Fissiparous English


Fissiparous is a wonderful word, best summed up in W. B. Yeats’ The Second Coming: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;  Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

We like to think that English is enlarging into an intelligible whole, that we can speak of people in Singapore or Sedona or Sudan without any loss of understanding.

In fact, English is in a constant state where a local identity is chosen again and again.

One thing that holds us together is the curious fact that the majority use English in addition to their mother tongue and so has a “schooled” kind of English that is more correct than the kind used by natives.

This process began in Scotland in the 18th century during the period that the highlands and islands began to use English in addition to Gaelic, and it is a widely held belief that the best English in the British Isles is spoken in Inverness, a highland city where English came late.

Sometime in the 1950s, English as a mother tongue dropped into a minority of the whole, as the traditional home to English—Ireland, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States—began to experience lower birthrates in comparison to the additional language communities like Nigeria, Kenya, India, and Malaysia.

The new decade promises more of the same. Larger and larger additional-language English; smaller and smaller numbers speaking it as the mother tongue.

Our country is more multilingual than ever, and, though people (and the media) notice Spanish and ignore the others, we are truly a polyglot country.

In the world, some half a million speak Mixtecs, a language of Mexico. These communities thrive in California and Florida where the language is passed from parents to children. In the 2000 Census, Houston had some 40 percent of households where a language other than English was used. In the 2010 census, the share is likely to be higher.

Torrance High School (in California) has support groups for children who speak Korean and Japanese at home. In “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”—filmed at the high school—there were few Asian highschoolers among the extras. But at Bloomfield Hills Andover (Michigan), high-school students have the opportunity to learn Chinese and Arabic.

Nationally, according to the Census Bureau, 19.6 percent of Americans over five years old use a language other than English at home. Of course most of them use English too—on the outside, at least. In the congressional district that is home to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, the number is just 9 percent. In our congressional district in Ann Arbor, the number is 11.2 percent. In California’s ninth district, where Berkeley is, the number is 36.3 percent.

So it’s not at all surprising that fissiparous English produces new expressions among school children: “Yalla, I’ve been waiting for you for half an hour.” (from Arabic); “Yatta, I’ve found it!” (from Japanese). And you can use these sentences even if you don’t know a language other than English.

English is not falling apart; the center has a strong centripetal force. But the edges spin out into increasing variety.


  1. Bev Willard - 1987

    What a positive viewpoint of our constantly changing and growing language! It’s pleasant to read and to think about the strentgh and flexibility of my mother tongue. Thanks for an interesting and well-written article.


  2. Kevin Hawkins - n/a

    I think Canada should be included in the list of countries part of the traditional home of English. More native English speakers there (absolutely, not proportional to the total population) than Ireland.


  3. Ann Hamilton - 1962

    I have only a grammatical question. In paragraph 4, line 2, shouldn’t “.. in the period that…” be “…the period in which…”?
    This is trivial in the context of a very interesting article. What will the 2010 census bring!


  4. Rebekah Awood - 2000

    Prof. Bailey, I love love LOVE your articles, being somewhat of a freak about words myself. I love language, and I love learning about it. As a student of two languages other than English, I can attest to the ‘schooled’ way of speaking you reference. I learned more about the parts of speech in my own language while studying others. I also learned that it’s so much easier to acquire language skills while young! Keep up the wonderful column, and thank you so much for writing it.


  5. Richard Zeile - MA, 1980

    History gives us added perspective. About 1910, sixty per cent of Detroiters spoke German in the home, and it all leached away within 100 years. The power of English to assimilate is truly remarkable, and the more diverse the linguistic population, the more likely that it will use English as its common language; one recalls meetings of the Pan-Slavic League prior to WW1 which (to the consternation of the organizers) had to be conducted in German because the Russians, Poles, Ukrainians and Serbs otherwise could not understand each other.


