The End of English as the Lingua Franca

by Translation Guy on December 17, 2010
14 comments

English is certainly at the top of the language heap these days. English dominates the globe. As an old Asia hand, I am constantly Euro-embarrassing myself when calling across the pond, since I have the habit of beginning a lot of telephone conversations with “May I speak English?” when a receptionist answers in one of the many languages I do not speak. “May I speak English?” must translate to a Swedish receptionist as “Are you perfectly ignorant?” based on the amused responses I get.

The dominance of English in global discourse continues to grow, and with about a billion students of this latest lingua franca hitting the books as we type (in English, mind you), there is no end in sight.

Well, not if you are linguist Nicholas Ostler, who speculates in his latest book, The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel, that English is on its way out. In typical TranslationGuy fashion, this is a review of a book I haven’t read yet, so I rely on Graeme Wood’s engaging review in the WSJ.

” Ostler argues that English. . . will sputter out relatively soon.  Among the factors dooming it is the lack of any institution to demand its survival—no priestly use, as Latin or Sanskrit had, or government that requires its subjects to keep their linguistic skills up to enjoy full citizenship. As English loses cachet, it will become optional, and ultimately its reign will be one of the shortest in the history of lingua francas.”

The roll out of English as language number one occurred in just decades rather than the centuries required by other languages. Where Latin was spread at the route-march speed of the legions, English commercial dominance started its advance at telegraph speeds, and now spreads by leaps and bounds at baud rates unfathomable to both Ancient Romans and modern texters.

But Ostler argues that the same technological advances that have abetted the spread of English are also the seeds of its eventual downfall.

Thanks to the quality and ubiquity of machine translation on the web, it’s no longer necessary to speak English to use it. Type in your preferred language and the recipient can generally read it in their preferred language. With such easy access to English-language markets and audiences, it helps to level the playing field for speakers of other less commonly spoken languages once trapped behind the firewall of expensive and time-consuming manual translation, much as it pains me to admit it.

“Latin was still considered a necessary language for serious discourse 2,000 years after its first flowering. Before that, Greek had served the same role for several centuries, spanning a vast distance from Spain to the Hindu Kush. According to the Roman historian Suetonius, Julius Caesar, at the moment of Brutus’ betrayal, cried out not ‘Et tu?’ but the Greek ‘Kai su?’

“The modern Greek language, of course, is now relegated to a single bankrupt state in the Mediterranean, and Phoenician is not only dead, but in its details almost lost to history. It is difficult not to get an Ozymandian feeling when Mr. Ostler invites us consider the fate of these and other languages, from Akkadian to Sogdian, and then to contemplate the fate of English.”

Many readers of this blog will be familiar with Ostler’s other works, Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World and Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin.

14 Comments

  1. Jay March says:

    In my opinion, English will never die because it is more multicultural than any other language. For centuries it has taken words from other languages, and today`s international communication means that new words are appearing every day. In fact English contains words from more than 350 other languages! E.g. `algebra` came from Arabic, `safari` from Swahili…
    If you will try to image that English is a tasty dish, the recipe will be like this:
    -50 grammes—–Greek
    -75 grammes—–Latin
    -400 grammes—–Anglo Saxon
    -150 grammes—–Norse
    -300 grammes—–French
    -25 grammes—–other mixed languages.
    Mix all the ingredients together. Cook slowly for 1000 years.
    English is the main language in 30 countries, and there are about 375 million people who speak it is as their first language. It`s also used as an official language in over 70 other countries such as Cameroon, Tanzania, India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Fiji, and is a second language for about 350 million people. One in two Europeans can speak quite well and can have a proper conversation, and in the future even more Europeans will be able to speak it. All in all, there are about 1000 million people who can`t speak English, but they`re learning it!
    English is the top language for travel and tourism, and is used in business and science. At the moment, 80% of the world`s Internet sites are in English. Teenagers use it to write even SMS. Moreover, nowadays it`s popular to make friends with people from other countries. But to have a conversation you have to know their language.

  2. Mr. Thug says:

    There are some interesting facts about English language. I wondered, how many words are there in English. And it turned out, that there are about 300 000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary. However, there are many scientific and technical words that are not included in the dictionary (for example, there are over a million types of insect). But an educated English speaker only uses about 30 000 words.

  3. Leo Lassiter says:

    English is the second most spoken language in the world after Mandarin. Spanish is fourth after Hindi. It’s still more widely-spoken than Spanish, but China has it beaten.

  4. Wade Harris says:

    Latin is a dead language. It’s still studied (I studied it last year), but it’s not used as a proper language. The whole point of a language is for it to grow and thrive, but Latin is not spoken at all except for some idioms and phrases. Its main purpose is to be learned, not spoken. Therefore it is dead because its use does not extend to all the media in which a language should be used (spoken, written, read and heard).

  5. Sheryl Diaz says:

    There are thousands of languages that are really dying out, in fact, the majority of the worl’ds languages–and many are already gone.

  6. Kerry Huff says:

    English will never die out. It is the only language spoken/ understood across the world.

  7. Stinker says:

    I’m sure that the English language is in decline, my English is probably the best in my class, and it isn’t that good… I think that the internet and “text-typing” is to blame for the most part. But laziness is also a major role in it too.

    • Ken says:

      Lazyness could explain a lot of my problems with English, but it would probably be hard and stuff to find out fer sur, so I’m like “whatever.”

  8. English is the most studied language and known language IN THE WORLD. why, you ask? well everyone is trying to get in america. Go to any big city, your going to see MORE minorites and other races than your going to see a white person. White poeple live out in the suburbs whilst blacks in the city, but thats besides the point. I do realize spanish is growing to due the fact that our president is a p*ssy and is letting illegals come here from left and right, so now its Required that spanish is being taught in school. Anyone been to disneyland and california park?? When I was there, ALL the rides had directions in BOTH English and Spanish. But STill mexicans are trying to learn english.Lets face it, Americas the GReatest country in the world, and the only way your gonna live the American dream, is if you know english. Other wise theres a 99% fail rate. Also, I know you love the ebonics Ken, so here’s today’s ebonic word from the Louisiana Public Schools: ‘OMELETTE’ – Let’s use it in a sentence: ‘I should pop yo ass fo what you jus did, but omelette dis one slide.’

  9. ENglish will never die, latin hasnt. Latin is still being taught. It was the basis of latin that gave us French,Romansch,German,Italian,English, spanish, Ect.

  10. Is that a joke? English is probably one of the most, if not the most, useful languages in the world right now and it does not appear to be changing any time soon.

  11. In my opinion, English – is a traditional majestic language. There are a lot of secrets in it. Irrelevant side note…. to my mind, we should try to safe all British traditions and attempt not to use American slang.

  12. kyani says:

    Food is our common ground, a universal experience.

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