Language is a lens through which we see and understand the world, a pair of “magic glasses,” in Leslie Dunton-Downer’s metaphor, that shapes our reality. And as her compelling new book, The English Is Coming!, demonstrates, the reality of the 21st century is increasingly shaped by the use of “Global English” as a lingua franca in business and science. While this might sound like linguistic imperialism—the English language dominating and edging out local languages—Dunton-Downer makes a thoroughly convincing case to the contrary. In her argument, Global English is “a language made up of many languages,” a truly international phenomenon; for example, there are more people in China who speak some English than there are English-speakers in all of America.
Dunton-Downer is persuasive and, better yet, entertaining. She’s an affable and learned guide to the history and future of Global English. Much of her book is an exploration of the etymologies of more than 30 words recognizable the world over:robot, bikini, shampoo and O.K., among others. Shampoo, for instance, evolved in English from the Hindi word ch?mpo, meaning to knead or press; it traveled from India to Britain, along with the silk, tea and opium imported by the British East India company, and eventually became associated with restorative massage treatments. It now exists in similar form in languages as diverse as Japanese, Russian and Greek.
The fascinating stories Dunton-Downer tells show how language is thoroughly embedded in culture and history. One of the most intriguing stories concerns PIE, or “Proto-Indo-European,” a lost ancestor language that gave birth to the family tree of Indo-European languages familiar to us from the endpapers of our dictionaries. Like archeologists sifting through a ruined city, linguists seek out signs of PIE in words as modern as blog (the web inweblog—which was quickly shortened toblog—emerges from the primal root formwebh, which means both “to weave” and “to move quickly”). As the World Wide Web weaves instantaneous connections across the globe, so too does Dunton-Downer’s explanation link our ancient past and our technological future. Her skillful, humorous and thoroughly absorbing book shows us that the English language has always been polyglot, and it continues to evolve into a mirror for our global community.