Entering content area for The Web of Language

blog posts

  • "Yes, we want" -- Who owns global English?

    associated image

    A 1.8 million euro advertising campaign for Madrid's new Spanish-English public schools is being ridiculed for its slogan "Yes, we want," which critics are calling bad English.

    English is what the chanters of "Yes, we want," want to learn, because English is the new global language. The ads, which evoke Barack Obama's "Yes, we can," have appeared on Spanish television, radio, billboards, and buses, prompting complaints that the Education Ministry should be promoting its bilingual public elementary and high schools in correct English if it wants pupils to pick them.

    After all, one professional translator sniffed, "any of the students in these schools would be suspended if they repeated this slogan on a test." But a representative of the Ministry of Education insisted  that "Yes, we want," is not a test item, it's a "creative publicity slogan, one of the best in recent years."

    Is the slogan really bad English, or is it simply new English? Now that English is a global language, it's taking on a life of its own in non-English-speaking countries, and the question of correctness is taking on a new spin. There are plenty of websites chronicling the depredations of "Engrish," Asian signs and product labels translated into inadvertently funny English.

    Unbelievable this is not butter -- product label

    One of many examples from engrish.com

    The proliferation of non-idiomatic English in international settings is hardly new, and it's not confined to East Asia or to former British colonies. Thirty years ago, in a small French city, my daughter's sixth-grade English teacher marked phone number wrong on a test. The correct idiom, Mme la prof told me when I complained, was "number phone," a translation of the French idiom numéro de téléphone. Phone number might be "O.K." in American English, she conceded, but only British English was acceptable in her class. She had been to England, and she had it on good authority that the Queen said "number phone." She didn't change the grade.

    While much of the world has joined Spain in chanting, "What do we want? English! When do we want it? Now!" or words to that effect, some governments are trying to stop global English before it undermines their own national language.

    Recently a Slovak television station came under fire for three untranslated English sentences uttered on a talk show. A guest, British musician Andy Hillard, a Bratislava resident fairly fluent in Slovak, had trouble understanding a question in Slovak, so the host translated it into English. Hillard automatically answered in English, violating the new official language law requiring that only Slovak be used in public. Someone complained, and the government quickly launched an investigation which could result in a $7,300 fine for "misusing the language." While English is taught in almost every Slovak school, the government doesn't want English on the air.

    In another move to combat the spread of English, the Chinese government has ordered its television stations to stop using English abbreviations, including GDP (gross domestic product), CPI (consumer price index), and NBA (National Basketball Association). Supporters of the English ban see it protecting the purity of Chinese, while opponents of the restriction point out that Chinese was never a pure language: up to 30,000 ancient Chinese words, like shijie, 'world,' and zhendi, 'truth,' come from Sanskrit and Pali, while more recent borrowings include gongchandang, 'communist,' which comes from Japanese. Not to mention that, as in Spain, Slovakia, and France, English is the most widely studied foreign language in China.

    What's also curious, considering the global status of English, is that some English speakers actually fear that their language is threatened by other languages. Just as Slovakia and France declared their languages official in order to protect them from English, and from the languages of indigenous minorities and immigrants, anglophones think that making English official will protect it, though it's not clear what protection the global language needs.

    In some cases the protectionists go even further, campaigning to get rid of borrowed words in English. So Oliver Kamm complained when the London Times TV critic, reviewing the new actor playing Dr. Who, wrote, "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même Doctor Who." Kamm, a Times leader writer, believes that to be correct, the reviewer should have written "le même Dr. Who," since Dr. Who is a male character. But Kamm would prefer no French at all, or any other foreign language, for that matter, since in his view, readers of the Times, who don't attend bilingual schools and aren't very good at languages, won't understand foreignisms unless they're translated (The Times, Mar. 27, 2010, p. 107; leader writer is British for op-ed columnist).

    No matter how much we object to "mistakes" in other people's language, there doesn't seem to be much we can do about it. Plus English speakers, who can't effectively control the English of fellow anglophones, are actually in a much weaker position when trying to control the English of foreigners. And objecting to the English of advertising seems hopeless. To anglophones, "Yes, we want" may seem funny, and Spanish authorities may even find it embarrassing, but whatever happens to the slogan, its very existence is one more sign that English, now that it's global, is no longer the exclusive property of English-speaking nations.

