Monday, July 28, 2014

The Story of English

This is a fascinating documentary called The Story of English, made in 1986.  I remembered that my dad had rented it from the library in the early 90s, and so I looked for it myself online.  The first episode focuses on the global reach of the English language, while the following 6 episodes focus more on the historical evolution of the language and its different dialects. 

Ironically, the first episode, which when it was made was the most "modern" and "up-to-date" of the series, is perhaps the most outdated.  Obviously this is natural considering that Shakespeare or the Angle barbarian tribes are no more or less dead or relevant today than they were in 1986, while Moonunit Zappa is certainly less hip today than in 1986.  But beyond this, the first episode's idea of English as a universal language for global culture and commerce seems to have changed a bit since then.  The 1986 documentary shows people in ex-colonies like Nigeria and India doing business and education in English, and seeing English fluency as a status symbol.  My obviously limited experience gives me the impression that, while English is still the official language of instruction and business in many countries, and often still the most convenient medium of communication across cultures even in non-colonies, other languages are gaining in prominence as formerly poor countries rise economically and politically.  I imagine that, though most businesspeople in a place like Bangalore or Chennai know English, if you are a foreigner looking to do deals with them, you probably want to learn Telugu or Kannada or whatever they speak.  Ditto for Arabic-speaking countries, and certainly for the Latin American economic juggernaut.  At any rate, the generalizations of episode 1 vis a vis English's importance as a global language still ring true, but there are new nuances that have evolved in the past 30 years.

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