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Ali Mazrui:English language rivals: From Latin to the Internet

Discussion in 'Jukwaa la Elimu (Education Forum)' started by ByaseL, Jul 27, 2009.

  1. B

    ByaseL JF-Expert Member

    Jul 27, 2009
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    Prof. Ali A. Mazrui

    It is not often realised that even in the British House of Lords the English language has historically had its rivals. The House of Lords emerged as a distinct element of the British Parliament in the 13th and 14th centuries.
    In those early days the rival to the English language in the House of Lords was Latin. Citations from Latin within the House of Lords lasted for centuries. Long citations in the French language also lasted from the latter days of the Norman Conquest to the eve of the French revolution of 1789.

    Within the House of Lords across the centuries rivals to the English language have ranged from Latin in the medieval times to the language of the Internet in the 21st century.

    In what sense is the language of the Internet a rival or even a threat to the English language? After all, English has been having a disproportionate role in the culture of the Internet. English is clearly the favoured language of the majority of Internet users and the dominant language in the e-mail revolution.

    And yet in ominously subtle ways, the Internet may be a threat to the quality of the English language. Is the language that Shakespeare ‘spake’ on a collision course with the language that the Internet ‘coughed’ out?
    By the yardstick of formality and courtesy there are now two extremes of the English language.

    On one side is the language of the Internet: brisk, hurried, and inclined to take short-cuts. On the other side, there is the continuing formality of the language of the House of Lords rather than Shakespeare: ornate, highly courteous, and extremely sensitive to the rules of polite discourse.
    On the Internet side, I have repeatedly been addressed as “Hello Ali” by total strangers. Indeed I once received an e-mail from the United Arab Emirates (normally a highly courteous part of the world) in which I was addressed by a total professional stranger (female) as “Dear Ali”. When in my reply I asked her if we knew each other, she said “No” but she attributed the style as appropriate for e-mail between professionals.

    In contrast, let me presume to use the example of the language of Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne as cited by Hansard in the House of Lords in 2000. In everyday attitude the Baroness is a charming and informal person I am privileged to know. But within the vigorous courtesies of the House of Lords, this is how she once opened one of her interventions:

    My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment No. 15 to which I have added my name. I also support all that has been said by my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones and the noble Earl, Lord Howe. Furthermore, I concur fully with the words of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding.
    Can such politeness and courtesy be further away from the Internet presumptions of “Dear Ali” between total strangers?

    Somewhere between the high courtesies of the House of Lords and the brutal informalities of the Internet there lie the styles of the serious printed media: newspapers, journals and magazines. Even the same people may undergo a change if, this week, they debate in the printed media and tomorrow they debate on the Internet.

    It happened to Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian literary Nobel Laureate, and myself. We once debated strongly in the intellectual magazine Transition, edited from Harvard University. What Soyinka and I said about each other was very strong, but the language was elegant and beautifully controlled on both sides.

    A decade later, Wole Soyinka and I resumed the debate on the Internet. The quality of the language rapidly deteriorated. The courtesies were thrown to the wind. The Internet debate was much ruder, more abusive, and more brutal. The speed of discourse destroyed control and elegance.
    The conclusion to be drawn in this lamentable technological situation is that the impatient language of the Internet needs to be moderated by the linguistic manners of the House of Lords.

    The two may be extremes -- the Lords too linguistically ornate, the Internet too linguistically impatient. But on balance it is the language of the Internet which needs to be moderated by the courtesies of their Lordships.

    Prof. Mazrui teaches political science and African studies at State University New York
  2. K

    Kekuye Senior Member

    Jul 27, 2009
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    Such an interesting article. Traditionally the use of language has been determined by context and the relationship between the users; internet language is highly dictated by time. This makes "the courtesies of the House of Lords" impractical.