English. Some of us talk it good. Others of us speak it well. However you say it, English is the tool we use to reach out, console, convince, persuade, and, really, communicate at large. What we don’t realize is that, in many ways it’s very much like a virus.
While it may only be the third most common natively spoken language, it is almost certainly the one that has infiltrated world culture the most.
English, and particularly its American version, has swept around the World. It’s emblazoned on all kinds of things. I have seen toys, designed for sale on the domestic Japanese market where the English name of the toy, the character or whatever is splashed across the packaging, sometimes more prominently than the Japanese. This is particularly true where the toy is part of a franchise related to a movie, video game, etc.
And it always amazes me to see news pictures from the far flung corners of this globe where people are wearing tee shirts emblazoned with English slogans, American advertising, and so forth. And I admire their courage. I do they really know what it says? What it means?
This photo is of a young woman in Hong Kong. Now, being from Hong Kong, a former British colony and worldwide financial center, there is a fair chance that she may be at least familiar with English. But does she really understand the implications of the saying on her shirt? Do the other people around her? Or is it just ‘cool’ because it’s hip Americana?
So what’s the secret of English’s pervasive appeal? Well, certainly, American culture with all its wild swings, carefree attitudes, and seeming opulence plays a part. I mean, who wouldn’t want to live in a 24 hour a day, 7 day a week beer commercial? Everyone’s happy, everyone’s rich, everyone is pretty? And, being American, you can do whatever you want. Right? Riiiight!
But I think that there’s more than just that. English, the language, is seductive. Remember, we said it’s much like a virus. Viruses are amazingly tough and adaptable critters. They are forever mutating to insinuate themselves into new hosts as well as resisting our best efforts to destroy them. Consider the number of viruses that have transferred themselves from birds to humans over the past decade. Really, this is impressive. Scary, terrifying, darned dangerous in fact. But still, impressive.
English is very much like that. It’s tough, mobile, and highly adaptable. And that’s impressive too. It’s not like French where, every so often, an esteemed academy of French linguists, scholars, and etymologists sit down to purge foreign influences, and particularly the influence of English.
Nope, English, and especially American English, truly asks for and seeks out linguistic immigrants. When it comes to words and the concepts they embody, we have an open door policy. Take the word ‘macho’ for example. The word’s first usage in the United States may have been by Latin feminists as a description of what they saw as a dominating, patriarchal social system they sought to reform. That pejorative form of the word was broadened to describe any ‘superbly masculine attitude’, i.e. misogyny.
As a side note to this rant, I want to point out that the word macho arises from a Nahuatl word meaning “one worthy of imitation … enlightened one, or one who has been made to learn.” Just a bit different meaning from our contemporary spin on the word.
Either way, macho is not only embraced by we Americans but we have thoroughly inculcated others, including our more reserved British cousins, with its current cultural meaning.
This rant could go on and on. Words like Manga, Déjà vu, and even the common place garage have all been borrowed from other languages and cultures. The point is, English is a wonderful, wild, ever changing beastie and we should revel in its wonderful openness and unpredictable irregularities.
To that end, I want to share one of my favorite videos, located just below this post. The
first part is simply amazing and I never fail to laugh at it. I also marvel at the secret it reveals. Etymologists, linguists, and lexicographers are all seen as pretty dry and boring folks. I don’t think you’ll believe that ever again if you watch this video.