The Command of English

The language may be the world’s ruling lingua franca, but it is up against an evolutionary process that could take things in different directions. Will it survive the long haul?

By Ehtesham Shahid

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Published: Sat 11 Dec 2021, 9:18 PM

Last updated: Sat 11 Dec 2021, 9:42 PM

“Lumpers” and “splitters” are not the latest slangs masquerading on social media. They are two categories of linguists who either “lump” many languages into large stocks or “split” them into numerous smaller language family groups. They disagree over what constitutes a language family that has evolved over centuries, and what criteria and methods can be applied to classify them.

The nature of this predominantly academic debate suggests that if disagreements persist over the history of languages, there is unlikely to be any consensus over its future. Various theories define the progress languages have made worldwide over the centuries. One school of thought believes that the expansion happened side-by-side with the spread of agriculture and the population migration it entailed.

The opposing view suggests the agriculturalists’ language spread by diffusion without significant population movements. There are numerous examples on either side of the aisle. Bloomsbury’s Survey of the World’s Languages cites an interesting instance of Austronesian, the largest universally-accepted language family in the world with over 1,200 languages. It is spoken by around 300 million speakers — from Madagascar in the west to Easter Island in the east, Taiwan in the north, and New Zealand in the south. Yet, opinion differs over the way the Austronesian family is structured, rendering the entire exercise meaningless.

Between native and the common tongue

The February 10, 1933, edition of The New York Times quoted Professor Ferdinand Brunot, the newly-elected president of the Academy of Inscriptions. Prof Brunot declared that industry and commerce needs would eventually force people to drop their native languages and adopt a common tongue. So, the impact of rapid industrialisation on the use of languages had been acknowledged at least 100 years ago.

“The universal tongue that the extension of world relationships would develop would probably be ‘a kind of language analogous to algebra’,” Prof Brunot said. That amounts to an acknowledgment that languages of different important nations had assumed an extension far beyond the sphere of their natural domain and they were becoming merged. Almost a century after Prof Brunot’s words, we seem to be well beyond the curve he suggested.

But has English eclipsed all other languages as the idiom of choice? At least that’s what former French president Nicolas Sarközy conceded, albeit jokingly, following a Wikileak expose on the frequent use of English by French diplomats. The report revealed that France’s diplomatic missives were often written in English, and the French president confessed that “the French really speak English, except in the presence of the British”.

The scenario would have been a major climbdown for Marc Fumaroli, a French historian and essayist widely respected as an advocate for French literature and culture. He maintained that “the international community of the learned” tended “to speak, write and publish mostly in French” in the 18th century.

In his book When the World Spoke French, Fumaroli says the Enlightenment’s best minds gravitated to French out of their shared reverence for both the matchless sophistication of the French art de vivre and the spirited intellectual exchanges of the Parisian salon. This, according to Fumaroli, happened irrespective of whether they hailed from Russia or Prussia, Sweden or Spain, Austria or America. “These men and women, despite their differences, were all irresistibly attracted to the ideal of human happiness inspired by the Enlightenment, whose capital was Paris and whose king was Voltaire. Their stories are testaments to the appeal of that famous ‘sweetness of life’ nourished by France and its language,” he said.

But moving away from the elite and a cursory look at the sheer numbers open up a different kind of debate. Statista 2021 data suggests that around 1.35 billion people speak English worldwide, either natively or as a second language. Closing in is Mandarin Chinese speakers with more than 1.12 billion at the time of the survey. Hindi and Spanish accounted for the third and fourth most widespread languages that year.

To be simple is great

Italian national and a Chinese and English languages expert, Claudia Iacca, concedes that the English language’s hegemony will last for a long time and maybe will never end.

“English language’s simplicity is the first reason. If we think of some other languages, for example, Italian, which is my native language, the grammar rules are complex and not so intuitive,” she says.

According to Iacca, learning Italian comes with numerous difficulties. She says it is common for students not wanting to spend a lot of time understanding difficult grammar rules and even prefer studying “easier” languages.

“English language was spread all around the world during the colonialism period. Populations that inhabited areas of different parts of the globe, originally speaking languages belonging to different family of languages, in some way were forced to learn English a long time ago,” she says.

Indeed, inhabitants of former British colonies took to English and got accustomed to it. But that’s not the case across the world. When it comes to languages, uniformity is not the norm.

English is still not so common in countries such as China despite the upward mobility associated with more universal languages. Iacca attributes this to the young generations’ desire first to study English to attain “an intermediate competency” in the language.

Iacca sees English as a “mouldable language” in a continuously changing society. “English can be more inclusive than other languages, and maybe this characteristic will enforce its hegemony in the future, being at the forefront of this huge human society change,” she emphasises.

Iacca has a Master’s degree in Modern Languages for International Communication and Cooperation and works on the project ‘In Love with Words’, besides pursuing a Master’s degree in Business Management.

Is English going the Latin way?

Doris Hambuch, an Associate Professor in the Department of Languages and Literature at the United Arab Emirates University, believes English will become less important… the same way Latin did before.

