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The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches from the Future of English Hardcover – 5 Jun 2008


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Product details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: William Heinemann Ltd (5 Jun. 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0434013900
  • ISBN-13: 978-0434013906
  • Product Dimensions: 14.3 x 2.3 x 22.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,974,163 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

"[A] fascinating account of developing English." (The Times)

"In The Prodigal Tongue, Mark Abley investigates the deep flux in contemporary English... Attuned to pop culture as well as to scholarship...it stylishly covers a large amount of ground, from Lee Kuan Yew to YouTube, via Spike Lee and Ice Cube... Joyous - a paean to the dynamic energies of English." (Telegraph)

"The Prodigal Tongue takes the reader on an informative and frequently entertaining journey." (Edmonton Journal)

"[A] witty and well-documented treatise on the ways -- some of them alarming -- in which the English language is changing" (Winnipeg Free Press)

"As a poet, journalist, editor, intrepid traveller, scholar and endlessly curious spirit, Abley brings an appropriately eclectic perspective to the subject. ... Writing as an inquisitive, bemused Everyman, Abley leads us on a lively intellectual journey through uncharted territory, his comfort in the zone of ambiguity making him the ideal travel guide" (The Gazette) --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Book Description

From Ice Cube to You Tube via 'Singlish' and Bouncebackability - Mark Abley travels the globe to report on the dynamic new forces shaping the future of the English language --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Thomas Cunliffe TOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 5 Jun. 2008
Format: Hardcover
In The Prodigal Tongue, Mark Abley has provided us with a tour of the state of the English language in Britain and around the world. His main conclusion seems to be that although "English" is the new Esperanto, a world language spoken by people on every continent, its not so much standard English that predominates so much as "Englishes". These are widely varying tongues, with a core of what we know as English, but much adapted to local circumstances, infiltrated by words from many other languages, and not even retaining the original meanings of a large number of words. Speakers of Western English may be very surprised to find how little they understand when they converse with an "English speaker" in say Japan, Malaya or the Philippines.

Abley points out that English is immensely adaptable. It continually absorbs new words, transmutes the meaning of existing words and moreover, other countries use it to fill the gaps in their own languages. The Finnish do not have a word for "please" but now use ours, and have dropped their own word (anteeksi) in favour of "sorry". Slovakian teenager boys address their girl-friends as beib (babe) or hany (honey). The Austrian magazine "News" headlines "Das Grosse Interview" and Austrian cellphones offer "Downloaden". Numerous similar examples are quoted and it is difficult to see how any language purist of another tongue can suggest any way in which this "Englishisation" can be stopped. We are going to find English all over the world, particularly in the worlds of business, entertainment or technology.

We now we find new forms of English, sometimes systematised, sometimes completely informal.
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By Hande Z TOP 1000 REVIEWER on 25 Nov. 2010
Format: Paperback
Mark Abley reports on the transformation and use of English, but by the time the reader reaches the end of the book he will be left wondering what English is. he will most certainly, doubt whether there is such a thing as "Standard English" anymore. Right in the first chapter he introduces us to a group of young school children who uses words that they know and the adults don't - and most of those words are not in any dictionary. That sets the tone for the rest of the book. 30 to 40 years ago guardians of "Standard English" and "BBC English" were a strong, stern army protecting the language of the Empire. They are now dispersed and fighting a losing battle against Japlish, Singlish, Manglish and even English itself. He quotes a British teacher in Singapore, "We spend most of our time trying to teach standard British grammar to people who never use standard British grammar outside the classroom."

With the connection of the internet, Mogolians are chatting with Jamaicans and Japanese in English - or what appears to be English. The continued spread and transformation in the use of English indicates that eventually, "English" may just be a synonym for "Earthlish" and the last English grammarian with have found peace in the grave. "The Prodigal Tongue" is a well-researched, well-written, but depressing book to those who think that they can convert the world to speaking good English. It does not seem like the world is receptive to their efforts. The point left to be pondered (Abley is neutral) is, is that a bad thing? The language is spoken by and for the generation that uses it. I must confess that nostalgia for "BBC English" drives me to tears; partly because even the BBC does not speak BBC English anymore.
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Format: Paperback
I seem to have reviewed this while covering John McWhorter's The Power of Babel (nifty title, lesser work). Don't be put off by its faintly jokey appearance and subtitle or its Canadian provenance - heaven forbid! This is a solid and remarkably wide-ranging volume, rich and closely argued, anecdotic yet scholarly, serious yet (dread word) entertaining, from which you will take away much. From near the end, a parable and a couple of quotes:

I knew a man who, after his retirement, spent most of his waking hours watching CNN. Perpetually thirsty for information, he lived his last years in a state of constant anxiety.

'With a word such as 'development' one can ruin an entire nation.'

'[L]anguage is the soul's ozone layer.' A suitable text for a present-day sampler, I feel. Sven Birkerts said it - almost twenty years ago
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
It started fine but gradually got lost in street language and tiny idiosyncratic points., I struggled to keep interested (the first one on this subject in my library of titles that has ever done so for me). I am pleased I bought it as at least it does give an opinion, and it is opinions on the Future of English which cannot be proven, at least until it happens...
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 4 reviews
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
The Explosion of English 4 July 2008
By Jon Hunt - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
One might say that the English language is like a weed...it roots itself and takes over. "The Prodigal Tongue", Mark Abley's terrific new book, investigates where English stands today, through a multi-cultured and societal approach. It's a revealing portrait.

