420: The Prodigal Tongue by Mark Abley

by Gerard


420.9: Abley, Mark. The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches from the Future of English. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008. 236 pp. ISBN 978-0-618-57122-2.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 400: Language
  • 420: English and Old English
  • 420.9: History of the English language

If you perk up your ears for a bit, you will notice that English is not the language it once was. Odd terms, new phrases, and foreign invasions are changing English from the inside out. The explosion of the Internet and small-scale news have given localisms a chance to flourish on a global scale. It took the word “teenager” roughly sixty years to become mainstream, but now noob and lol are commonplace after only a decade of use. Mark Abley’s The Prodigal Tongue traces the historical journey of the English and project many possible changes the language could take.

Right now, English and its many variations are swarming around world, threatening to become the universal language. It’s already the official language of pilots, the World Bank, and even OPEC. But this comes at a cost to the language itself. In its ambition to become the lingua franca of the world, the world affects it in many small and large ways. Each new country that takes on English changes it to suit their purposes, and Abley shows us how this affects both the speakers and speech. Singapore English is an odd mish-mash of local dialects and general English terms. Japanese English, while sometime mocked when egregious mistranslations occur, is creating a row because it is displacing traditional kanji writing. The Spanglish of Southern California is leading to new debates about whether the United States should decree English as the official language.

Abley’s gusto for new words and Englishes is almost childlike and Zen at the same time. He is not one of those linguists who cry out for purity and put down neologisms. Every time he sees a new construction, it is a chance to investigate in what ways the language is changing and what that means on a larger scale. If you are a native English speaker, there are times when you may get a little defensive when Abley proposes that all English variations are both valid and good, but his overall feeling is that each new English offers a way for use to communicate with those we haven’t been able to before. And that can’t be too bad of a thing. A very engaging read.