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Sunday, June 20, 2010


Grammar and sums have gone — all that's left is a je ne sais quoi

Hi Bris again tho this is the first time Im facing U my msg that Im prepared to rocket to Alaska so that Alaska can rejoin the USA and we can be 5×10 states again like in Barack's time So seriously Your Mal

This is the msg (message, for those of you who still bother to spell) sent by U.S. President Malia Obama to President Bristol Palin of the Alaskan Republic in the year 2060. Pres. Mal has faced (Facebooked, duh) Pres. Bris about a possible powwow to save "these 49 states," after Alaska seceded from the Union in 2058.

The reason why the president uses 5×10 instead of 50 in her msg is because the teaching of arithmetic was discontinued in the United States along with English, history and physical education. Even the president has to use times tables in her msg so as not to forget how they get big numbers. It's still apparently one of the things that's required of their commander-in-chief in 2060.

One of the pluses of no one in America being able to count to big numbers is that it won't matter how high the national debt soars. It was the ideal way to solve a national financial crisis. As Pres. Chelsea Clinton said in 2038, "What we don't know won't hurt us. That's the philosophy that made this country what it is today."

But, dear reader, you may have noticed that the use of English in the first paragraph is somewhat unusual . . . by the standards of today, I hasten to add. Recently, I gave a lecture at the University of Tokyo on "The Future of English," and some of the students there had the chutzpah to ask questions! What is this country coming to, eh? If Japanese students start asking questions in class, then professors will have to think up some answers quick smart. This could be the end of university tenure as we know it.

Now, it is true: There's no predicting the future when it comes to language. Any linguist who makes statements about such a thing has about as much credibility as an Israeli government spokesperson.

Yet, if you look to the past, you may be able to see trends. Last week I discussed the use of first names, disused titles and slang, and how this is changing the English language.

Punctuation is slowly going, too. You just don't see as many commas around as you used to, once. As for the dinky little hyphen, it's been disappearing in the to-days and to-morrows since centuries past, and will continue to shrivel in the by-and-by. Spellings like "nonJapanese" and "socalled" are common. The hyphen in ex-wife is still there to separate your ex from your wife, however.

You can now split an infinitive up and end a sentence with a preposition with impunity. You can misspell words on an English test in school, basically because the teacher doesn't know how to spell either. The subjunctive went out with the banana split. "If I was you" is now regarded as a correct form of "if I were you." Personal pronoun use is very personal these days, with many people saying things like, "Thank you for the present you gave to my husband and I." This is originally what is called a "genteelism." You avoid using the word "me" because it sounds self-centered; "I" is presumably more genteel. It is essentially the same phenomenon as seen in the use of "myself" for "me" — as in "As for myself . . . "

You can abbreviate some common phrases. Why bother to say, "As far as Jim is concerned" when you can make do with "As far as Jim?" Tlc, gfc . . . if you don't know these, fyi you should learn them asap, if not sooner. And names of institutions that used to be separate are now stuck together. Just look at the havoc that the name PricewaterhouseCoopers plays on these columns. Where is the good old hyphen now that we really need it?!

The computer and its lingo have had an immense effect on our language; and we can expect lots of new words similar to e-mail, Internet (soon, I believe, to have a small "i" everywhere it appears), to google and to tweet in the future. Foreign words have enriched the English language since its beginnings, when all its words were actually foreign; and I can only agree with former Pres. George W. Bush, who said: "The trouble with the French is that they don't have a word for entrepreneur." Well, George, if the French were as open as we are, they could have borrowed it from us!

Karaoke, anime, tsunami and manga are four recent borrowings from Japanese; and there will certainly be some from Chinese and new ones from Indian English in the coming years.

The digital interconnectedness of the world has brought dialects of English together and will continue to do so. Words and phrases used in one English-speaking country are spreading rapidly to others. When I was in London in the 1960s and '70s, the locals wouldn't have used certain Americanisms in a pink fit. Now, they are quite happy to use "busy" and "mad" like Americans: the line is busy (as well as "engaged"); and I'm mad (meaning angry and not necessarily bananas).

Interconnectedness has certainly spread the use of the following: brilliant (meaning "wonderful"), awesome, as if, in your dreams, to die for, guys (now used for males and females; a lot of young people call their parents "you guys"), and don't go there (meaning "don't bring up that topic"). As for "out there," it is definitely out there, just about everywhere out there, despite its redundancy. "There are a lot of people out there who" is the same as "There are a lot of people who." But need is not the sole criterion for the neologism, by any means.

Two very common words are now used in a way that differs from the orthodox usage. "Whatever," said by itself, sometimes with a glottal stop — "Wha'ever" — can mean anything from "I don't mind" to "Please yourself." The perfect word for teenagers. And how about "Hello!?" not meant as a greeting but rather as "Excuse me, but what do you think you're doing?"

Three new words that resemble each other are "ballistic," "postal" and "viral." If you blow your stack, you go "ballistic"; and if you go back to your former workplace and mow down your former coworkers there, you have gone "postal." Something that has gone "viral" has been spread on the social media, the Facebooks and Twitters of our day.

I fear I left the English students at the University of Tokyo with no more idea about the future of the English language than they had before.

Global warming, the rise of Asia, space travel . . . you can count on it. Malia Obama being president of the United States and Bristol Palin taking Alaska out of the Union . . . could go either way.

But what the English language is going to sound like and look like in 5×10 years from now, your guess is as good as mine. But, hi dudes out there, give me a call in 2060, if you will. I wouldn't mind a bit of a buzz when I'm 5×23+1 years old.

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