As English Spreads, Speakers Morph It Into World Tongue

IN India, people created the word ''prepone'' as the obvious opposite of postpone. On the Internet, a form of cyber-English has sprouted with such words as ''net-surfing.'' On MTV Latino, the word coolisimo defines hip for a continent.

In Britain, meanwhile, editors of the Oxford English Dictionary are struggling to keep up with the ''morphing'' of the mother tongue.

What centuries of British colonialism and decades of Esperanto couldn't do, a few years of free trade, MTV, and the Internet has. English dominates international business, politics, and culture more than any other language in human history, and new words are melding into English at a frenetic pace.

''English is probably changing faster than any other language,'' says Alan Firth, a linguist at the University of Aalborg in Denmark, ''because so many people are using it.''

More than 1 billion people are believed to speak some form of English. For every native speaker, there are three nonnative speakers. Three-quarters of the world's mail is in English and four-fifths of electronic information is stored in English.

As more nonnative speakers converse with each other, hundreds of impromptu varieties of English are taking on a life of their own around the world.

But the uncontrolled, global germination of so many ''Englishes'' has some worried. English purists, led by Britain's Prince Charles, bemoan the degradation of the language as they see it.

Multiculturalists, meanwhile, say the blitzkrieg-like spread of English effectively commits ''linguistic genocide'' by killing off dozens of other languages.

These differing views lead to the question: Is the world taking English by storm or is English taking the world by storm?

Tom McArthur, editor of the Oxford Companion to the English Language, says that in 20 to 30 countries around the world, English is merging with native languages to create hybrid Englishes.

''The tensions between standard English and hybrid Englishes are going to become very, very great,'' says Mr. McArthur, who calls the process neither good nor bad. ''We are going to have to keep on our toes. Some standard form of English [should be maintained] ... as a tool of communication.''

Linguists see three main ''Englishes'' forming along with dozens of offshoots.

One includes Britain, the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand where distinct dialects of English are already spoken by about 350 million people.

A second includes South Asia and such African countries as Kenya and Tanzania, where pidgin Englishes -- in numerous forms -- are dominant.

And a third is broken English use for basic communication in the rapidly industrializing regions of East Europe, East Asia, Latin America, and the Mideast.

THE spread of English has given rise to interaction between foreign peoples that would have been considered remarkable only a few years ago, according to linguists.

In a Sydney factory, Cambodian, Samoan, Maltese, Greek, and Latvian workers take orders, talk about their families, and complain about their bosses to each other in their own broken English.

In Thailand, Russians, Pakistanis, Japanese, and Germans make phone calls by shouting out mispronounced numbers in English to exasperated Thai operators.

One of the largest sources of new terms is computers, according to linguists. In more than 100 countries, Internet users jabber in English -- or something like it.

To many nonnative English-speaking computer hackers, a computer term such as ''hardware,'' has only one meaning -- computer equipment.

''Hardware is one of those words, it means, I don't know,'' laments Dinko Novoselec, a database operator in Zagreb, Croatia, when asked for another definition. ''Some kind of tools for digging the earth or something like that.''

The command ''peck'' that grants access to a computer memory on some systems, stumped him. ''Oh, oh, yes, like a woodpecker,'' Mr. Novosolec says after a hint. ''Now I know what it means.''

To English purists, Novoselec's quasi-English is a catastrophe.

Prince Charles recently warned of a creeping degradation of the English language, lashing out at Americans for cheapening it with bad grammar. And French-language purists have been trying to eliminate English slang from entering the world's previous lingua franca, but with little success.

''People tend to invent all sorts of nouns and verbs and make words that shouldn't be,'' said Prince Charles at the March launching of a five-year British effort to preserve ''English English.''

''I think we have to be a bit careful, otherwise the whole thing can get rather a mess,'' he added.

The prince's concerns are both cultural and financial. The rapidly growing ''English industry'' -- made up of English classes and tens of thousands of academics studying the language and its offshoots -- currently produces more than $750 million in income for Britain annually.

But Britain faces competition from the United States and Australia in the crucial Asian market, where more than 200 million Chinese are studying English and where English is the main language of commerce.

As China continues to grow, meanwhile, some fear that a form of Chinese could replace English as the world's global language within three generations.

Danish Professor Firth, who studies conversations between nonnative speakers when they conduct business, says businessmen tend to be blunt, humorless, use simplified grammar, and develop and use their own English terms to cut a deal.

He cites one example where a Hungarian used the phrase ''It's a little bit middle, middle power'' to say things weren't going well. His Danish counterpart began to also use the phrase.

''People develop their own ways of doing business with each other, of talking and even writing ... that native speakers might not understand,'' Firth says. ''And native speakers join in and start to speak that way also.''

But those who seek to preserve native cultures warn that in many parts of the world, English is taking more than it is giving. Some linguists attending the 1995 Global Cultural Diversity conference held in Sydney last month warned of accelerating global ''linguicide.''

Schools in former European colonies still use English or French to assimilate ethnic populations, eradicating dozens of native languages, they warn.

''Every person has a fundamental right to his own culture and his own language,'' says Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, a guest researcher at Roskilde University in Denmark. ''Educational language rights are vital.''

Professor Skutnabb-Kangas says the ''consciousness industry'' -- education, mass media, and religion -- stigmatizes many nonwhite native languages, even if they are an offshoot of English, as ''backward and primitive, tribal and traditional, as ... dialects rather than languages.''

The problem, according to linguists at the conference, is the outmoded 19th century concept that a ''nation-state'' requires a single language to unify its people. Multiculturalists argue that multilingual states, such as Switzerland, can exist and thrive. Having several official languages can also reduce ethnic tensions among people lumped together by colonial mapmakers.

Oxford Companion editor McArthur says the spread of English can't be halted. The globalization of the world, mostly driven by economics, is inevitable.

''It's the [world's] need for a unified language of trade, politics, and culture,'' he says. ''We're going to lose a lot of languages around the world, but if it's not English, it would be something else.''

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