The Uncertain Future of the English Language

By Edward Cornish

Parlez vous “Globish”? If English is your only language, you’re probably doing okay now. But you might not be prepared for the future, suggest the authors of Globish and The Last Lingua Franca.

Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language by Robert McCrum. W.W. Norton. 2010. 331 pages. $26.95.

The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel by Nicholas Ostler. Walker & Company. 2011. 330 pages. $28.

When a Spaniard talks with a Chinese person, what language do they speak?

Chances are good that it isn’t either Spanish or Chinese. Instead, it’s English, the language they are most likely to have in common.

The rise of English as the leading language for international communications makes a fascinating story, and Robert McCrum, associate editor of the London Observer, tells it well in Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language.

McCrum begins with the humble origins of English among the Angles, or Anglii, a people living in what is now Denmark and northern Germany during the days of the Roman Empire.

During the Dark Ages, many Anglii migrated to England, where their German dialect gradually evolved into the English language of today. Along the way, English picked up words from French, Latin, and other languages.

Living on an island, the English people became intrepid seafarers, who carried their language around the world. Today, every continent has a substantial group of English speakers, and English has gained increasing importance as a lingua franca, a language used among people who do not share the same mother tongue. Other languages, such as Greek, Latin, and French, have served this purpose in the past, but English is now the most popular choice.

The need for a lingua franca has intensified in recent years with the growth of travel and international sports, as well as the globalization of the economy. To succeed in today’s world, individuals and governments alike recognize the value of knowing how to speak and read English.

To make things easier for people whose native language is not English, Jean-Paul Nerrière, a French-speaking former IBM executive, has developed a simplified version of English that he calls Globish.

“Globish,” reports McCrum, “starts from a utilitarian vocabulary of some 1,500 words, is designed for use by non-native speakers, and is currently popularized in two handbooks: Découvrez le Globish and Parlez Globish.

Nerrière believes that Globish will not only improve global communications, but will also limit the spread of English. Many French people are horrified when English words like hot dog and jumbo jet infiltrate their beloved French language.

Globish is not the first attempt to simplify the English language. Back in 1930, the English linguist Charles K. Ogden invented what he called Basic English, which got much publicity after World War II. Basic English had an 860-word list for the beginner’s vocabulary.

Interest in Basic English later faded, but recently it influenced the creation of the Voice of America’s “Special English” for news broadcasting and “Simplified English,” designed for technical manuals.

Globish, Basic English, and other simplifications of English can help non-English speakers to acquire a working knowledge of the language, but most people will need to go beyond a stripped-down vocabulary if they want to get the full benefit of the world’s vast English-language resources. So regular users of English-language resources will want easy access to a good dictionary.

Meanwhile, totally artificial languages continue to have advocates. Esperanto, a language developed by Polish scholar L. L. Zamenhof in the nineteenth century, has a vocabulary based on a variety of European languages, so it is more “neutral” than a language based solely on English. However, the world’s intellectual resources are largely in English; relatively little is written in Esperanto or any other invented language.

Surveying the Lingua Francas

In contrast to McCrum, Nicholas Ostler, chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages, takes a less triumphalist view of the English language in his recent book, The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel.

Ostler describes the rise and fall of lingua francas through the centuries. Greek, Persian, Latin, French, and many other languages have had their day in the sun but later declined as other languages came into favor.

So it will likely be with English, Ostler suggests in his concluding chapter, “Under an English Sun, the Shadows Lengthen.” However, Ostler admits that “the current status of English is unprecedented.”

He adds that, simultaneously, English “has a preeminent global role in science, commerce, politics, finance, tourism, sport, and even screen entertainment and popular music. With no challenger comparable to it, it seems almost untouchable. Even in China, the only country with a language that has more native speakers, every school child now studies English. And India, set to overtake China in population by 2050, is already trading on an expertise in English inherited from the British Empire and studiously preserved and fostered ever since.”

So, Ostler concludes, “two polar opposites define the extremes of what is possible. International English might grow to become Worldspeak, as a single fully global lingua-franca might be called, available as a universal auxiliary (or indeed primary) language to every educated adult. Or it might retreat as other powers advance, losing its global users and status until it is confined to the lands where it is still spoken as a mother tongue. A third, intermediate, option would see English retained as a world language, but developing on a separate standard from that used by native speakers.”

Ostler offers some intriguing explanations for the rise and fall of languages. When the Romans ruled much of the world, their language became popular with people who wanted to get ahead. When Roman power declined, Latin might have been expected to decline with it. But Latin found new strength as the official language of the Roman Catholic Church, and most books were written in Latin until Johannes Gutenberg developed movable type and books began to be printed in quantity.

McCrum explains in Globish that, before Gutenberg, books were costly, handmade, and rare. But Gutenberg’s development of movable type allowed books to be published quickly and cheaply, so people of modest means could buy them, and they did, but they preferred books published in their own languages—French, German, Italian, etc.—rather than Latin, which most people had difficulty with.

During the Enlightenment, Latin got another boost when it became, for a time, the language of science and scholarship. Physicist Isaac Newton had his Principia published in Latin in 1687, and many other scientists published in Latin well into the nineteenth century. But then the tide had turned decisively against Latin, because most readers preferred to read texts in the vernacular (their mother tongues). For a time, German became popular as the favored language for scientific publishing, but the popularity of German in science declined sharply after the Nazis took control in Germany.

Both McCrum and Ostler do well in outlining the history and current situation of English and its rivals, but they fail to tackle the policy issue: Would it be desirable for the world to have a single language, and, if so, should it be English?

From an economic standpoint, a single language might seem highly desirable: Business transactions would be easier, and considerable money could be saved by not having to hire translators. On the other hand, the initial cost of training millions of non-English speakers to be fluent in English would be enormous, and there would later be the problem of finding new employment for thousands of teachers who have long made a living teaching French, Spanish, German, Chinese, and other languages.

About the Reviewer

Edward Cornish is the founding editor of THE FUTURIST.



An interesting question :)

If English is now the international language why does the British Government now employ Esperanto translators ?


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