The real threat to the empire of English


At the time of writing, I have no clear idea what “gaslighting” means. Nor ‘“benching”, “mirroring”, “sealioning” or — an asset-management boutique? — “grey rock”. “Performative”, I do, but the world seemed to live without the word, the use of which has itself become performative, until five minutes ago.

None of this even gets into the Anthony Burgess-grade neologisms of identity politics. And not to “both-sides” this — why is it always a verb? — but conservatives are hardly above an in-phrase or two. What did “virtue-signalling” add to “sanctimony”? Who didn’t prefer “snowflake” in the hands of a poet like Longfellow?

It is a life-enhancing thing that languages mutate. But I wonder if English has ever been as restlessly protean as it is now. If the changes stayed at the level of slang or subculture, they would be of merely academic interest. What we have instead is constant seepage into the mainstream.

One vector for it is that cringing pushover known as the corporation, which never saw a social fad it wouldn’t yield to for a quiet life. Another is the public sector. I am looking at an “Equality, Diversity and Inclusion” webpage of the NHS, one of the world’s largest employers. To the extent that it is literate (beware “white supresmacy”) it is a glossary of “allyship”, “lived experience” and other medical necessities.

There used to be two arguments against this kind of baloney. One was aesthetic. The blur of jargon can assail the ear like the white noise of a buzzing fridge. The other objection, George Orwell’s, is that it is politically insidious. Soviet or Nazi, Jesuit or anticlerical, the perversion of language is the ruse of the despot.

Let me suggest a third and more strategic problem. There is just one threat to English as the world’s lingua franca, and it is not Mandarin. It is not even the (overrated) potential of translation technologies. It is the language’s own descent into bullshit.

The pace and obscurity of lexicographic change could mire English in the one thing a language of commerce, science and diplomacy cannot survive: confusion. I know native Anglophones of no great age who are failing to keep up. For those who learn it as a second language, the scope for error is all the vaster.

Imagine that you are an intermediate student of English aiming for fluency. You are trying to master the verb “to centre”. A few years ago, to centre oneself was to do something calming in a stressful moment: cooking was a centring pastime. As newfangled as that definition was, it has morphed again into something like “unduly promote”. If I credit Lyndon Johnson with civil rights, I am centring white people in a black story. You can find that use of the word in an alleged newspaper of record.

And neither of these meanings, remember, matches the one in your textbook, where to centre is to move an object into the middle of a physical space. At some point, this kind of ambiguity stops being proof of a supple and textured language. It becomes the mark of an unusable one.

In his book on English, Kingsley Amis identified two enemies of the language. “Berks” speak it coarsely and idiomatically. In their hands, or mouths, English would die of impurity, as late Latin did. “Wankers”, by contrast, are inflexibly precious. They would cause English to die of purity, like medieval Latin.

What we are up against now, fellow Anglophones, is a sort of hybrid. Imagine a berk’s disregard for tradition, with a wanker’s unsmiling zeal. (I’d blend the epithets but the result coincides with a big FT-reading profession.)

Ugly change, I can live with. If you “call out” things and “circle back” to people, you sound like a fool but your meaning is clear enough. Nor is there great harm in faux-profound dating-profile bilge of the “Be responsible for the energy you bring” variety. The trouble starts when a language loses its meaning, not its grace.

That time is upon us. I used to think it a blessing that English never had its own Académie Française, with some VS Naipaul type at its forbidding helm. I now wonder. An un-French looseness allowed the language to sweep the world, yes. But then so did its clarity.

Email Janan at janan.ganesh@ft.com

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