English: the amazing flexi-bendy language

Posted on January 3, 2009. Filed under: American culture, French culture, Japanese culture, language |

American English, like America itself, is always welcoming the new. It is a flexible and creative language, open to new words and new word forms.  It’s the language that brought you Frienamy (the friend who turned out to be an enemy), ginormous (giganitc and enormous) and Chindia (China and India), to mention a few. Each year, Mirriam-Webster dictionary selects a new “word of the year” to add to our ever expanding lexicon.

I was reading TIME magazine end of year List Issue (Americans love lists, but that’s another posting), which of course, always includes the top 10 buzzwords of the year. I knew most (like “staycation” and “puma”) and had to look up a few (apparently “nuke the fridge”  is the new “jump the shark”).  

Playing with language is fun for Americans. Not so for other cultures. The French, for example, take their language extremely seriously. The Académie Française, founded in 1635, is the guardian of the language. They will not let you just bring any old word into the French language. Changes in usage, vocabulary or grammar have to be discussed, debated and approved.

The Japanese are also wary of foreign or new words. The Japanese have 3 wrting systems: Kanji,  Hiragana  and Katakana. Katakana is used for  words adopted from foreign languages. The Japanese will use these words, but they are clearly marked as foreign because they are written in katakana.

English not only creates new words and word forms, but happily blends languages as well. Anyone who lives in New York City is fairly familiar with Spanglish.  Everyone is welcome to create blends that reflects their cultures and languages, like when I tell my (Jewish/Dominican) daughter “Ay! Que shaina punim tu tienes! ”   

As I have said and will say again (and again), language and culture can’t be separated. American English is like America: open, creative, often valuing the new over the traditional. The French view foreign and new words as questionable: Do they meet our cultural standards? And, with the Japanese, you can join the language but you will always be marked (through katakana) as an outsider.

Some linguistic conservatives, it’s true, don’t like all this blending, creating and mixing.  I love it.

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