English as the new fusion cuisine


BOSTON -- On the southern border of Texas there is a very tiny town producing a very large fuss. In August, El Cenizo, pop. 7,800, became the first town in the United States to declare an official language that wasn't English. From now on, the city's business will be conducted in Spanish.

This linguistic fact was enough to make newswires buzz and tongues wag. The activists at English First and U.S. English found new and creative ways to suggest that El Cenizo was about to bring the entire English-speaking country down. They described it as "our very own Quebec," the "canary in the mine" and the proof of our "Balkanization."

Well, call me loco (if you are in El Cenizo) or nuts (if you are anywhere else), but after reading these stories I couldn't decide which to do first: Tell the mayor of the border town to wake up or to tell the language worrywarts to lighten up.

You see, for purposes of column writing and Scrabble playing, I have been dipping into that new doorstop of a book, the "Encarta World English Dictionary."

Microsoft's 2,208-page, 100,000-plus-word publication provides overwhelming evidence that English is taking over the world.

Remember lingua franca? Remember Esperanto? Today it's English.

Close to a billion and a quarter people speak our language. It's the lingo of the Internet, of air traffic control, diplomacy, science, commerce, pop culture. There are now more people who speak English than speak Mandarin, though the Chinese had a bit of a population head start.

English is international in at least two ways. It's spoken everywhere and it welcomes words from everywhere. We have an open border policy for new words. Americans schlep their groceries. We listen to jazz. Eat hors d'oeuvres. Do yoga. And, in the tech-speak of the Internet, choose Web sites.

English may not be a verbal melting pot but it's a fusion cuisine. The language is as multicultural as the food courts that offer some Americanized version of tacos, Peking ravioli, pasta salad and hamburger side-by-side.

As Anne Soukhanov, the U.S. editor of this dictionary, says genially in ways that would irritate both the citizens of El Cenizo and the folks at English First, "It's a rainbow language. I've always said the language is more accepting of change and cultural diversity than is sometimes true of the people who speak it."

Swift assimilation

The pleasure of thumbing through the Encarta dictionary is to see how swiftly words and phrases are assimilated into the language. Some come from the news, such as "air rage" and "ethnic cleansing." Some come bearing the mark of social change: "assisted living" and "assisted suicide."

But at the same time, the point of this dictionary -- the first put together by and for English speakers from New Zealand to the Caribbean, from Canada to South Africa -- is that even people who think they speak the same language may now need a dictionary to talk with each other.

What happens in the world economy when an American looks for a "hotel" and is sent to a bar in Australia or a restaurant in South Asia? What happens when you need a pair of trousers down under and all they offer you are "strides?" Or if you need a golf cart in New Zealand and all they have is a "trundler?" Never mind when you go innocently in search of a shag (rug) in London and get your face slapped.

With all due respect to the purists, I delighted in the Australian words "show pony" for a person with a lot of glitz and not much substance. I loved the South African word for moonshine: witblitz. And by the way, somebody who can't hold their witblitz in Melbourne is a "two-pot screamer." In the precious world of lexicographers, my new dictionary may be faulted for mistakes, not to mention egotism -- it has a photo of Bill Gates but not Jack Kennedy -- and for offering up a lot of warnings about offensive language.

But the long and the short of my trip through the language is a re-affirmation of the expansion of English in every sense of the word. Indeed when Ms. Soukhanov was interviewed on Voice of America she kept hearing the same thought from her distant callers, "People of all ages and backgrounds associate the ability to speak English as the road to success."

This is the bottom line. May the mayor of El Cenizo take note. May the folks of English First take heart. And may everybody stop whining. Or as they say in Australia, "whingeing."

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/07/99

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