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The World's Mother Tongue: As English Spreads, So Do Fears Of Cultural Imperialism
Lome, Togo

Those jumbo round ears. Those earnest wide eyes. You can't help but recognize him, peering from the side of the road. It's Earth's most famous rodent: Mickey Mouse.

In the middle of West Africa, Disney's flagship critter is putting in a trademark-violating cameo appearance on a sign for "Master Hands Car Washing." And here's the kicker: It's in plain English, right on the streets of the French-speaking capital of Togo.

American commercial icons and English words a potent combination. Together they are circling the planet, helping each other seep into every corner and troubling people in many lands who consider it nothing less than cultural imperialism.

As English becomes a global tongue, it becomes clear that language and culture cannot be separated. And everyone from the French to the Indonesians worry that where English goes, America will follow.

"The imperialism of the English language has to have a limit somewhere," Louise Beaudoin, Quebec's minister for international affairs, said last month, reacting to Air France's decision to require pilots to use English to land at their own airport in Paris. "Scandalous," she said.

Until World War II, colonialism propelled English's spread. But new cultures that transcend political boundaries changed that entertainment culture, commercial culture and Internet culture, all driven by American interests.

"So many people thought that politics was going to shake the world. And before that, it was religion. But it turns out that it's consumption that shook the world," says James Twitchell, author of "Lead Us Into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism."

"The lingua franca is advertising," he says, "and advertising is dominantly English."

For Togo, the writing's on the wall in English. A ride around Lome reveals at least two other illicit Mickey appearances (one alongside Minnie) and dozens of Coca-Cola signs. Most people in the capital speak some English; Westerners are accosted by hawkers in English. Scores of Togolese youths study it at Lome's American Cultural Center.

"To be able to speak English in Togo is regarded as a matter of pride," says Theodore Ganyon, a business teacher at a Lome school.

This sort of attitude not only spreads English, but helps it infiltrate other languages.

In Germany, "echt cool" is an expression of approval. China's word for chocolate is "qiaokeli." And in Israel, where many Hebrew plurals end in "-im," sealed-beam headlights are called "silbim."

French speakers in the Ivory Coast who want a Coke ask for "un Coca." Even in France, you'll hear "l'Internet" and "le Big Mac," much to Francophiles' chagrin.

Japanese imports English words with gleeful abandon. A stereo is a "sutereo," for example, and a task force a "tasuku forsu." Computers running Microsoft Windows feature a "sutato menyuu (start menu). And, of course, there's Pokemon, from "pocket monster."

Some call it pragmatism; to others it's pollution, proof that American and British tentacles reach everywhere. "How much English can Switzerland take?" the Swiss Review wondered last year in English.

"There are a lot of forces that have resisted English, going back to the times when conquerers and military and traders were bringing English to countries that didn't need it," says linguist Anne Soukhanov, U.S. general editor of the Encarta World English Dictionary. "It's always had a backdrop of warfare and violence and defeat and revolution associated with it."

Resistance is spreading. Many nations France, Germany and Poland among them have passed laws to protect their languages from English's onslaught as Europe unites and does more business across cultures. France has promoted its language aggressively in former colonies like Cambodia.

"Francophonie can and must be an alternative to the cultural and linguistic uniformity that threatens the world," French Culture Minister Jacques Toubon said in 1993 at a summit of French-speaking nations.

Iceland, too, is protecting its language from linguistic invasion. Icelanders don't mind English; they recognize its usefulness. But they don't want it to besiege Icelandic. The government appoints "word committees" to create new terms, when they're needed, from a database of Icelandic syllables.

"Everyone should be able to speak about computers and everything else, for that matter, in their mother tongue," says Ari Pall Kristinsson, director of the Icelandic Language Institute.

Ultimately it is a question of perspective. "What is felt by French people as American imperialism is probably felt by Americans as simply spreading the culture," says Bertrand-Romain Menciassi, a linguist at the Brussels-based European Bureau of Lesser-Used Languages.

The disputes, and the trepidations, can only increase as multinational corporations grow and the need to communicate across cultures becomes as important as cultures themselves. A new economy, sewn together in convulsive fits of progress, can expect nothing less.


Examples abound. McDonald's and KFC just off Tiananmen Square. Kodak film sold on the streets of Ulan Bator, Mongolia. Coca-Cola served at Uncle Father's Nippy Spot near Cape Coast, Ghana. The kid with the Penn State basketball T-shirt in remote Gusau, Nigeria.

All are icons of American mass culture, and all carry shards of English into other lands.


Ted Anthony, Associated Press writer, The Columbian, 04-10-2000

Copyright © 2000 The Columbian Publishing Co.. All rights reserved.