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Book review: 'The English Is Coming!' by Leslie Dunton-Downer

How to find the words to describe this book about the way English is transforming the world and, in the process, being revolutionized? Well, let's flip through until time to say 'Thankbye.'

December 24, 2010|By Leslie Savan | Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • "The English Is Coming"
"The English Is Coming"

Picking up a book subtitled "How One Language Is Sweeping the World," you might think you're in for a rant against Big English — how, amped up by extremely powerful telecommunications, it's snuffing out smaller languages across the globe.

Leslie Dunton-Downer nods to all that in "The English Is Coming!" But, she argues, English's sweep is simply a fact, and anyway it's not a conventional white man's English that's taking over. Rather, it's an evolutionary "distinct phase" of the language, a "Global English" with more non-native than native speakers. This "widespread lingua franca has raised legitimate concerns about the futures of nonglobal languages and cultures," she writes, "but it has also become the golden arrow in a vast community's quiver, the only language to date that's in a position to address matters of planetwide interest."

And for the most part, she makes her case. Co-author of "The Essential Shakespeare Handbook," Dunton-Downer takes us through an entertaining, even suspenseful, history of English. A prehistoric language that linguists have reconstructed called Proto Indo-European spawned a far-flung family of languages, which is now spoken from Wales to India to Russia. English has always been an enormous sponge of a language — whether one is talking about the Old English of "Beowulf," the French-infused Middle English of Chaucer, the Early Modern English of Shakespeare or the Modern English of "Jersey Shore" — absorbing words, grammar and pronunciation from its linguistic cousins.

And then, via trade, war and technology, it has sent them back out across the world. Perhaps the most benevolent reading of Global English is that it's returning these words, all glammed up in new clothes and attitudes, to their roots.

Ah, roots! Etymologies are like chocolates for me, and Dunton-Downer hands them out like she's Willie Wonka. As she tells the stories of 30 reborn-in-America international words and expressions — including "OK," "hello," "T-shirt," "stress," "fun," "bank" and "made in China" — I kept wanting to ask those around me, did you know that the word "film" comes from the prehistoric root "pel-," meaning an animal hide, or pelt? (As early Indo-European Ps became Fs in Germanic, so "pel" became "fell," and the Old English "filmen," meaning "membrane," eventually became the name for the light-sensitive emulsified "coating" on celluloid that made possible the movie industry.)

Or did you know that the word "credit" in the globally welcomed term "credit card" comes, she writes, from the ancient word combo "kerd-" (heart) and "dhe" (put), meaning something like "to set the heart," thus meaning "to place trust in"?

Little of that is original research, but Dunton-Downer puts it together with so much heart, and fun, that I only wish she'd gone further. I'd have loved to hear what she thinks about the truly global, rather controversial Big Lang theory — that all languages burst forth from a common mother tongue. And because she writes that different languages give you "magic glasses" to see different realities, I wish she had explored Global English's reality with more than occasional observations.

But then, deep cultural analysis isn't this book's purview; read it, instead, to understand how "English is poised, over the course of the next few generations, to be significantly transformed." This will happen as both native and non-native English speakers contribute whatever ingredients they've got to keep this linguistic stone soup reasonably clear.

For instance, although English has shed most inflections (those maddening case and gender endings you have to decline in Spanish or German), we still need an uninflected pronoun for an "individual of unspecified gender." Otherwise, we're stuck with contortions like "If you love someone, set them free," or worse, "set him or her free." Perhaps, Dunton-Downer writes, we'll try "himmer" (ouch), or tap into Mandarin, which uses one word for he/him, she/her and it: "ta." "If a person needs help, please give it to ta."

Unlikely? Maybe. But a generation ago, who thought we'd be jabbering about blogs and tweets, or hiring people to redo the feng shui? Before signing off with another invention (Thankbye), Dunton-Downer invites readers to conjure their own new words — after all, all language everywhere is somebody's invention. Globlish, anyone?

Savan is the author of "Slam Dunks and No-Brainers: Language in Your Life, the Media, Business, Politics, and, Like, Whatever."

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