Pandemic-related terminology like ‘lockdown’ and ‘asymptomatic’ are increasingly popular around the globe, but it’s hardly the beginning, nor the end, of the spread and dominance of English.
In a recent article, a leading Greek linguist lamented the incursion of the English language into Greek - a process that has accelerated with pandemic-related terminology.
While medical jargon like “isolation”, “social distancing”, “incubation period” and “asymptomatic” have become a part of daily vocabulary for millions, if not billions, perhaps more interesting is that much of this terminology is in English.
“We have been deluged by new terms and definitions in a very short space of time,” Georgios Babiniotis, the linguist told the Guardian’s Observer. “On the television you hear phrases such as ‘rapid tests are being conducted via drive-through’, and almost all the words are English. It’s as if suddenly I’m hearing Creole.”
Other languages are not immune from this. The Covid-19 updates page on the Turkish health ministry website, for instance, uses “inkübasyon”, meaning “incubation” alongside “kuluçka”, which has traditionally been used for the term, and this is not surprising either.
After all, the rapid development of the pandemic led to an “urgent and global need to communicate public health information that left relatively little time for traditional and formal language planning activities.”
However, the pandemic is hardly the first instance of the phenomenon of the English language’s takeover of local slang, vocabulary, sayings, signage - and even linguistic structure - across the globe.
The hegemony of English
With an estimated 1.5 to 2 billion speakers, English is the most widely spoken language in the world. It’s the official language in nearly 60 countries, and widely used in many more. Aside from official use, it is the de facto language for business, research and conferences, science, diplomacy, international news media, social media, and, importantly, the internet, making it a critical language for those seeking international business or education opportunities, or even social connections to those around the world.
“English has simply become a fashionable language, a very powerful language spoken all over the world. Major fads, like communicating via messenger apps, and the music scene are dominated by Anglophone lingo,” German linguist Nils Bahlo told DW, explaining the key role of social media, influencers, and video games in shaping how youth speak and pick up new words. The German youth word of the year in 2020, for instance, was “lost”, having lost to “cringe” and “wyld/wild”.
And it’s not just the youth.
In addition to English words, especially slang, peppering the sentences of youth around the world, there has been a trend in many countries to use English as a branding tool. “Foreign branding” is a marketing tactic whereby foreign or foreign-sounding words are used by brands to give consumers a certain image or feeling.
For instance, a French-sounding name may be given to a brand to lend an image of couture, sexuality, sophistication, or other terms generally associated with “French-ness”; or a German-sounding name may be given to electronics or automobile brands to associate them with German engineering.
Studies have shown that the English language in branding is associated with an international image, modernity, globalisation, or a connotation of Westernisation. In addition, its linguistic properties, and overall global accessibility make it an attractive language for major advertisers and local shops alike.
Using English in advertisements or other contexts can also help close a “lexical gap”, as some languages, like Dutch, don’t have native words for computer, tabloid, or airbag.
The ‘inevitable’ invasion?
Many countries have tried to stem the infiltration of English and other foreign languages into local or national languages.
In Turkey, for example, the Turkish Language Association (Türk Dil Kurumu), founded in 1932 to regulate the Turkish language, develops new, local vocabulary to keep up with emerging lexicon. Some, like “bilgisayar,” the Turkish word for “computer,” have caught on and are used widely. Others, like “özçekim” for “selfie” were not as successful.
The famous Académie française, the “custodian of the French language”, was established in the 17th century. Even French, however, has now begrudgingly officially added words like “vegan”, “selfie”, and “big data” to the language.
But even beyond the worldwide adoption of internet slang and standalone words, it appears that English is showing up more sneakily, as the grammatical structure of many languages are bending to the rules of English.
Germans and Quebecan French speakers, for instance, are increasingly using English syntactic structures in written and spoken German and French. Similar, slow, shifts toward English structures are happening in other languages as well.
For some linguists, the concerns about the dominance of English are overblown, as languages are not static; they have always changed throughout history, adopting new words, terminologies, sayings through imperialism, trade, travel, and colonisation. The speed with which English has spread around the globe is merely an effect of the digital age and contemporary technological and social trends, they say.
However, some scholars and researchers critique the dominance of the English language through a neocolonialist lens, and raise issues regarding inequality and discrimination toward non-English speakers, or speakers of “non-standard” English.
The spread of English is intimately tied to the dominance of the British and American empires over the past few centuries, so for some, the question today is less about the dominance of English, and more about whether this means that Mandarin will become the next lingua franca as China positions itself to overtake the US as a global economic and financial power. Maybe, maybe not.
Perhaps, as some argue, the advent of increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence-driven translation technology will make all of these efforts and questions moot.
“To put it at its most dramatic: the computers are coming, and they are winning,” writes Robin Lustig. “You are probably reading this in English, the language in which I wrote it. But with a couple of clicks...you could just as easily be reading it in German or Japanese. So why bother to learn English if computers can now do all the hard work for you?”