Microsoft Word Versus Queen’s English [Archives:1999/51/Science & Technology]

December 20 1999

Dr. Murari Prasad
Associate Professor & Head
Dept of English, Faculty of Education – Sa’adah

The publication of the first global English dictionary in July 1990 by Encarta and the consequent launching of a world-wide appeal for words by the distinguished Oxford English Dictionary (OED), commonly regarded as the ultimate authority o the English language, called for a reconceptualization of standard English. The language, liberated in many ways, has acquired an international presence and is no longer a uniform entity. The current implementations of the use of English Ñincreasingly diverging from the Queen’s varietyÑhave prompted the sober repository of standard English words to shop for new words, slang or regional phrases, technical terms and other coinages as well as “new old words” dating from earlier centuries that have entered written English in the past 50 years for its Online edition coming up in March 2000. Surely, the lexicographers of the new millennium will be bitten by the bug, and curriculum planners will have to putt their thinking caps on. While the language has been interlaced with regionalisms, variational switches in the constellation of Englishes are no more considered to be unpalatable aberrations. Admittedly, once the lineaments of the language seem to have changed following the dynamics of rapid spread and adoption by different linguistic and national groups, there will be less resistance in recognizing the fact that the major varieties of English are acceptable intrinsically, not merely pragmatically.
Of course, with Microsoft planning to fuel the future of English by incorporating the Encarta World English Dictionary into its word-processing spell checkers as well s by including a CD-ROM version with the free software packages, the assault of Americanisms is likely to expand resulting in the dominance of US English. The dictionary launched by UK-based publishers Bloomsbury has been put up at a cost of £5 million, backed by US software giant. But the proportion of non-native English users in the electronic traffic, particularly the World Wide Web, is rapidly increasing. Even within Europe nearly 60 percent of Internet literates accessing the Web are non-British English speakers. Predictably enough, English native speakers are likely to be marginalised y their non-native peers and the chances of any single variety dominating the rest like South Eastern British English as standard in the Middle Ages are slim. What is likely is the blurring of boundaries, or the emergence of an English-based global lingua franca. Thus Kathy Rooney, who led the 320 lexicographers in the Encarta project, finds the pluralized form of English, or its polymodels perfectly plausible: “The argument for a new dictionary using the world as its cultural perspective is inescapable. English can no longer be said to be a British language as originally defined by James Murray in the first Oxford English dictionary.” 

