Tuesday, April 21, 2009

I just want a white coffee

Ordering a coffee – simple you might think, especially in the English speaking world. But even in France, Germany, Netherlands or Romania, I can just say une cafe or eine kaffe, and if I want milk in it, une cafe au lait, eine kaffe mit milch, danke. Easy.

So, when in New York last year I went in to a Starbucks and ordered a white coffee and just got a blank stare from the barista, I was somewhat taken aback. It turned out that what I should have asked for was an Americano with milk. OK, I thought, fair enough, different country, different terminology. Plus I reckon my Southeast England accent was also hard for a native Manhattanite to understand. No worries there then.

But today, when at London City Airport I asked for a white coffee and got a blank stare I knew the goal posts really had shifted. Granted, the guy serving me had a mild Dutch accent, but this was on my native turf! Surely he could understand what a 'white coffee' was?

Then it hit me. I was coming up against Globeish – a hybrid, commercial/business/tech dialect of English spoken around the globe. Shaped by global brands, global business schools, and global information technology, this is the dialect of choice for non-native English speakers and the emerging generation as they circumnavigate the globe (physically or virtually). But it is a different English to the arcane, southeast England dialect I know, where a white coffee is just coffee with milk. It is light years from the broad 'Estuary English' spoken by the kids in my neighbourhood (who neither know nor care about coffee), or to the mannered, professional English of the southeast's middle classes. This is an English where black coffee is an 'Americano' and white coffee a 'flat white', where we 'unpack' rather than explain, and 'google' rather than look up. It is the language of the inhabitants of Cyberia, a country I and my generation can only visit, but of which my children are fast becoming natives. Suddenly, I am old and on the outside.

As I travel the world, my once proud mastery of my mother tongue is called in to question – the English of students and business people, geeks and cybernauts of all cultures is increasingly not my English. I am the outsider, the semi literate who speaks the language as a foreigner, not as a native. This is a new world, linked through social networking sites, connected physically by identikit airports on the edges of urban sprawls, where the same coffee and fast food chains are to be found, identikit cloned, whether you are in Moscow, Seoul, London or Los Angeles. Maybe this is what the adjective ballardian describes; a bleak, uniform, post industrial landscape, full of dislocated and commercially dehumanised and desensitised clones who are no longer people but merely consumers? Is it in this world that Globeish has become the main means of communication?

Or is that just my take as a fearful cultural outsider looking at an undiscovered new country that the teenagers and children of today will call home, but to which I must always be at best, just a tourist? A country that has found its own language in Globeish? I think it was ever thus between the generations, divided by taste in music, fashion and use of language; only now the pace and depth of that change is accelerating and globalising. It is not a good thing, nor is it necessarily a bad thing. Ultimately it is a very human thing, and coming to terms with it is a way of coming to terms with one's own mortality. Time to hand on the baton to the new kids in town – my Generation X gives way to Generation Y, as they in turn will give way to the Millennium Kids – my children's generation. And with each new generation the language will grow and mutate, bending old words to new uses, creating new words for novel ideas and objects. Real horrorshow.

Meanwhile, I think it is time I went off and read some Shakespeare or Milton, or maybe some J G Ballard, just to reacquaint myself with my mother tongue in all its subtle, ancient glory. With a nice cup of white coffee, of course.

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