Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Global Pittsburghese

English is the language of globalization. However, this imposition on non-native speakers is hardly a case of cultural imperialism run amok. Global English might confuse native speakers of American or British dialects:

Not everyone is as open-minded about English, or its advance. The Web site of the Association for the Defence of the French Language displays a "museum of horrors"—a series of digital pictures of English-language signs on Parisian streets. But others say such defensiveness misses the point. "This is not about English swamping and eroding local identities," says David Graddol, author of the British Council report. "It's about creating new identities—and about making everyone bilingual."

Indeed, English has become the common linguistic denominator. Whether you're a Korean executive on business in Shanghai, a German Eurocrat hammering out laws in Brussels or a Brazilian biochemist at a conference in Sweden, you're probably speaking English. And as the world adopts an international brand of English, it's native speakers who have the most to lose. Cambridge dons who insist on speaking the Queen's English could be met with giggles—or blank stares. British or American business execs who jabber on in their own idiomatic patois, without understanding how English is used by non-natives, might lose out on deals.

The criticisms of the cultural advance of globalization are almost always overstated, verging on hyperbole. What is emerging is a culture that most Americans would find foreign. The rest of the world might see a great deal of irony in the American fear of globalization.

In the same vein, I've often wondered if Parochial Pittsburgh shares this irrational fear of the rest of the world. In global terms, Pittsburgh is surprisingly disconnected. In regards to the service economy, Pittsburgh has a decidedly domestic orientation. As a result, Pittsburgh risks being as quaint (and as increasingly irrelevant) as a Cambridge don.

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