Saturday, June 23, 2007

English and the cocktail shaker

English crossed another landmark last year: it greeted its one-millionth new word with the usual open arms. The ease with which this language accommodates new words is due, in part, to a phenomenon called ‘code switching’. At some time or the other, all users of more than one language become ‘code switchers’. ‘Code’ refers to the language because certain signs are used to communicate meaning.

In code switching, speakers keep switching from one language to the other or another, if more than two languages are involved. North Indians are generally proficient code switchers as they switch from Punjabi to Hindi to English, even adding a smattering of Urdu at times. Code switching on a regular basis leads to code mixing, which takes place when a speaker uses small components from one language while speaking in another.

When code mixing takes place, speakers create blends that are words that use elements from both languages and can be easily understood by speakers of both languages. For instance, the hybrid Spanglish has created words like nerdio (meaning nerd), la laptopa (a laptop) and emailiar (to email).

Word number one million, which entered the lexicon of this 1500-year-old language last year, belongs to a group of words from ‘Chinglish’ that is a hybrid of Chinese and English. There are other hybrids like Japlish and Hinglish too, that keep adding new words.

Across the globe, when people use some sort of English or the other, things are bound to get exciting for English. It is this ‘excitement’ that has kept the language in the pink of health and given it the honour of being global. Once upon a time, the standard form of English as spoken by an ‘Englishman’ was something to die for but today, the globe prefers a more global variety of English. The language has conjured up a version that is being termed ‘Globish’; a word coined by Jean-Paul Nerriere, a vice-president of IBM in America.