New Varieties of English

I love new language. In part, this is simply a way I like to enjoy creativity. It’s also academic, because new language is an example of “vernacularity,” one of my current scholarly coat-hooks for ideas. New words are almost always by definition “vernacular” creations, examples of how people create new forms out of old. (Certainly there are non-vernacular neologisms–one might cite Early Modern inkhorn terms–the word “vernacular,” for instance–or words derived from modern scientific discourse, such as “autism” or “aids.”)

This isn’t to say that there isn’t resistance. I think I might argue that the expectation of pushback is often a key attraction of creating a new word. Here’s a recent NYTimes article, for instance, “Pardon my French,” on the problems some French speakers have with new forms of French. We’ll see lots of more stories about this. Unlike English, France long ago created the Académie française to define a standard form of French, and so they have created an established authority for linguistic adjudication.

What happens in English instead is that people regularly appoint themselves to be the (often, at least rhetorically, lonely) protectors of standards. This used to happen in “grammars”; now we rely on “style manuals.” Lynn Truss provides a recent recent popular example. David Crystal’s commentary on her gets it exactly right: in his Prologue he describes the subtitle of Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, “The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation,” as “the language of crime prevention and political extremism”–that is, of linguistic law enforcement.

At any rate, French is far from–I quote a frightened pundit in the article–“under siege” (the language of war): according to the Ethnologue, it has over 67 million native speakers–the 16th most spoken language on this list, and the second most spoken international language–only English is spoken in more countries (112, as opposed to 60).

So what’s the problem? “Pardon my French” goes on to illustrate that language becomes a key symbol of cultural nostalgia–and hence a circumlocutory way to talk about race, religion, social class, and all sorts of other markers that designate a mythicized past where the language was pure and the empire was proud. If they didn’t want to corrupt their language, the snarky response is that they shouldn’t have colonized Algeria–the last section of the article tells a great story about the Algerian Yasmina Khadra’s use of French. Less snarkily, if language is a proxy for other ways to define a mythic ideal, a desire to impose a linguistic standard becomes colonial politics without the bullets. It’s not just France that’s worried about purity–even accents count in U.S. classrooms, despite linguistic research which shows that communicating with students in their own vernacular aids learning greatly–including learning standard English.

Another NYTimes presentation, this time on Chinglish, is a bit different. Do the examples here indicate linguistic coherence, a (proto-)pidgin or a creole? The images present (really funny) poor attempts at translation, but I don’t see examples of a consistent linguistic entity. You can find examples like this in any language; google “funny English translation” to see this. There are examples from Asian languages, but many others as well.

Why, then, call it “Chinglish”? What does the word mean here?


Here’s an article from the Times on “Chinglish”–it actually goes with the slideshow, a fact I missed.  But the question still remains–why dub this with a name that seems to indicate that it’s a language?


Author: Derrick Pitard

I teach medieval and early modern literature, the history of the language, introductions to literature, Latin, and writing at Slippery Rock University.

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