NewSpeak for the Masses

Pidgin English
Saturday, 2nd September 2017

Over the last 10 years I have slowly but surely convinced myself the pace of cultural change is accelerating at an unprecedented rate. The only certainty now seems to be uncertainty itself. Scenarios we deemed unthinkable just five years ago now seem emerging realities. We’re all in a way prisoners of our age and may easily lose sight of the wider historical context. As civilisations wax and wane, we’d be foolish to assume our current way of life will continue to progress along the same lines.

Out of the blue I learn the venerable BBC is spending a fair chunk of taxpayers’ money to spread its message not in standard English as understood in Britain, the USA, Canada and many other countries, but in West African Pidgin. Apparently Naija or Nigerian Pidgin is now the primary street lingo of over 70 million people in a country whose population is projected to grow from around 190 million today to over 400 million by 2050, unless the fertility rate declines significantly. The BBC has moved its focus away from Europe, though it struggles to hide its clear bias in favour of the EU project. It has admittedly, and perhaps laudably, also expanded its coverage to Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo, Nigeria’s three most widely spoken native languages, but I guess its main focus is on the mushrooming urban areas that will grow into Africa’s megacities of the mid 21st century. Here Broken reigns supreme. This adjectival noun is the slang term for variants of international English that diverge syntactically, phonologically and semantically from standard Nigerian English, the lingua franca of the country’s affluent urban elite.

On the surface one may wonder why the BBC is bothering at all as most educated Nigerians with easy Internet access would much prefer standard English, the main language of their country's press, schools and commerce. However, I suspect our intrepid global media organisation may have a longer-term view. Have the BBC spotted a trend  or are they helping to set a trend? Have they merely acknowledged that standard English is giving way to Pidgin in West Africa or are they elevating a street vernacular to the status of urban lingua franca that could serve as a blueprint for a future global sociolect that could merge with other English-based urban dialects around the world in an era of mass migration ? A fluid and rapidly evolving street lingo could also be a good candidate for a future NewSpeak, stripped of the semantic range and subtleties of academic English or other well-established literary languages. Another factor, which I suspect many have overlooked, is the social acceptance or coolness factor of a dialect. Formal variants of languages are seldom cool. They may be the route to academic success and career progression, but can isolate their elitist speakers from the plebeians who have infused their vernacular koiné with demotic phraseology and pronunciation. Likewise the urban masses view native tongues as uncool remnants of their rural past. We may compare global academic English with the posh Received Pronunciation that the BBC used to impose on its reporters. What West African Pidgin may lack in official recognition, it certainly gains in street cred.

Many of us take language for granted. We tend to assume that the current linguistic status quo will only gradually evolve from generation to generation. Back in late late 80s and early 90s as a language teacher and later as a technical translator in Italy, I witnessed and took part in many debates on the growing role of the English language in continental Europe. I sympathised for a while with Robert Phillipson’s concept of Linguistic Imperialism and felt perhaps native English speakers enjoyed unfair advantages, but the prime movers behind the apparent Anglicisation of Europe were not native English speakers or their governments, but multinational companies and the emerging globally connected professional classes. In principal Esperanto would have been a much fairer choice for international communication as it would put everyone on a level playing field and has an easy pronunciation and phonetic spelling . Perhaps in a parallel universe where English did not spread far beyond its home island and no other major language filled the void, we may have opted for a neutral artificial lingua franca, but it may well be human nature to gravitate towards the most prestigious and influential modes of communication. While the expansion of English as a universal lingua franca seemed unstoppable, the other main languages of Europe, the Americas and Asia did not disappear. Indeed while French and German may be in relative decline outside their home regions, Spanish and Portuguese have retained their dominance in Latin America. But since the 1990s three big trends have transformed our linguistic landscape.

  1. First the Internet has enabled seamless communication with anywhere else in the world. Geography is no longer a barrier. That helps non-native learners of English to immerse themselves in English-medium interactions without leaving their office or home, but also lets new migrant communities isolate themselves from their adopted countries.

  2. Second the world is literally on the move as never before. People either migrate away from close-knit rural communities where traditional languages prevail to bustling multicultural metropolises or to wealthier countries with better employment opportunities and more advanced welfare provision.

  3. Third the English language itself is evolving at an unprecedented rate even among its native speakers, mainly due to rapid technological and cultural transformation, but also as a result of strong ideological pressures to create new concepts and suppress older categories.

