Translation and Interpreting in 150+ Languages
The End of English as the Lingua Franca
December 17, 2010 - By: - In: Language - 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.

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