    The ancient Romans may have felt a similar loss of linguistic control as their empire slipped away and Latin started its long segue into Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Romanian, Catalan, and the other romance tongues. For now it doesn't look like English is breaking up the way Latin did. But it could. As the Queen might put it, it's early days yet. And that's British for "it's too soon to tell."

    UPDATE: FWIW, additional campaign placards like the Madrid subway poster reproduced below show more clearly that "Yes, we want" is actually part of a bilingual sentence: "Yes, we want estudiar el próximo curso...." That new information hasn't calmed the anglophones objecting to what they still regard as irregular English, or the Spanish-speakers who think it's Spanglish, and it has prompted further complaints from purists who object to language mixing. What the campaign does demonstrate is the popularity of English in schools, and the well-known tendency of advertisers to stretch language in order to attract attention to their message.

    Image of a subway placard showing

    Madrid subway placard showing the text of the beleaguered ad in more detail

hsknotes@gmail.com Apr 22, 2010 3:50 am
gongchandang means the) Communist Party, not Communist.
debaron@illinois.edu Apr 22, 2010 6:22 pm
I'm adding this comment at the request of Salikoko Mufwene University of Chicago s-mufwene@uchicago.edu The current reaction to the Yes, we want slogan reveals something important about how norms evolve in languages, viz., that speakers produce countless of deviations from the current norms (call them innovations if you want) but very few of them are adopted by other speakers to become new norms. This particular deviation from the Spaniard promoters of English just fell on the wrong side of the competition, at the cost of ridicule at the very least. The reaction is also informative about who is empowered to determine what is acceptable or not acceptable in a particular language. In this respect, it becomes relevant to bring up the distinction that Braj Kachru (at UIUC) has articulated between 1) the Inner Circle of English speakers (roughly native speakers in the UK, North America, Australia, New Zealand), 2) the Outer Circle (corresponding roughly to speakers in former British exploitation colonies), and 3) the Expanding Circle (which includes any other territory where English has been adopted as a convenient lingua franca). It is unfortunately not always clear where speakers of acrolectal English in the Caribbean and users of English in continental Europe fit in this typology for ideological reasons that I need not get into here. In any case, divergences from the Outer Circle are tolerated by speakers of the Inner Circle (though not necessarily by all them), but deviations by speakers of the Expanding Circle are certainly discouraged. By Kachrus typology, Spain belongs in the Expanding Circle, and it has no business promoting English in a discourse that violates the current norm. Yes, the buyer is not always king or queen, and in the present case the seller/provider dictates the proper usage. Its another question whether English is not breaking up in the way that Latin did or has. Lets start with English creoles and pidgins, although these have been disfranchised as separate languages and therefore banned from the franchise of English dialects. They remind us of the time in the Roman Empire when, according to the late Edgar Polom, the Latin of the provinces was often derided by the Romans. However, we can also observe the divergence process in the indigenized varieties spoken in the Outer Circle, regardless of whether or not they are accepted as new national or regional dialects in the same way that new North American and Australian Englishes (among others) are. I personally consider all English varieties spoken outside England as indigenized, in the sense that they reflect adaptations to the new ecologies where English has been adopted as a vernacular or lingua franca just like Latin speciated through indigenization in various ecologies and its offspring have likewise diversified in other new ecologies. Should we really entertain the dream of a global English simply because English has become a global language? Would this be natural evolution? History shows that in the case of languages geographic expansion amounts to diversification of the ecologies of language practice and thereby to its speciation. I bet you a glass of Belgian beer that the fate of English is doomed to be like that of Latin. ------ Reply from Dennis: @Sali: Let's not wait that long to have the beer!
dmitchel@indiana.edu Apr 27, 2010 3:21 pm
I'm not quite clear as to what the critics of "Yes We Want" think would be correct English. "Yes We Want To"? But we're not supposed to end a sentence with a preposition, are we? Maybe it should just be changed wholesale to something like "Please Sir, May I Have a Little More?"

additional blog information