Abley looks at the spread of English around the globe...Singapore, Japan, etc., and includes the Americas where black and Latino influences loom large. It's not so much language diversity that the author seems intrigued by, but the fractured nature of it. He mentions a fact that often Quebec films have French subtitles (Swiss audiences have long had German subtitles, too) which might suggest that not long in the future this may be a standard feature in America, given the changing nature of English in our own backyard.

Perhaps the most dynamic section of "The Prodigal Tongue" has to do with cybertalk. There is certainly a generational split as the typed word has taken on its own meaning, far from the understanding of most of us, who happen to be around the author's age, as am I. This is a highly recommended book, especially for Abley's breadth of inquiry and suppositions of how new words and phrases will continue to propagate.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Not a sex book 7 Nov. 2010
By Hande Z - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Mark Abley reports on the transformation and use of English, but by the time the reader reaches the end of the book he will be left wondering what English is. he will most certainly, doubt whether there is such a thing as "Standard English" anymore. Right in the first chapter he introduces us to a group of young school children who uses words that they know and the adults don't - and most of those words are not in any dictionary. That sets the tone for the rest of the book. 30 to 40 years ago guardians of "Standard English" and "BBC English" were a strong, stern army protecting the language of the Empire. They are now dispersed and fighting a losing battle against Japlish, Singlish, Manglish and even English itself. He quotes a British teacher in Singapore, "We spend most of our time trying to teach standard British grammar to people who never use standard British grammar outside the classroom."

With the connection of the internet, Mongolians are chatting with Jamaicans and Japanese in English - or what appears to be English. The continued spread and transformation in the use of English indicates that eventually, "English" may just be a synonym for "Earthlish" and the last English grammarian with have found peace in the grave. "The Prodigal Tongue" is a well-researched, well-written, but depressing book to those who think that they can convert the world to speaking good English. It does not seem like the world is receptive to their efforts. The point left to be pondered (Abley is neutral) is, is that a bad thing? The language is spoken by and for the generation that uses it. I must confess that nostalgia for "BBC English" drives me to tears; partly because even the BBC does not speak BBC English anymore.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
but after 80 pages I find it so annoying that I don't know if I'll finish it 13 Nov. 2014
By logic fan - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This book has some interesting material, but after 80 pages I find it so annoying that I don't know if I'll finish it.

The most significant failure of this book is that the author throws out a word or expression, but then does not define it. Yes, I've tried googling, but with no luck. If you are going to dangle a word in front of the reader, have the decency to define it. I'm not interested in reading random lists of undefined words. One example among mane is on p. 66: "In Singapore, 'blur,' 'extra,' 'fetch,' 'send,' and many other common words don't mean what you'd expect." Well, WHAT DO THEY MEAN???

Second, I don't care what he ate or where he ate it. My only interest in these topics is if they are directly related to the topic of the book. So if he is going to discuss the names of various foods, fine. Otherwise I don't care if he "sipped an iced mocha in the library's elegant cafe." It just sounds pretentious. It also seems like padding to make the book longer. (If he wanted to make it longer, he should have done the research and/or put in the effort to define all those random words.)

Third, I don't care who he met unless it's relevant. On p. 63 he talks about an obese lawyer who kept him waiting, blah, blah, blah. Is he using this book to hurl insults at people who have offended him? I don't need to read about that, either.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
How English is Changing Itself and Other Languages 23 Mar. 2012
By Loves the View - Published on Amazon.com
Author Abley, a noted authority on dying languages, tackles the thriving English language. He dubs it a "Prodigal Language" and explains why. The subtitle suggests that there will be a lot on the future of English, but the total of that may equal 20 (or fewer) pages. As the subtitle states, the narrative is a series of dispatches.

The book shows how English has planted itself all over the globe. As it speeds towards becoming the global language, it continues to change in unpredictable ways. It is also changing other languages. Abely talks about attempts to codify, regulate and proscribe languages, concluding that since languages spring from the people who use them, codification will never be current and usage requirements will never stop poor grammatical use or the coinage of new (and offensive) words.

Abley conveys all of this through interviews and anecdotes. For instance, an interview with Edmund Weiner, Deputy Chief of the Oxford English Dictionary defines the inability to keep up with all the new words, to sort them out by their staying power, pin down their origins and meanings. An interview with Aram Peckham, the software engineer behind the Urban Dictionary where anyone can codify and define words, shows the contrast in form and function of old and new dictionaries.

There are dispatches on specific countries, the most interesting of which, for me, was Japan. Abley explains its written (3 alphabets) and spoken evolution and how it is so far different from English. For starters, there 112 are pronounced syllables in Japanese and over 3,500 in English. In Singapore English has been so embraced that censors try to stop local ("Singlish") versions of the language by reviewing publications and TV scripts. A two tiered language system (everyday spoken and media) has resulted.

Credit is given to Black Americans who for several generations have initiated widespread changes in English, currently through the words and phrases of hip hop. Abley notes how the use of English by Latinos, by the sheer size of the population, may hint at the future of the spoken language. There is an interesting analysis of science fiction, which until George Orwell's 1984, had not considered that the future would a have significant vocabulary changes.

There were lots of anecdotes, and an overload of quoted examples of new or curious new words (not all are "translated"). The book is now 4 years old, and the globalization of English continues. There is a lot of good and thought provoking material gathered in this book. It is a survey of the state of English in 2008 and not about the future of the language.
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