“It could well be that technology will prevent the emergence of a new global language,” says Prof Hambuch, who has written about this in a book chapter.

Prof Hambuch, who serves as president of the Canadian Comparative Literature Association, advocates for the preservation, cultivation, and development of smaller community languages. She has written essays on Caribbean literature, eco-criticism, film analyses, and trans-cultural feminism, and her current research focuses on multilingual art practices.

Her remarkable essay — A Vindication of Vernacular — examines the representation of working-class characters, subversive protests against the imposition of European languages, and a creative reflection of the region’s trans-culturation. The essay is a tribute to oral tradition and folklore as main inspirations for using vernacular in Anglophone Caribbean poetry.

Some academics are taking the bull by the horn. In his paper ‘The Future of English and Its Varieties: An Applied Linguistic Perspective’, Abdelrahman Abdalla Salih of Dhofar University, Oman, argues that English language’s rapid growth and unprecedented dominance has transformed the world’s linguistic ecology, leading to anxiety and debates about its future.

According to him, the English language’s unprecedented triumph is a linguistic phenomenon that has left far-reaching consequences and implications in various fields and activities. “There is a pressing moral obligation for rectifying the imbalanced global linguistic ecology, especially with the rise of global English,” he surmises.

Dr Salih also says that investigating the consequences of the spread and dominance of global English extends the need for examining its possible fate. “The recent emergence of globalised English and its triumph and dominance in the international arena have caught the researchers’ attention and sparked debate,” writes Dr Salih.

His paper also lists predictions concerning the future of English as an international language. “The prediction about the drop in English dominance as the Internet’s language to only a half suggests that the world will witness more multilingual web-based information.” The paper claims that such a change is anticipated to give rise to more languages to compete with English on the Internet.

Forgotten grammar

Indiana State University’s paper The Past, Present, and Future of the English Language maintains that the English language is not in danger of a downfall. The language is developing faster than in previous years. However, it highlights the criticism that English has become too lax in today’s society, with grammar being forgotten or words disappearing with reduced vocabulary. “The English language is evolving on a day-to-day basis, and one of the primary reasons is the mass usage of texting and text lingo, prompting an unknown future for English,” says the paper by EC Tuttle.

By 2030, more than 3,000 languages — one-third of the world’s languages — are predicted to get lost while education will be imparted with one language in mind more than others: English. According to the paper, English and Chinese will be learned more as they are quickly approaching language domination within the global world.

However, some counter-arguments seem more compelling, especially in a political context. An interesting read in Politico claims Brexit means relinquishing Britain’s grip on one of its most precious assets: the English language. Such progression is also bound to create amalgamations of its kind. “Fed up of kowtowing to the edicts of native speakers, some linguists want the EU to establish non-native English as an official and equally legitimate language alongside what purists would call the ‘proper’ version,” Eddy Wax and Cristina Gonzalez wrote in the magazine recently.

What rises must fall

Marko Modiano, a professor at the University of Gävle, Sweden, says English is now a mandatory subject for school goers in all EU member states, making it the undisputed lingua franca of Europe. English is spoken as a second language by nearly 40 per cent of the population. He cites examples from across Asia, in countries like China, South Korea, Japan, and Singapore, where English is growing by leaps and bounds and has now become established as the foremost language of cross-cultural communication in those parts of the world.

“We see similar developments across the Middle East. In nearly every country, young people are pursuing proficiency in the English medium, which means that in the years to come, English will have an even stronger position as the primary language of globalisation,” says Prof Modiano.

But, will this linguistic hegemony continue in the long run? Or is it too premature to make such a prediction? “The only thing we can be sure of is that, eventually, this must come to an end. All dominant languages, like civilisations, have their rise and fall, and there is no reason to assume that English will be any different in this respect,” he says.

However, Prof Modiano emphasises that with the current momentum English has amassed, it will certainly continue to dominate in many important domains: “What may occur which could alter this historic inevitability must be some monumental catastrophe, such as large-scale warfare, an extreme weather disaster which impacts the entire world, or a pandemic much greater in scope that what we are currently dealing with.”

Here comes the moot point though. “If nothing so calamitous occurs, it is difficult to see any other language overtaking English in the foreseeable future. The candidates — Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, and Russian — all have relatively few non-native speakers, something required for a language to replace English as the most utilitarian universal language,” says Prof Modiano.

However, for a language to challenge English, it would need to be important in several key domains, such as information technology, academic research, business, film, television, radio production, and music. None of the other languages of wider communication have a strong presence in these areas beyond their domestic markets. “It is for these reasons we can without hesitation claim that English will continue to maintain its position for at least the next 50 years,” he says.

“The English language, quite simply, has strengths no other language can match. Never before in human history have we had a language that so successfully operates internationally among so many people. At least for now, we can expect English to become even more important in the years to come,” Prof Modiano sums up the debate.

It is evident that the English language is showing no signs of slowing up. But because all things eventually come to an end, and it is difficult to speculate beyond the 21st century, it will continue to remain the idiom of choice.

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