Chapter Thirteen: English Grammar

In theory the international auxiliary might begin from any language: its appearance centuries hence after incorporating the best features from every tongue, living or dead, would be much the same whatever the starting-point. However, the right inaugural language would greatly speed and facilitate the process; and we are proposing that a reformed version of English would be ideal for the role. For example, those who learned it would be using their time profitably, even should the projected purpose fail to be realised; the mastery of one of the world's major spoken languages would guarantee a return on their investment. They would be able to go to any English-speaking country and be perfectly well understood, since the reforms would affect the script rather than the language - at least for a considerable time to come.

There would also be a distinct advantage in beginning with a language whose particular irregularity lies in the script rather than in speech, for language is normally more spoken than written. The spoken word always precedes and usually outweighs the written, whether in the life of the individual or of society, and consequently is more ingrained and less amenable to change. Script revision is not easy, but changing a spoken tongue is so hard that it is probably best accomplished through the orthoepic effect of script reform.

The relatively simple grammar of English came into existence precisely because popular speech threw off superfluous grammatical constructions while aristocratic and learned circles were using French and Latin. Moreover, English is part of the Indo-European family of languages, which is twice as large as any other, and where the dominant trend for 1000 years has been towards subject-verb-object rather than subject-object-verb syntax, and the use of word order rather than inflections.

Languages tend to fall into three grammatical types: synthetic - case endings and inflections - as in Russian; agglutinative - compound words with prefixes, suffixes and infixes - as in Turkish; and isolating - bare word roots without inflections or affixes - as in Chinese. English grammar developed into a form that does not fit exclusively into any of these camps but, partaking of all three, allows at the one extreme for elementary prosaic communication, using just the present tense and simple nouns with short sentences and, at the other, for complex expressions employing the full range of a grammar which contains these three characteristics: a wealth of inflected pronouns, verb tenses and moods; a variety of compounds - such as constitute many nouns, verbs, participles, adjectives and even adverbs; and isolates - typically the prepositions and conjunctions which hold English together with the aid of pronouns, punctuation and word order. This gear-changing capacity of the language may be seen by comparing typical tabloid journalism with the finest philosophical exegesis.

A measure of flexibility in grammatical style is necessary if linguistic unity is to be maintained in the face of a wide variety of cultures. The previous chapter showed how pidgins happened upon the minimal grammatical, lexical and phonological requirements of speech. However, although these tongues are relatively accessible by virtue of their simple grammar and basic phonology, they are severely limited, for the same reason, when it comes to prosaic discussion of complex and abstract subjects. Conversely, the great literary languages have preserved an advanced grammatical and lexical capacity, though at the expense of penetration throughout society and across cultural boundaries.

The essential feature of pidgins is their mundane genesis as contact languages: hence minimal grammar, with juxtaposed one-clause sentences, suffices for straightforward subject-matter: e.g. "Man plough. He my brother." English typically embeds the second clause into a complex sentence: "The man [who is] ploughing is my brother." The strength of the English construction, with its relative pronoun, is that it contains an element of transcendence or ambiguity (ploughing what?); but this is also its weakness. Comparing a religious saying in these two styles might show this: "All men are equal before God. He is no respecter of persons." "All men are equal before God, Who is no respecter of persons." The former is the original or authentic version.

Potentially, there is a gulf between these two kinds of language. The pidgin or tabloid type needs less grammar, because the meaning lies less in the sentence than in the word, whether it describes an entity or a situation. This kind of speech, which is essentially focused upon a material object, runs through picture story-books and propaganda posters into its modern home: the television set. Among the constructed languages it is exemplified by Glosa - which has only four tenses (as in "mi sedi [I sit], mi nu sedi [I am sitting], mi pa sedi [I sat], mi fu sedi [I will sit]") and no inflections, i.e. practically all its words can be used interchangeably as noun, adjective or verb. Glosa is a slightly modified update of Interglossa, the international language invented by Lancelot Hogben, humanist and polymath.

The basic unit of pidgin-grammar is the clause, but complex language also derives meaning to a great extent from the tension between clauses embedded in a sentence, and from the dynamic between adjacent sentences, and the contrast between paragraphs; its grammar, whether expressed through pronoun, inflection or tense, is the fulcrum for the shaft of understanding thus formed. This kind of language is still found in newspapers, but more usually in journals and books.

