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December 10, 2000 - Globalization of English - 2002-02-01

INTRO: This week our Wordmasters Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble talk about some of the limits in the globalization of English.

TAPE: CUT ONE -- MOVIE CLIP/"My Name is Joe"

"I could not say nine simple words: 'My name is Joe, and I am an alcoholic.'"

AA: Simple words, from the Scottish film "My Name is Joe." But on this side of the Atlantic, the video comes with subtitles -- in English!

RS: Listen again to actor Peter Mullan. The dialogue goes, "I could not say nine simple words: "My name is Joe, and I am an alcoholic.'"

TAPE: CUT ONE -- MOVIE CLIP/"My Name is Joe"

"I could not say nine simple words: 'My name is Joe and I am an alcoholic.'"

AA: Sounds clear to me. But the problem is that speakers of English don't always understand one another. Different accents, pronunciations and local idioms can interfere. Barbara Wallraff cites the example of "My Name is Joe" in a November article in The Atlantic Monthly magazine, where she is a senior editor.

RS: She says English "is not sweeping all before it" by replacing other languages as it gains in global status, but rather is being adapted to local tastes and linguistic needs. That's what she found in her look at the globalization of English.


WALLRAFF: "I think the most interesting fact that came out of all of it is that so many people are using English as part of a larger suite of languages, so many people are being bilingual with English or using it as one of several languages they have, and then I began to be anxious that people in the United States who basically only speak one language, like me, are going to be left behind."

RS: "How is the English language being transformed, say, in the United States or elsewhere around the globe by people who, as you say, speak a suite of languages?"

WALLRAFF: "One thing that is happening as English establishes itself better in, say, Asia, there is an Indian version of English that is a lot like British English, but it is growing increasingly different from it as time goes, as more and more people in India speak English to each other, where the language has beachheads, where it has communities of local speakers who aren't speaking it as a foreign language, just something that they use to talk with tourists to their country, but use it among themselves or use it as a lingua franca with people whose first language might be something else.

"So in India, English becomes something different. In Nigeria, which is another country where English is much spoken -- I think Nigeria has the third largest number of speakers of English in the world -- the language there would be something that may be difficult for your typical American to understand. All these things are certainly part of English, but the idea that even speaking English together, we won't necessarily continue to be able to understand each other, if we don't focus on this as a problem -- is this something to worry about? Maybe it is."

AA: "Why might someone worry about this?"

WALLRAFF: "Well, I like to think of English as something that will take me everywhere I want to go, and this is what I think makes Americans rather complacent about the fact that, 'well, all we speak is English, but it will get us anywhere.' If English continues to diversify, there are words -- for example, 'hotel,' as I understand it, in South Asia means a restaurant. In the United States, of course, it means a place where you stay overnight while traveling. In Australia, I think it means basically a bar, a place where alcoholic beverages are served. So if I say, 'Can you show me to a hotel,' maybe you think I'm telling you I want an alcoholic drink, or maybe you think I'm telling you that I need a place to stay."

AA: "It could get you in all sorts of trouble, couldn't it!"

WALLRAFF: "It could, it could!"

SKIRKLE: "What is it about English and its ability to absorb all kinds of elements, all kinds of words from many different languages."

WALLRAFF: "Well, of course, over the centuries, it has been cobbled together from -- what, Anglo-Saxon, and Latin, and the words that have come out of Latin and the various Romance languages, and now there are words coming directly into American English from, say, Japanese. They may not be anything more subtle than names of foods or that kind of thing, but it doesn't have one root language so that things that come from other languages conspicuously stand out. It's incorporated all different kinds of things forever, so it's quite welcoming to words from anywhere."

AA: Yet what happens as local forms of English go their separate ways? Barbara Wallraff says English speakers will have fewer words in common.

RS: Things could be worse, though.


"Somebody I interviewed said that there is no language in the world that is easier to speak badly than English. You can pick up enough to kind of get along in it, and to kind of communicate in it quite readily."

AA: Barbara Wallraff, senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and author of the book "Word Court." That's word, W-O-R-D, same as our e-mail address.

RS: But make a note -- our address is now We hope to hear from you!

AA: Or write to us at VOA Wordmaster, Washington DC 20237 USA. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.

MUSIC: "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off"