The publishers of Encarta believe that it will become the most widely used reference work in the world. Based on such assumptions, the ambitious inventory of words claims to be “the first definitive reference work for the English language as it is spoken today.” More to the point, Nigel Newton, chief executive, Bloomsbury, insists that “the Queen’s English is an outmoded, backward-looking project.”Let us look at some of the entries in the dictionary. Notable among the slangy jargon of Microsoft are: “bloatware” (a computer program with many, often superfluous, features that take up so much memory that the computer’s performance is impaired); “disambiguate” (to establish the true meaning of an expression, regulation or ruling that is confusing or that can be interpreted in more than one way)’ “Gonk” (to lie abut something or embellish the truth especially in an Online conversation in a chat room); “offline” (to remove something such as a discussion from a public forum to a more private one) etc. Although some of the quirky formations in the Microsoft jargon called Microspeak have not been included, a host of utterly new expressions are there. For example, Full monty to mean everything that is needed or appropriate on makes up a full set or the whole of something; digerati formed from “digital” on the model of “literati” to mean people who have or claim to have sophisticated expertise in the area of computers, the Internet and the World Wide Web. Similarly, expressions popularized by television serials like “yadda yadda yadda” meaning boring, trite, superficial, or unending talk about stock market phrases like “dead cat bounce” which means an apparent recovery from a major decline in stock prices resulting from speculators rebuying stock that they previously sold rather than from a genuine upturn in the market, figure among thousands of such words, phrases and meanings that have never appeared in any dictionary before.
A distinguishing feature of the Encarta enterprise is that it compiles words, cross-referencing them with their equivalents in many English tongues, or varietiesÑor more appropriately new ‘Englishes’Ñe.g.. Underpants: pants (Britain); underdaks (Australia); Police: bobby (Britain), garda (Ireland), Mountie (Canada), police wallah (South Asia); Porch: stoep (South Africa), gallery (Caribbean); Bathroom: loo (Britain) dunny (Australia), lav (Britain, South Africa); Bar: pub (Britain), hotel (Australia), braai (South Africa); Eggplant: aubergine (Britain), bhaigan Caribbean); Pickup Truck: utility vehicle (New Zealand), ute (Australia), bakkie (South Africa); Ghost or Monster: duppy (Caribbean), wendigo (Canada), taniwha (New Zealand) etc. Well, this is “a snapshot of the language today.”The divergent varieties of English increasingly adding to the gallimaufry of the language make the Encarta lexicon a veritable glossolalia glossary. Encouraged by its success, the OED is putting together a similar mongrel artifact on its 120-year history. The OED wants to know for its Online version slated for March 2000: Have you met any “fashionistas” (“critics of the latest fashion trends:) or “sheddies” (“people who pursue their hobbies in sheds”) or gone to a party that was complete “pants” (“rubbish”)? The updating is prodded by the staggering transformation of English during the recent years. Towards the end of the 16th century, the number of native speakers of English was thought to have been between five and seven million, almost all of them living within the British Isles.
Between the end of reign of Elizabeth I in 1603 and the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth II in 1652, this figure grew to around 250 million with about four-fifths of the speakers living outside the British Isles. At the threshold of the new millennium about 1500 million people are supposed to be routinely exposed to English. Research into language use estimates that by the year 2050, 4.2 billion people, or over half the world’s 7.6 billion people will speak or write English. The largest English speaking nation, the USA, turns out to have only about 20 percent of the World English speakers, whereas over 350 million Indians have some spoken competence in the language. That means India now has an English speaking community equal to the population of the USA, UK and Canada. In China, over 200 million students are enrolled in programs in English as a foreign language. As a pragmatic medium, the language has entailed progressively compelling recourse to it by influential sections of the global community. Since the language is being exposed to untold multilingual perspectives, its users are resonating differently to its nuances and new realms of experience are being configured by writers ranging across varieties outside of the dominant standard. In this rapidly changing situation, the validity of teaching the native speaker model alone has become problematic.
The ELT professionals of Asia countries, who have an overwhelming demographic profile in the use of English including L1 (First language) varieties spoken in Australia and New Zealand, should appreciate this challenge and fashion strategies in terms of the content of teaching materials, language tests, in terms of sampling of data for grammatical description and practically go the whole hog from language production to channels of authentication to canon formation. Resources in the field are available in considerable work is in progress in Asia as well as in some Western universities. B. B. Kachru’s The Other tongue: English across cultures, World Englishes 2000 by Michaal Foreman and Larry E. Smith (eds.), the “World “English in Asia” project of the Macquarie Publishing House of Australia and the proposed degree curriculum on World Englishes at Leeds University in England will go a long way in making the performance varieties of English pedagogically viable. The moot point is what we should go by: genetic nativeness or functional nativeness?
The occidental owners of English set great stores by genetic nativeness and seek to continue their ideological dominance through institutional underpinnings of British Council, Cultural Relations Division of the USA and the ELT empire. Roger Bowers, one of the senior officers of the British Council, admits that the Council has “a vested interest in maintaining the roles of English as a language, and British ELT as a trade and a profession.” There is a consensus in the country on the issue of promoting English world-wide, interwoven with the exports of pedagogical theories as well as commercial and philosophical ideologies: “Britain’s real black gold is not North Sea oil but the English language. It has long been at the root of our culture and now is fast becoming the global language of business and information. The challenge facing us is to exploit it to the full.” (“Selling English by the pound”, Times, October, 24, 1989, p. 14) These assumptions deny a dimension of cultural relativity into the discussion of teaching methodology.
On the other hand, like Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the former colonies now “know how to curse”, or talk backÑin fact, not to put too fine a point on it, they are the legitimate door keepers of the functional domains of English in their context. It is time they got off the albatross of external paradigms of authority in the control of pedagogy and curriculum as well as innovations, creativity and linguistic experimentation. As Alan Reeves insists, the relationship between culture, strategy, and learning should be realigned within an acculturation model of second language acquisition.
The Encarta Dictionary and the ongoing OED project do entail a fresh focus on the use of EnglishÑor, shall I say ‘Englishes’Ñin the new millennium. It has a reassuring implication that the dissemination of the nativised varieties of the language will neutralize unhappy colonial associations surrounding English in an increasingly post-colonial situation and besides it will protect language ecology and multilingual legacy.