Informative, entertaining look at English language

`ENGLISH is no longer just a British language but a world language, spoken by more than a billion people . . . mostly without a British accent.'' Newscaster Robert MacNeil is talking about the subject of the new nine-part television series of which he is host and co-writer. Premi`ering Monday, it will take viewers on a journey of language discovery through the entire English-speaking world.

The Story of English (PBS, Mondays, 10-11 p.m., check local listings) relies on a bouillabaisse of graphics as well as well-chosen words and images to produce superbly informative entertainment. It makes stops in 16 countries on five continents for insight into the Germanic origins of the language as well as into the influence of writers such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Walt Whitman. It examines such contemporary developments as ``black English'' and ``Valley girl English.''

Mr. MacNeil, interviewed in his WNET-TV office here while preparing for the evening's ``MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour,'' takes time out to talk about the project, which includes a companion book of the same name being published by Viking/Penguin.

MacNeil estimates that the worldwide use of English has begun to accomplish what the inventors of Esperanto and other contrived international languages had hoped to do. ``English, with its great eclectic history and the driving forces of economy, trade, tourism, military might, air travel, and computers has become much stronger than any artificially created language could have ever hoped to become.

``I remember as late as the 1940s German was considered to be the language of science. There is still good science material in German, but science, for the most part, has passed into the English-speaking world. Scientific and medical journals have to be translated into English now to get into the data banks.''

What language would MacNeil recommend that US students choose to study now?

``It might be fashionable to say Chinese or Japanese, because of the resurgence of the Asian peoples. Or Russian, because we are going to have to continue to coexist with them in the future. . . . But for US students I suppose Spanish is going to be the most vital and useful language to know.''

He feels, however, that the fear of the spread of bilingualism in the US is exaggerated. ``If you travel in the subways of New York, you get the feeling the city is already bilingual. But there is unnecessary paranoia among those people who want a constitutional amendment to make English the official language. The Spanish hordes are not taking over. Hispanic immigrants, legal and illegal, are assimilating as rapidly as any other immigrant group of the past. The movement to learn English among second-generation Americans continues strongly. I think English should remain the de facto language of the country, because it is what ties the country together. But I don't believe a large minority of Spanish speakers will harm the country. . . . The Anglo culture is enormously strong.''

MacNeil notes that every generation has worried that the language is being corrupted ``by slang, popular innovation, ignorance, grammatical carelessness, whatever. But this is an enormously energetic people, constantly finding new avenues of human endeavor, and the language to articulate that.

``H. L. Mencken thought that creativity in language in the 20th century, up till the 1940s, compared well with the creativity in the language in Elizabethan times, the other great growth era. So, while strict grammarians . . . may be distressed that there is a popular disregard for a lot of the niceties of the English grammar, at the same time the language grows richer and stronger all the time. My work on this series has made me a great deal more tolerant of that kind of change. The language has thrived on change over the centuries. It is impossible to think that it can stand still. Change should not dismay us.''

MacNeil feels that most people do not realize that the idea of BBC English (also called public-school, Oxford, or the Queen's English) is only about 100 years old. ``It is largely the product of the British public [or in American lexicon, private] schools, which wanted to create out of the diverse regional classes a kind of stock of commonly educated people, able to run the imperial services, army, navy. ``But even today that kind of English is spoken by only 3 percent of the people in the British Isles. However, it is an influential accent, the accent of power, and recognized as such.

``A recent survey done in England on the reactions to BBC English by people who listened to it on a recording, revealed they believed the speaker was more intelligent, honest, knowledgeable, and better looking than people speaking with other accents.''

MacNeil also speaks of ``the democratization going on in British society, a breaking down of the class system. A lot of kids in public schools don't want to be thought too posh and adopt cockneyisms as proof that they are regular guys. Mick Jagger, for instance, grew up with an educated upper-middle-class, public-school accent, and he has taken on as a kind of inverted snobbery some cockney and lower-class accents.''

The series is a coproduction of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions and the BBC. It will be seen in England one week after its American premi`ere.

Arthur Unger is television critic of The Christian Science Monitor.

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