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Friday, 23 March, 2001, 11:39 GMT 12:39 UK
Internet + English = Netglish
A picture may be worth a thousand words. But economists have now come up with an exact value for the English language in the internet age.
The language of Milton and Shakespeare - or more to the point the Spice Girls and Bill Gates - is now worth an estimated $7.815 billion.
Nine out of ten computers connected to the internet are located in English-speaking countries and more than 80% of all home pages on the web are written in English.
More than four fifths of all international organisations use English as either their main or one of their main operating languages.
At the moment no other language comes anywhere near English. The next biggest is German. But less than 5% of web home pages are in German.
According to Oxford University Professor Jean Aitchison - one of the speakers at a conference organised by the RSA on language and the internet taking place in London on Friday - there is nothing about the language which makes it particularly useful as a world language. Much more important is the economic and political power of the USA.
"At one time French was the language of power and prestige," she says, "and Latin was also widely admired as fixed and firm."
The rise of English, she says, is "all about the power of the people who speak it" - first as the language of the British Empire and now, in a slightly different form, of American corporations, advertising and pop culture.
It is estimated that more than half the world population will be "competent" in English by the year 2050. But it is likely that this new form of "World Speak" English will be very different to the language we understand now.
Experts already classify the use of English around the world in three ways:
Standard American-British English - also known as SABE. This is the "native" English as used in the USA, UK, Australia and the rest of the English speaking-world.
Oral and Vernacular Englishes - known as OVE. These are mixtures of English and local languages, or versions of local languages incorporating lots of English "pop" or commercial phrases. Examples including Konglish - an amalgam of Korean and American slang, Singlish and Chinglish (Singaporean English and Chinese English). According to experts there are "hundreds" of other examples, including Japlish and Denglish.
International Colloquial English, or ICE - a rapidly mutating "world" language based on English but borrowing large numbers of words from other languages as well as American "street" slang and text messaging-style abbreviations and even symbols.
Professor Eugene Eoyang of Lingnan University in Hong Kong says that ICE "has the potential" to evolve into a World Language. OVE-type languages like "Konglish", meanwhile might develop into a new set of national languages, just as English, German and French developed in the middle ages from a mixture of Latin and local languages.
Some of the most far-reaching claims about English and the internet come from David Crystal, editor of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language.
Crystal says the internet represents the biggest change in communication in the whole of human history. Changes underway, he says, "are immensely bigger" than those which followed the invention of the printing press.
The new technology, he adds, is causing a "revolution" in human communication to rank alongside the advent of human speech itself.
"So far we have been communicating in speech, writing and with sign language. But the internet is neither speech nor writing. It has aspects of both and represents a new form."
E-mail, he says, is not merely a faster way of sending letters. It is "brand new - a dialogue between two or more people happening instantly. There is no example from human history of anything like this happening before".
Crystal believes that it will affect the way in which people communicate and may eventually lead to entirely new forms of communication.
"The opportunities are immense," he says.
On-line chat, he adds, is also an "entirely new" type of communication.
"There has never been a case where a person could pay equal attention to what thirty people are saying all at the same time.
"People who use chat-rooms a lot can already conduct two or three conversations simultaneously. That is completely unprecedented."
The web itself, Crystal says, is a "new form".
"If you look at a page in a book, go away and then return to it will still be the same. A web page can change - there are all sorts of possibilities" .
English, as the leading language of the internet, is already changing with increasing speed.
Crystal estimates that the vocabulary of ICE-type "World English" is increasing at the rate of at least 5,000 new words every year.
"Change is so fast," he says, "that attempts by the Oxford English Dictionary to record and codify all the new words and ways in which they are trailing way behind. They can't keep up. Nobody could."
"The fact is that the English-speaking countries have given up ownership of English.
"There's no turning back - English is a world language now".
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