It is a matter of great dismay to the academics and cultural guardians of the world’s other great languages that English has become the global lingua franca (the term for a medieval trading language, long since appropriated by English; it’s in the dictionary).
English, boisterous, sprawling, ever changing, is the international language of commerce, transportation and entertainment. It has become almost a universal second language in lands where it is not the first.
The scholars in Great Britain who put out the definitive Oxford dictionaries announced this week that their Corpus (Latin but English now) of English words and usages had reached 1 billion entries.
Where the American people guffawed at President Clinton’s evasive, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” the Oxford etymologists would take that proposition seriously. They note, “The humble word ‘the,’ the commonest in the written language, accounts for 50 million of all the words in the corpus!” We’re glad there are people on top of this situation because, frankly, it’s more about “the” than we care to know.
The reason English is such a useful language is that it’s so flexible, constantly creating and adding new words. Among the new words formally added to the lexicon — offshoring, to eighty-six, podcast, supersize and retail politics. And blogging and the blogosphere — also added — have given the Oxford sleuths a whole new world of words to mine.
Many cultures guard a “classic” version of their language with rigid rules of grammar and pronunciation. While there is broad agreement on the general rules of English among the nations that speak it, everyone who speaks it does so with some kind of an accent and the language itself, to use a recent coinage, is open source. The English language belongs to anyone who speaks it.