Language is the ultimate vehicle of cultural expression. It serves four main functions, communication, abstraction of complex concepts, social bonding and cultural identity. We may think of communication as the mere exchange of facts and instructions, but more often than not it relies on a learned cultural context and a willingness to share strategic intelligence and inner thoughts. Some psychologists, such as Albert Mehrabian in his 1981 book Silent Messages, have suggested most casual communication is non-verbal, i.e. implied via body language, tone of voice, choice of terminology and secondary semantic associations of key words and phrases. Suppose you want to order a drink. The customer and bartender only really need to exchange three pieces of information, an unambiguous description of the desired beverage, its availability and price. Indeed the whole exchange can proceed without a common spoken language. A price list with pictures and international brand names can suffice. However, commercial communication is about much more than just enquiring about the availability and price of an item. It's about interacting with customers to learn their predilections and build a network of regular customers, who not only enjoy your food and drinks, but also your hospitality, your wit and your venue’s ambiance. That often means not only sharing a common spoken language, but also cultural attitudes. While the practical aims of knowledge sharing and the expression of complex ideas tend to favour languages with far-reaching prestige and solid literary traditions, the demands of social bonding and cultural identity often lead to fragmentation as speakers adapt to speech patterns transmitted as substrata of earlier indigenous languages. People tend to associate affected standardised speech, as learned at school, with the privileged classes. In Africa’s teeming conurbations the linguistic contrast is not so much between colonial European languages and native tongues, but between rival sociolects of what may deceptively seem the same lingua franca.

The continued evolution of global English raises two key questions in enquiring minds. First is how long will what we may loosely call Anglo-American English remain the standard bearer of global communication? This means maintaining full mutual intelligibility with the language commonly spoken by educated North Americans, Britons and Australians with all its idiosyncracies. Many observers have viewed the last century of linguistic convergence as a gradual shift towards the universal adoption of Mid-Atlantic English, relegating the esteemed national languages of Europe and Asia to the status of local dialects, a bit like Welsh today. Some argue that as long as these idioms remain the native tongues of most local citizens, we need not fear their extinction as actively spoken community languages. However, as migratory pressures grow, that’s already beginning to change in many European cities where natives have become an ethnic minority.

The second big linguistic issue of our age is the divergence of linguistic registers for radically different social classes. Most academic and scientific publications, usually rich in jargon and poor in prose, are incomprehensible to most non-technical readers. Phonology and morphology may be of great interest to linguists and language learners alike, but what really matters is the range of concepts a language can express.  Many conceptual nuances are deeply engrained in our collective psyche transmitted as memes from one generation to the next. By abandoning the languages of our ancestors, we lose touch with our past and adopt a volatile vehicle of communication we cannot truly own as we struggle to adapt to its rapidly changing vocabulary and semantics.

Languages can evolve both to expand and restrict the range of permissible thoughts. Over the last century English has shown a strong tendency towards simplification and abbreviation, often at the cost of clarity and exactitude. However, academic writers can always resort to more conservative Greco-Latin terms to avoid the semantic connotations of more common words. To complicate matters, many previously innocent descriptors have fallen out of favour with the language police as they may reveal unfashionable prejudices and cultural assumptions. We’ve gone a long way from discussing whether African Americans mind being labelled as black or niggers. Now we debate whether we should rename father’s day to special person’s day to avoid offending fatherless children. North American students have recently started advertising their preferred pronouns to avoid offending the tiny minority of transsexuals who do not identify as either female or male. Yet cultural revolutionaries are not content with redefining traditional racial, ethnic and sexual categories. They’ve turned their focus to the realm of psychoanalysis and psychiatry. A person can now be defined by an endless array of arbitrary behavioural patterns. While once school children may have struggled with their parents’ cultural identities such as Protestant or Catholic, now they may identify as sufferers of ADHD, social anxiety, depression or gender dysphoria to name but a few new-fangled labels that modern teachers use to describe their students. Psychobabble began to make inroads in everyday English back in the 1980s, but has now transformed the way we relate to neighbours and colleagues.