  6. Larry Gagnon - 1968 & 1976

    The conclusion that English is not falling apart is not supported by the article. As the author seems to hint throughout, words from other languages are being adopted and adapted for daily use within various communities (mostly by immigrants). As the peripheral metamorphoses (or spins out), the center will beomce increasingly unstable. Eventually, some “English” speaker in Ann Arbor will be unable to communicate with an “English” speaker from Berkeley. The author’s contention that “the center” is safe has no support in the article or in logic. The results of the disintegration of the English language will permeate or society and weaken its cohesiveness. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is a completely subjective judgment.


  7. Andrea Juchartz - 1985, 1990

    I enjoyed reading your article, Fissiparous English, which was posted in the February 2010 edition of Michigan Today. I smiled to see the reference to the use to the word “yalla.” It reminded me of the time my husband and I spent in the Peace Corps in 1985-1987 where we served as agricultural volunteers in a very rural post in Mauritania, West Africa. We lived with an ethnic group known as the Moors and communicated with them in their language, Hassaniya, which is an Arabic dialect. Since returning to the U.S., we have found that a number of phrases and terms we learned and used during our two years of service have earned a permanent place in our vocabulary.
    In Mauritania, the word, “yalla” was often used at the beginning of a statement or question between two parties, but instead of meaning “hurry up” as described in your article, I remember it meaning more of “Hey there…. listen up, you…” It was usually accompanied by a firm touch of a hand to the listener’s arm to ensure attention to the conversation, or, an upturned palm as it was raised quickly an few inches and twisted slightly for emphasis. It was also used often from a mother to a child who was out of line as a form of verbal warning. She would point her finger at the child and say, “Ya-llaaaaaaaaa…..” slitting her eyes as she pinned them on the child. The finger would then be jerked sharply skyward on the first syllable. It was similar to saying, “Just try me, young lady, and you’ll see where that gets you!”
    Although we don’t use “yalla” in our household, we have incorporated other terms, one of which does not seem to have a suitable and succinct substitute in the English language. My mother, my sister and some of her friends, my husband and our two daughters all know and use this particular term which is both a noun and an adjective. It sounds like this: “Mmmm- SAY’- keeen.” A person who is an “mmmm- SAY’- keeen” is someone who has met with great misfortune such as someone who has suffered an amputation, or, who was born with a physical deformity, or, who lost his/her job, or, was left by his/her partner, or whose house burned down, etc… An “mmm-say-keen” situation is one that is fraught with misfortune. For example, I might say to my husband while describing something very sad that I witnessed, ‘It was so mmm-say- keen.” This word can also be used as a term of earnestly felt sympathy that people mutter while shaking the head slowly while listening to a tale of misfortune.
    And while my husband and I are not Muslim, we sometimes find ourselves using religiously based terms we heard routinely in Mauritania throughout any given day. For example, if we are hoping that a series of events will unfold as planned, we might say: “I hope we’ll be able to pick up our tickets on time this evening at the theatre. In-sha’Allah, the line won’t be too long, and we’ll be able to find a parking spot!” “In sha’ allah” means “God willing.”
    Another religious term that gets some use in our lives is “Ahhl hum’ doo lee luh’,” which means, “God bless you/ God be with you/ Thanks be to God.” So, if we sneeze or cough or my daughter’s fever breaks, or, when I hear the garage door opener finally turn on which signals that my husband has made it home despite icy roads, I say quietly, “All hum doo lee luh.”
    And lastly, another good term that we use on occasion is “Wuh- LAH’- heee.” It has a direct English translation in meaning, voice inflection/tone, and twist to the head while saying it, and was used often by Sarah Palin during the long months leading to the last presidential election: “You betcha’.” I will close by saying how I feel about that situation using my Hassaniya terms: “It really is mmm-say-keen, but I think we will be hearing more ‘you betcha’s’ in the coming months/years. In sha allah, we won’t one day have to hear them coming from the White House.”
    Sincerely, Andrea Juchartz BA Residential College ’85, MPH MSW ’90


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