How the English language became a wordsmith

Global spread of English is closely tied to the history of the British Empire.

By Prasun Sonwalkar

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Published: Thu 20 Jan 2022, 9:31 PM

What comes to mind first when you think of the English language? For many, it may be Wordle, the new Internet-based daily word game that has swept the world, drawing in hundreds of thousands of people who religiously tweet their successes. For those of a certain age, it may be literature, or the challenge of the crossword in a newspaper or magazine; for many students, it may be the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) or the tough teachers of English.

For me — and I daresay likely for millions of people of a certain age in India, Pakistan and Myanmar — it is the memory of Wren & Martin, the doorstopper book of English grammar and composition used in schools in the subcontinent until recently. The book with the red cover and shaky spine had a permanent place in the school bag. Laura Pinto, my wonderful English teacher, would make it clear to those who were up to no good that without learning from Wren & Martin, our future was not exactly bright. The book was used to knock grammar into our heads, and at times to knock heads as well.

That book is mostly unknown in the British Isles, where the language originated in the early medieval period, but it played a major role in spreading the language before and after British India was de-colonised in 1947. English was introduced there soon after TB Macaulay’s controversial Minute on Education was adopted as official policy in 1835.

Today, India has the largest English-speaking community outside the United States and the United Kingdom. Besides, there are a large number of English speakers in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. English is virtually a mother tongue for many educated south Asians, but for the vast majority it remains a second language.

Its widespread use and position as an aspirational language is not a feature of the subcontinent alone. Across the globe, it has come to acquire a dominant position over the centuries. It is an official language in nearly 60 countries, the language of thought for many non-native speakers, and the key to open career and other opportunities. No other language in history has been used by so many people, across life situations so widely, from the personal to the social, political, economic, government, diplomacy, cultural, business, and more — so much so, that in some areas its domination is seen as a threat to local languages, dialects and literatures.

The dictionary’s career

The global spread of English is closely tied to the history of the British Empire. For nearly a millennium, it absorbed words from many languages, including Arabic, Hindi, Latin, French and Greek. But as the world became more connected in the 19th and 20th centuries, its domination grew, as English words made their way into local languages, reflected in news media and popular culture in various countries.

German scholar Manfred Görlach has studied the growing number of varieties of English in his monographs Englishes (1990), More Englishes (1995), Even More Englishes (1998), and Still More Englishes (2002). The varieties include Hinglish (a blend of Hindi and English), Nigerian English, Hong Kong English, Philippine English, Malaysian English, Irish English and Caribbean English. Its pole position at global and local levels is a reflection of its malleable dynamism, ever evolving, freely borrowing from other languages and cultures, while being constantly updated with new words and usages. The Internet is further speeding up its use globally.

One way to track the growth of English is to look at the career of the dictionary, which is a relatively recent publication, compared to the early medieval origins of the language. Dictionaries today come in several shapes, sizes and forms — now increasingly online; the most used are those published by Oxford, Cambridge, Collins, Macmillan and Penguin.

The oldest and considered the most authoritative is the OED, which began life in 1857 when the Philological Society of London called for a new English dictionary. It was initially published in fascicles (series) from 1884 onwards, with the first comprehensive edition appearing in 1928 in 10 volumes under the imposing name A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, which contained over 400,000 words and phrases.

As new words and usages entered the lexicon and new technology made it easier to update the dictionary, the second edition was published in 1989, adding 5,000 words and senses in 22,000 pages bound in 20 volumes. In 1992, a CD-ROM edition of OED was published, and the dictionary moved online in 2000, with editors currently undertaking a major revision for the third edition that is expected to be completed early in the 2030s. Over 70 editors in Britain and the US have been updating the text and every three months the entire OED database is republished online, with new words added and older entries revised according the exacting standards of modern historical lexicography.

The Internet is a convenient medium in which continuous revision can take place to the text that has over 600,000 words. The OED is the largest in English, but there are older and larger dictionaries in German, Spanish, Dutch and Chinese.