Our linguistic future depends not only on the rise and fall of regional superpowers or the development of real-time translation applications, but also on our evolution as a species. Will we all join the professional classes and play equal roles in shaping our shared future? Such a utopian vision seems improbable if we contemplate the growing intellectual rift between today’s affluent professional classes and the much more numerous underclasses whose monotonous jobs are being automated. If we add CRISPR gene editing technology and cognitive enhancement via microchip implants to the mix, humanity may well diverge into subspecies with a much wider range of intellectual performance than today. Would these disparate groups need to speak the same language and more important would the intellectual elites want the underclasses to understand their deliberations at all ?

Pidgin as a Future Global Sociolect

Anti-imperialists have long had an ambivalent attitude to the languages of their former colonial masters. Different countries have taken different approaches. Some have successfully adopted an indigenous lingua franca where it has gained considerable prestige or is deeply embedded in local culture through literature and religion. Tanzania may have a hundred or more local languages, but Swahili, taught in all primary schools, remains the main link language between communities while English is reserved for secondary and higher education. By contrast English has long been the primary medium of instruction in post-independence Nigerian schools. However, students learn a distinctively Nigerian version of the language as teachers and students alternate between standard English, Pidgin and snippets from native African tongues. To the untrained ear it can be hard to discern where one language begins and another ends.

Pedagogues have long debated whether children learn best through the medium of their native language if they will later have to learn another more prestigious language anyway to stand any chance in the job market or even be able to communicate at all if they move to the nearest city. Many studies have shown that where a native tongue still prevails in the local community students can progress faster in many core subjects through a standardised version of the language the speak at home because they can grasp new concepts better through semantic associations and analogies they have internalised passively through everyday interactions outside school. However, in practice teachers may not speak the same dialect as their pupils and their pupils may not all share the same mother tongue. Native language teaching works in stable communities, but not in dynamic urban settings. As a result the newly enforced lingua franca is effectively dumbed down to a level that facilitates communication between students and teachers. Modern teaching methods in mainstream state schools emphasise inclusiveness and self-esteem rather than excellence and rigour. Not surprisingly the Nigerian business classes tend to send their children to private schools with smaller class sizes and better educated teachers. However, most West African children attend state schools with average class sizes of 50 to 60 and poorly paid teachers who impart their own demotic variant of the lingua franca. Peer pressure clearly favour Pidgin, while standard English is mainly a written language outside classrooms.

Nigerian Pidgin is of special interest to sociologists and linguists alike because its dialects form a continuum from informal Standard Nigerian English through urban sociolects to local vernaculars more heavily influenced by native tongues. Some have suggested that Naija could evolve into a more accessible version of pan-African English, discarding native English’s impure vowels and trickier consonantal clusters and further simplifying its grammar.

Some aspects of Naija resemble the kind of street slang you may hear in London’s multicultural schools where most pupils learn English as a second language. One of the quirkier rules of English grammar is the use of the present perfect tense (e.g. I have lived in England for six years) for an event that started the past, but is still ongoing. Most other languages use the present tense in these cases, e.g, I live in Lagos for six years (I've lived in Lagos for six years in 20th century native English). Until recently such usage would have appeared unnatural to most native speakers of English, but it’s creeping into London English and few teachers make any effort to correct such aberrations being more concerned with spelling and classroom discipline. Cockney has all but died out. In its place new Londoners have adopted Multicultural London English, a melange of late 20th century estuary English, Jamaican and Pakistani English.

If mass migration continues at the current rate, and it may well accelerate, the emerging lingua franca of the world's interconnected megacities may resemble Naija more than any variety of native English. Could we be witnessing the withering of traditional ethnic languages and emergence of global sociolects in a new extreme form of diglossia or polyglossia? In this scenario the language we now call English would diverge into three categories of dialects. The planet's professional elites would converge on a tame version of North American English rich in Greco-Latin terminology and new technical jargon, but devoid of vernacularisms peculiar to native variants of English. Its syntax and pronunciation would gradually evolve in a similar way to Middle Latin jettisoning the quirkier aspects of Anglo-Saxon grammar. Meanwhile native varieties of English would lose their status as linguistic standards to which others should aspire, while urban Pidgin English would rise in prominence gaining hundreds of millions of new native speakers as Africa's population grows. At some stage Pidgin, as understood in Lagos, London and Mumbai may be more useful to globetrotters than the quaint Anglo-Saxon dialects of Iowa, Yorkshire or New Zealand.