The English Is Coming!

My goal this summer was to read a million pages, as part of a competition held at the local public library. Needless, I didn’t quite make it. Among the several thousand pages I did read, a bit late for inclusion in the contest, was the book “The English Is Coming! How One Language Is Sweeping the World” by Leslie Dunton-Downer.

This type of thing is right up my alley, since I majored in linguistics originally (BA), later going back for a master’s level in teaching English as a second language. I am not one of those “grammar Nazis” who corrects other people’s errors or who tells folks not to say “ain’t.” I’ve been known to say it myself on occasion and even to utter a few “y’all” and “fixin’ to’s” from time to time. But I have to admit to a little bit of disappointment in the book. The author is not a linguist and there just isn’t quite enough of the stuff that would make the average reader turn blue and roll his or her eyes.

Thus, I recommend it highly to that average reader. Y’all will probably love it. Dunton-Downer chooses 30 English expressions, traces them to their roots, and then follows them forward through the stages of Old, Middle, and modern English and into the international scene. The expressions she tells about include “made in China, credit card, lol, star, parking, cookie, fun, SAT, okay, hello, and bye,” among a good many more. She includes a final section in which she speculates about where global English may go from here. What words will English borrow from other languages and which languages will Americans take them from? It’s an interesting question and she has quite a few possibilities to suggest.

As someone with only a bachelor’s degree in linguistics and a mere master’s degree in a side branch in English, I am hardly an expert in either field. However, I found plenty of things to quibble with in Dunton-Downer’s book on both counts. I wish she had consulted more professional linguists and English professors before publishing. As brief examples, she says the origin of the name of China is unknown, where I had read in several accounts that it came from the surname of the First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang Di (spelled Chin Shih Huang Ti in the older Wade Giles system). He’s that famous fellow whose tomb had all those life-size ceramic statues.

Another, equally piddling example comes from the entry on “credit card.” She says the Japanese version of this has eight syllables. She gives the Japanese version correctly and it is written with eight katakana characters. But it isn’t eight syllables. When pronounced, it sounds pretty much like “credit card.” As I said, these are quibbles and the average person probably could not care less (and maybe even less than that).

Still, this fun book might be even better if each selection were made a tad shorter, too, like a “bathroom book.” Plus, in that final section where she’s talking about the future, I would have recommended that she look at the real uses of Global English, like Chinglish (Chinese + English), Spanglish (Spanish + English), Denglish (Deutsch or German + English), and the like. There are some really interesting things going on right now in these hybrids that may cross over into mainstream English any time. Like the Chinese-Chinglish “la.” If you don’t speak Chinese, you don’t need that particle, but if you do speak Chinese, you can’t do without it. So it has entered Chinglish, and one day it may thread it’s way into English proper. Then maybe I’ll finally understand what it’s all about.

In the meantime, I suggest you read “The English Is Coming!” and find out where “robot” came from. Not to mention “bank.”

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