Review: The Prodigal Tongue – Mark Abley

In The Prodigal Tongue, Mark Abley has provided us with a tour of the state of the English language in Britain and around the world.  His main conclusion seems to be that although “English” is the new Esperanto, a world language spoken by people on every continent, its not so much standard English that predominates so much as “Englishes”.  These are widely varying tongues, with a core of what we know as English, but much adapted to local circumstances, infiltrated by words from many other languages, and not even retaining the original meanings of a large number of words.  Speakers of Western English may be very surprised to find how little they understand when they converse with an “English speaker” in say Japan, Malaya or the Philippines.

Abley points out that English is immensely adaptable.  It continually absorbs new words, transmutes the meaning of existing words and moreover, other countries use it to fill the gaps in their own languages.  The Finnish do not have a word for “please” but now use ours, and have dropped their own word (anteeksi) in favour of “sorry”.  Slovakian teenager boys address their girl-friends as beib (babe) or hany (honey).  The Austrian magazine “News” headlines “Das Grosse Interview” and Austrian cellphones offer “Downloaden”.  Numerous similar examples are quoted and it is difficult to see how any language purist of another tongue can suggest any way in which this “Englishisation” can be stopped.  We are going to find English all over the world, particularly in the worlds of business, entertainment or technology.

Esperanto now seems a very archaic experiment, although still with devotees throughout the world.  In its place we find new forms of English, sometimes systematised, sometimes completely informal.  As an example of the systematised “Englishes” Abley tells us about Globish, an invention of Frenchman Jean-Paul Nerriere which has a vocabulary limited to 1,500 words, and uses short sentences and extensive hand gestures to get the point across.  Other attempts to create a standard world-wide language include Basic English, and Basic Global English, all trying to make life easier by reducing vocabulary and standardising grammar.

But these systems seem weak compared to the viral transmission of English from music and cinema, the Internet, text messaging and all other forms of communication.  Every language group seems to have absorbed a type of English from these media and Abley shows us the startling linguistic effects as many hybrid languages evolve.  Abley devotes a whole chapter to Black American English, which he likes to call  hip-hop, or rap.  He shows that this is a remarkably complex language with its own extensive vocabulary and rules.  Hip-hop has itself exported to many other countries and has infiltrated standard English (if there is such a thing) to a surprising degree.  At a G8 Summit meeting, George Bush famously called out “Yo Blair” to the British Prime Minister.  Tony Blair “obediently trotted over” as Abley puts it – one of the more humiliating experiences in our ex-PM’s career!

The chapter on Cyberspace and the Internet is fascinating, and only goes to show the great speed at which language evolves and changes – and how a website such as Facebook can introduce new words into the language which then go on to be used in other contexts.

The book is readable, with each chapter covering different topics or locations, and it is filled with anecdote and stories, almost like a travel book; which is not surprising as The Prodigal Tongue is almost as much a travel book as a text on linguistics.  I read it while on holiday and it was ideal to pick up and put down for short periods, being not particularly challenging, but definitely interesting.

2 comments to Review: The Prodigal Tongue – Mark Abley

  • WOW, this appears to be a fascinating read, a good mixture of erudite & readability, will be searching for this one, Thanks, not quite the same, but have you read George Steiner’s After Babel, it sounds like something you’d enjoy.
    Parrish

  • Tom

    Hi Parrish – no, I’ve never read George Steiner, but am aware of him. Thanks for visiting

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