Friday, September 17, 2010

And One More on "The Prodigal Tongue"

The deep flux of modern English

Henry Hitchings reviews The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches from the Future of English by Mark Abley

To even the most relaxed of English-speakers, modern usage can seem an affront to logic, literacy and good manners. Barely a day goes by without some new irritation: a wrestler boasting that his beaten opponent "got owned", a middle-class teenager flaunting the argot of gangster rap ("fo' shizzle, homie"), or an advertisement insisting that a beer is "1970s pimp smooth".

In The Prodigal Tongue, Mark Abley investigates the deep flux in contemporary English - its accommodation of vast numbers of alien terms, together with its capacity to infiltrate other cultures.

The book's subtitle is "Dispatches from the Future of English", yet it is mostly about the present: as the author comments, right now "words seem unusually volatile".

A Canadian, originally from Warwickshire, Abley is well placed to observe this: for 25 years he has lived in Montreal, where English and French are used side by side and rub up against dozens of other languages, such as Italian, Vietnamese and Haitian Creole, the last of these "a language of prestige among young people" on account of the city's vibrant Haitian music scene.

Attuned to pop culture as well as to scholarship, Abley proves a deft social anthropologist. On field trips to Singapore, Japan, Oxford and Los Angeles, he has sampled the plosive rhythms of hip-hop and African American vernacular, the spicy hybrid that is Spanglish, the "gnarled gobbets" of Asian English, and the zippy argot of cyberspace, where novelties proliferate at a particularly startling rate.

As in his previous book, Spoken Here, which examined disappearing languages, Abley's genial inquisitiveness leads him into territory that many other philologists might fail (or disdain) to acknowledge.

So, besides exploring all manner of online communities, Abley manages to venture into the sunless lair of a teenage computer gamer. The quiet boy he finds there becomes a swashbuckling Mr Nasty upon entering his beloved World of Warcraft; his exchanges include such brute locutions as "this is were u leave dumass".

It is easy to dismiss this sort of thing as trivial, but the culture of electronic communication is affecting every level of society.

Indeed, to those who inhabit virtual worlds, such as World of Warcraft or Second Life, this form of communication is society.

The book's most delightful section focuses on the land where video-games were born: in Japan the national language is undergoing "dramatic, almost tectonic shifts".

Abley highlights the enthusiasm of Japanese youths for new words based on English. Among these fashionable yuusu, milk is known as "miruku" because the Anglicism seems more hygienic than the old word, "gyuunyuu", literally "cow breast".

Meanwhile a four o'clock rendezvous at McDonald's - "a postmodern tea ceremony" - is simply an "M4".

Lashings of irony are in evidence: a voguish way of saying "nothing important" is "zenbei ga naita" (literally, "the entire United States wept"); to visit Disneyland Tokyo is "to flog the mouse".

Although Abley relishes such playfulness, saluting the creativity of modern speech, he is not blithely permissive.

He reviles "plastic words", the abstractions of bureaucracy - be it the opaquely corporate "developmental process" or the sinisterly military "extraordinary rendition". Here we are in the land of Orwell's Newspeak, and Abley notes that one of its main features is a blurring of the division between nouns and verbs.

He points out, too, the increasing tendency in English for nouns to be clumsily concatenated.

As evidence of what has satirically been dubbed the Noun Overuse Phenomenon, he cites an eye-watering headline from the BBC website: "Cell death mark liver cancer clue."

Patiently accumulated details are the key to The Prodigal Tongue's great charm. A survey rather than a thesis, it stylishly covers a large amount of ground, from Lee Kuan Yew to YouTube, via Spike Lee and Ice Cube. While there is much that one may find disconcerting in this picture of rapid change in the linguistic biosphere, the book is essentially joyous - a paean to the dynamic energies of English.


Money quotes from this review:

"It is easy to dismiss this sort of thing as trivial..." Yes it is.

"A survey rather than a thesis..." Too true in my view.

The alarm bells sounded by this book, which is entertaining, spritely and well written, are overblown.

So with no consistent argument, with too many details and examples not rolled into a telling analysis, but fun to read and well written, i give it 2.75 out of 5.

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