The constructed language Volapük exemplified this literary type of grammar. By the time of the third congress, in Paris in 1889, Volapük had 200,000 adherents in 300 societies and about two dozen publications; but the attempt to conduct the congress entirely in Volapük proved that a language which worked on the page could nevertheless be unsuited to general conversation. Volapük subsequently faded away after author Schleyer, priest and polyglot, refused to simplify it.

Any discussion of this subject would be incomplete without mention of the Canadian media philosopher Marshall McLuhan (1911-80 - he appears in Woody Allen's multi-media comedy film "Annie Hall"). By his aphorism "the medium is the message" McLuhan was essentially describing the qualitative difference between a human conversation, in which there is the possibility of dialogue (in spite of the prevalence of boring monologues!), and interaction between human and machine, where dialogue is once-removed, if it exists at all. By their very nature, the voices of the media talk at us rather than to us, and do not particularly want a reply: a tendency that has become ever more so as these organs have consolidated into centralised ownership, and have moved from print into more expensive and elaborate electronic imagery.

McLuhan compared the relationship between the providers and consumers of electronic media to that between the oligarchy - tribal chief, witch-doctor etc. - and the mass of the people in indigenous cultures. He pointed out that whereas traditional tribal societies are enthralled by magical artefacts and ceremonies, the tribes inhabiting today's consumerist culture are spellbound by totems from lifestyle features and advertisements in tabloid newspapers, magazines, cinema, radio, television etc.: new packaging for old products and ideas, now sold by advertising shamans and political spin-doctors - revenant Portuguese sailors bearing glittering wares to modern tribes who must weigh their values, for the adventurers also bring valuable stuff amid the dross (McLuhan would have been the first to admit this), and their globalising pidgin carries new scientific and religious concepts amidst the slogans and brand names.

The language of course is very often the predominant world auxiliary, namely English - or is it? Typical mediaspeak is not noted for its similarity to the language of Shakespeare, Emerson and Tennyson, and closely matches the voice of no writer from the pre-electronic age. Moreover, the new speech has accompanied a profound cultural shift from imagination to imagery: it is hardly surprising that sheltered modern children adjusted to the televisual realisation of fantasy should prefer Roald Dahl to the literary classics. A great part of the population generally is in thrall to television, when as much topical information can be gained from a decent daily newspaper in a fraction of the time. How many now read the great poets, philosophers and novelists, or the world's seminal religious works - such as the Bhagavad-gita, the Bible, the Qur'an or the Baha'i Writings? McLuhan, in a letter to a fellow Catholic (20/2/70), put it thus: "I have spent a good many years in studying the cultural effects of print and in proclaiming the alphabet in its printed form as the sole basis of civilisation. The electro-technical forms do not foster civilisation but tribal culture."

From a linguistic viewpoint, at least, these questions are very relevant because an equilibrium between different grammatical styles is impossible to retain in the long run; every partial language - not excepting English - follows the trend of one cultural tendency or another. For instance, many traditional languages have preserved a "correct" literary usage, whereas the creoles cater for a mass market which requires no more than a minimal grammar. The standing of English as an international language has largely been due to its capacity to contain these two grammatical styles.

But this potential may have weakened as the pidginised style has gained the ascendant. It might be asked whether this represents a degeneration of the language, or why a meagre fare should be preferred when the linguistic heritage is so rich. The answer to such questions again derives from the pre-eminent international role of English. The advertising and propaganda industries which cohabit the mass-media and its offshoots, with their remit to maximise the market at all costs, have encouraged a certain style in imagery and language which, by aiming for the universally familiar, effectively crosses many cultural and linguistic barriers. Moreover, the pictures of war, poverty and environmental degradation, and expositions of ecology and macroeconomics, emanating from the same media, have encouraged the formation of a number international charities, causes and movements, much of whose discussion has perforce taken place through a simplified or pidginised version of English - both because English is the leading international language, and because proper simultaneous translation is extremely expensive.

In such ways, through the dynamics of the mass-market and of global accessibility, the focus of English use has gradually shifted from a literary to a pidginised form. The frontier of this kind of language is found above all where access to less-educated or second-language speakers is the priority, whether the products on offer be jejune ephemera or matters of great import. In some respects, the English so produced approaches the distinctive qualities required by the coming world auxiliary language. Will it now take the next step?

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