VANCOUVER – Consider this sentence: After years of living it up in the big city, Johnny and his batchmate had a hard time adjusting to life in the boondocks.
Both “batchmate” and “boondocks” are used by English-speaking people, but neither word has English origins. And only one of them — boondocks — is in the Oxford English Dictionary, the 130-year institution widely accepted as the last word on English words.
Stefan Dollinger, a lexicographer at the University of British Columbia, it is time the historic dictionary considers including both “batchmate” and “boondock” — which originated in India and the Philippines, respectively — as well as many other English words that have been created or evolved over the years in countries that use the language as a predominant form of communication.
Dollinger was one of two Canadians invited to Oxford to attend the one-day international symposium on the future of the Oxford English Dictionary, the first such meeting since the dictionary was first conceived about 155 years ago. He believes English now has the potential to become the working language of the world.
“The game changer is really that English is now spoken by more non-native speakers than it is by native speakers,” he said in an interview.
“In 2003, the ratio was about three non-native speakers to one, now it’s already five to one. So the question will simply be: Who gets to call the shots, who owns English, and what do you do with say, 250 million English speakers in India as opposed to 60 million in the UK?”
English is used in at least 75 countries in the world. Currently, the Oxford English Dictionary, which last went through a major overhaul in 2000, includes mostly British English, along with bits of American and Canadian English.
For English to become a lingua franca, Dollinger argued, the Oxford English Dictionary would not only have to include words from countries such as Canada and the U.S., or even former British colonies such as India or Pakistan, but nations such as China, Russia and other European countries as well.
Dollinger said making English a world language is less about exerting linguistic dominance and more about moving away from the language’s colonial history and making it intelligible to all those who use it.
However, he admitted his suggestion was met with lukewarm responses at best at the symposium, which was attended by 50 international experts this month. The topics of discussion ranged from how to further digitize the dictionary to what type of slang words should be included.
When discussing the direction the dictionary should take from now on, Dollinger said that aside from including all the “Englishes,” there are two other options.
The dictionary could, he said, incorporate only British English, which would mean, for example, the American definition of a campus — the outside area of a university or college or other institution — would no longer be included. The British meaning restricts the word to only buildings of a university or college and the land upon which they sit.
The dictionary may also remain as it is — mostly British but with some U.S. and Canadian English — but document more words that are used in those places, Dollinger said.
But he believes maintaining the status quo would be “a big mistake.”
“They can’t just take the legacy of what could be seen as a colonial approach to English, stick in a little Indian-English or Filipiono-English, and cut it off there,” he said.
“As the balance of speakers shift towards non-traditional territories like Asia, they wouldn’t want to be standing there and say, in 2013, we had this big symposium and we didn’t go that way.”