languages, and indigenous languages of Asia and South America being given a new lease of life through postings on YouTube and Facebook. On a much larger scale, English is being given a 21st century makeover by speakers in, for example, Korea and Singapore, communicating in “Konglish” and “Singlish” by adding their own distinctive colour to the language of Shakespeare. Facebook has been a notable driver for them, and for those wishing to socialise in Indian English (Hinglish) or Spanish English (Spanglish). An old culture and an old language are being given new impetus.
EVS Translations is home to one of the most diverse workforces in the translation industry. With large teams of translators spread across a global network, we keep our finger on the pulse of linguistic change and help our partners adapt to it wherever necessary. Our clients include seven of the top ten global law firms, international regulatory bodies and also leading players in the social media, marketing and leisure sectors. Sometimes the language we work with is highly formal, and sometimes it’s geared towards consumers who communicate with little or no formality but still have a voice and a right to be heard. We’re excited by the evolution of language and of the tastes and requirements of its users, and we can help our clients evolve with us. If business is a matter of survival of the fittest, EVS Translations is a very effective personal trainer.
Some English language purists may have their reservations about change and informality, but if we accept and embrace language as a living thing then it’s logical to accept its evolution. And in a week when census results showed that Britain’s cultural evolution has made it a country where one citizen in eight was born overseas, shouldn’t we welcome linguistic evolution with equal warmth?
In recent decades Britain has opened its physical borders to immigrants from all corners of the world, enriching and revitalising its culture in the process. Welcoming European, Asian and African influences hasn’t diminished the power and beauty of Britain’s cultural past, or the pride we take in it. It’s given us new influences to be proud of. The internet has thrown our linguistic borders wide open, and the result is a raft of new, vibrant and infectious forms of English that will illuminate 21st century communication.
Lingua franca? Long live lingua democratica.