Revising the etymology of words from other languages is one of the major tasks of the third edition. John Simpson, OED chief editor, writes: “The revision of the Oxford English Dictionary’s etymological component is a substantial undertaking…The overall effect of incorporating information on word-forms and meanings from donor languages, together with dates of attestation in those languages wherever possible, is to give a much fuller picture of the process of transmission of individual words into English. These sources also allow the editorial staff to plot contemporaneous borrowings into other languages in Europe and elsewhere, showing that English is part of a network of languages which share in the process of borrowing and semantic development, and that the process of borrowing itself has often been far more complex in particular cases than the Oxford English Dictionary has previously been able to demonstrate.”

Words of the Year

When OED’s first edition was published, it documented the language of the British Isles in greater detail than the varieties of English which were established or emerging elsewhere. Its editors say that work on the third edition draws on lexicographical work conducted in other areas where English is used, including material from texts such as the Dictionary of American English and the Dictionary of Americanisms, the Dictionary of Canadianisms, the Dictionary of South African English, the Australian National Dictionary, the Dictionary of New Zealand English and others, supported by the OED’s own reading programme. The English of the British Isles now becomes one of these varieties, whereas previously standard British English may have been regarded as the dominant form of English.

OED and Cambridge dictionaries regularly release new words that are accepted for inclusion after an elaborate process of research, checking and cross-checking. They also announce Word of the Year, based on how widely it has been used. For example, the Cambridge Dictionary’s Word of the Year 2021 was ‘perseverance’; it was looked up 243,000 times on the dictionary’s website. Defined as ‘continued effort to do or achieve something, even when this is difficult or takes a long time’, the word’s performance in 2021 may have as much to do with NASA as the pandemic: a spike of 30,487 searches for perseverance occurred between 19–25 February 2021, after NASA’s Perseverance Rover made its final descent to Mars on 18 February. Says Wendalyn Nichols, Cambridge Dictionary’s publishing manager: “It made sense that lookups of ‘perseverance’ spiked at this time. Cambridge Dictionary is the top website in the world for learners of English, and perseverance is not a common word for students of English to have in their vocabulary. Just as it takes perseverance to land a rover on Mars, it takes perseverance to face the challenges and disruption to our lives from Covid-19, climate disasters, political instability and conflict.”

OED’s Word of the Year 2021 was ‘vax’, the shorthand for vaccine which, it said, had “injected itself into the bloodstream of the English language” during the Covid-19 pandemic. Casper Grathwohl, president of Oxford Languages, says: “When reviewing the language evidence, ‘vax’ stood out as an obvious choice. The word’s dramatic spike in usage caught our attention first. Then we ran the analysis and a story started to emerge, revealing how ‘vax’ sat at the centre of our preoccupations this year. The evidence was everywhere…In monopolising our discourse, it’s clear the language of vaccines is changing how we talk — and think — about public health, community and ourselves.”

OED’s editors say there is no mystery to the sequence of processes through which new words are included in the publication. The editorial work done during each of these stages is complex. Stages in the process include: collection and sorting of quotations for individual entries; editing of entries (by specialist new-words, scientific, and generalist editors), including the provision of British English and American English pronunciations (and others where necessary); commissioning research on and specialist review of edited entries; preparation of etymologies (by the OED‘s Etymology group); verification of bibliographical information for quotations to be published; final review by the chief and deputy chief editor; and, only then, publication. One example is the inclusion of OMG, widely assumed to be coined by millennials to express surprise (Oh, My God!), but research revealed that it was first used on 9 September 1917 by retired admiral John ‘Jacky’ Arbuthnot Fisher in a letter to Winston Churchill, who was then the Minister for Munitions.

OED’s December 2021 update included nearly 750 new entries and new senses, and as many revised entries. Says Jonathan Dent, senior editor: “The darkest hour is just before the dawn, says the old proverb, the history and variants of which are illustrated in OED for the first time in this update, although the word itself dates back to Thomas Fuller’s memorably titled 1650 Pisgah-sight of Palestine. Meanwhile ‘therking’, a name for the period between daylight and darkness (either in the morning or the evening) is one of the oldest items in this update, and first occurs in an Old English-Latin glossary from the first half of the 11th century. When revising ‘bird’ and related entries, our researchers and editors found clear use of the phrase ‘the birds and the bees’, referring euphemistically to basic facts about human sexuality and reproduction, from the early 1940s (in the Washington Post), though these early uses imply a certain knowing familiarity which suggests that it had already been around for a while by that time.”

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