The Prodigal Tongue
Mark Abley
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Buy *The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches from the Future of English* by Mark Abley online

The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches from the Future of English
Mark Abley
Houghton Mifflin
272 pages
June 2008
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Mark Abley lives in Montreal, which means he speaks more than one language. He is both poet and journalist and has written a previous book, Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages, indicating his interest in the subject of how languages evolve, when they do, or die, when they don't.

The big question is, will English survive? Fifth years ago this question would have seemed nonsensical. With so many people learning English and longing to breathe free in America or the UK by assimilating to their dominating cultures in the mid-twentieth century, it looked as though American/English was the winner in the linguistic battle royal.

Not so anymore, according to Abley. In an age of "Google, hip-hop and instant messaging," there is less respect for the Anglo mother tongue across all linguistic spectra, and a pesky adoration of dialect and computer-speak.

We are way past the time when a single man, even so prodigious a thinker as Samuel Johnson, could compile a dictionary, and probably past the era when a country (France) could simply write rules to protect its language from evil outside influences. And not just the French. The famed and beloved English author (Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders) Daniel Defoe decried "all those innovations of speech, if I may call them such, which some dogmatic writers have the confidence to foster upon their own native language." Out with the new, bring on the old.

English became an unprotected reed wavering in the winds of change when the Internet took root. Phenomena such as rap were a sidebar as youth, ever restless, looked for ways to rebel against their boring Boomer parents. Abley recounts that President Bush once publically summoned the British Prime Minister by calling out "Yo, Blair!" What's that about? And English, with its infinite flexibility, also follows its writers, handily incorporating, for example, the eerie tenets of George Orwell's fictional totalitarian "newspeak" and adopting some of its best exemplars: oldspeak, doublethink, and newspeak itself. Of course, many of Orwell's ideas are oldthink now. However, Abley aptly compares Orwell's conception of enforced linguistic limits underpinned by made-up, contradictory terminology to the military jargon of the modern era with the blithe bandying of such doublethoughts as "friendly nuclear weapons" and "nuclear collateral damage."

To trace the trajectory of English, since it seems destined to morph, Abley examines not only such cultural sidewaters as Chicano contributions, or Spanglish, hip-hop and rap, as well as the earnest attempt on the part of Asians to comprehend and embrace all things Western (a Japanese coffee brand has as its slogan, "Ease Your Bosoms," a free translation of "take a load off your chest") - and the even-as-we-speak-changing language of cyberspace. By way of example, Abley chronicles the Internet relationship of two friends whose attraction and attachment were all fostered long-distance, online, in a lovenest of unsanctioned cyber-passions.

Abley admits that language "won't stop in its tracks." It lopes alongside culture and takes its cues, rapid-fire, from what we do, how we act and interact. From this viewpoint, English is as safe as it ever was.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Barbara Bamberger Scott, 2008

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