Thursday, July 24, 2008

English, She is Changing

Reading Wired magazine the other day, I saw an incredible statistic. By 2020 people who speak English as their first language will make up only fifteen percent of the estimated two billion English speakers. That’s right. 85 percent of people speaking English in 2020 will be non-native speakers. Now that’s going to rattle the cages. It seems to me that a lot of the easy assumptions we make based on language will be given a good kick. What’s an ‘accent’ going to communicate when it (finally) becomes obvious that everyone has one? What’s correct if only, say, 10 percent of people say it that way – and most of the other 90 percent don’t even understand what it means?

Understanding language and how it changes is at the heart of the advertising business. Words to fire collaboration, connection and communication. Words to inspire ideas and entertainment. Words to express empathy and intimacy. The practice of advertising has always been attuned to changes in the way we speak and write. If you are playing with words to attract and excite, you have to be sure people understand the game.

We know that language changes all the time. In my lifetime I have seen the massive influence of American English. My accent and my spelling on this blog, for instance, would have had me punished at school. They would simply not be correct. So many varieties of acceptable English are flourishing globally that we have to throw away the rules and simply try and keep up. Think about how fast the grammar and spelling of texting has taken hold. When people need to communicate, they just do it and the rule makers trail along behind.

As the world economy shifts and adjusts, it is unleashing new ways to mix language, people, culture and attitude. Who would be surprised if the way we speak today becomes as unrecognizable as the English of the Middle Ages? One accelerator is the need for common ground between English and Chinese. And so to Chinglish. A growing vocabulary of words spoken or written in English that are influenced by Chinese, as well as the ways those words are put together. So it’s lexicon, grammar and tone. While the name Chinglish might sound a little derogatory, get used to it. Chinese people are using it. The Hong Kong Museum of Art held an exhibition titled ‘Chinglish” last year which looked at this accelerating mix ‘n’ match emergent language. Yes, it looks like the moment for Asian speakers to take English somewhere new.