[Paleopsych] The Tongue Who Would Be King by Dennis Baron

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Sun Jan 23 18:33:22 UTC 2005

The Tongue Who Would Be King by Dennis Baron 

    There are those who believe English could achieve what no other
    language has: global domination. But our linguistic history shows
    preeminence leads to resistance, then ruinwhich means English should
    be looking over its shoulder.

    At every stage of its history, English has been a borrowing tongue. It
    adapted the Latin of Irish monks, the Norse of Viking raiders, and the
    French of Normans bent on regime change. During the Renaissance,
    English went on a word-coining rampage and swelled its hoard with
    terms from Greek and Italian. Modern English has absorbed words from
    just about every language its speakers have encountered: Arabic,
    Hebrew, Navajo, Yiddish, Polish, Hindi, Bantu, and Japanese, to name
    but a few.

    English also affects the languages it touches, and the fact that
    English is now an exporter causes fear and resentment in some
    quarters. In the 1930s and 1940s, Germany sought to purify its
    language along with its population and banned English words. More
    recently, the French, historically one of English's biggest suppliers,
    enacted a law to protect their language from the inroads of English,
    particularly in the areas of commerce and technology, where English is
    so dominant. During World War II, Japan also tried to purify its
    tongue, but contemporary Japanese continues to absorb massive amounts
    of English without much fuss, nativizing the words it borrows,
    sometimes to the point where English speakers no longer recognize

    Japan has nego, for "negotiation"; kono, for "connection"; and
    sekuhara, for "sexual harassment." Most cars in the country have
    English model names that are easily understood, like Toyota's classic
    sedan, the Toyopet, or the Daihatsu Naked, a far-from-daring minivan.
    The car names are written in English too, even though Japanese has
    three writing systems--including one, katakana, designed especially
    for foreign words. Sing at a karaoke bar in Tokyo, and native patrons
    will swoon over English smoothly and properly pronounced. And it's not
    just Japan; around the world, more people are signing up for English
    lessons than ever before. Travel almost anywhere and you'll find
    English on signs, on T-shirts, on tips of tongues.

    Historically, however, the reception of English on the world stage has
    been mixed. If Shakespeare and the King James Bible solidified the
    power of English at home, it took the age of exploration and
    colonization to move English across the border. It was then that the
    real line was drawn: If you were a colonizer, bringing trade to the
    impoverished and civilization to the unwashed, English was the
    language of capital and enlightenment; if you were being colonized,
    English simply appeared as the language of oppression. While the first
    protests against English took the form of "Brits out," today the "ugly
    American" still inspires strident graffiti of the "Yanqui go home"

    In the eighteenth century, John Adams predicted it would be America,
    not England, that would catapult English to world-class status, but it
    wasn't until the twentieth century, after two world wars and the rise
    of American political and economic influence, that English finally
    took steps in that direction. Its success has led some to hope, and
    others to fear, that English may one day be the only language the
    world will need.

    Humans are hardwired to learn language, but we don't all learn the
    same language, and many of us learn more than one. Bilingualism is a
    fact of life for threequarters of the world. One Renaissance
    commentator, a Swede, even insisted that Eden was a polyglot paradise
    where God spoke to Adam in Swedish, Adam replied in Danish, and the
    serpent tempted Eve in French. And at least one contemporary theorist,
    French sociolinguist Louis-Jean Calvet, supports the view that humans
    are naturally bilingual animals and have been from the start.

    Still, at the turn of the twentieth century, many Americans considered
    non-English speakers to be less than human. According to a story
    recounted by the English language specialist Daniel Shanahan, a
    railroad president told a 1904 congressional hearing on the
    mistreatment of immigrant workers, "These workers don't suffer--they
    don't even speak English."

    Such opposition to nonanglophones and bilinguals has never quite gone
    away. In June 1995, for example, a district court judge in Amarillo,
    Texas, accused a mother of child abuse for speaking Spanish to her
    five-year-old daughter, who would enter kindergarten that year.
    English, the judge ruled, was necessary to do well in school and
    without English, he warned, the girl would be condemned to life as a

    In response to a national outcry over the cruelty of his decision, the
    judge sensed that some fence-mending was in order and apologized--to
    maids. He held resolutely to his English-only order, one that many
    well-meaning people might find appropriate. After all, ninety-seven
    percent of U.S. residents speak English, and non-English immigrants
    are picking up English faster than earlier generations did. The
    Amarillo mother spoke Spanish to her daughter because she knew that as
    soon as the child entered kindergarten, the girl would lose whatever
    Spanish she had acquired, and switch entirely to English.

    Around the physical and virtual world, English is spreading rapidly,
    which leads many to worry that other languages will decline. Clearly,
    English is the most powerful and successful language on
    Earth--synonymous with profit, multinational commerce, international
    relations, science, rock 'n' roll, and most recently, the Internet. It
    makes sense that knowing English might facilitate fuller participation
    in society, might better enable a person to enter into the
    governmental, economic, academic, and scientific mainstreams.

    But even though about three-quarters of the world speaks more than one
    language, getting everybody to speak the same language--even with the
    best of intentions--proves problematic. Think back to any high school
    language class and remember how difficult it is to get large groups of
    people to learn a new tongue. Most people who willingly study English
    don't ever achieve fluency. Even in India, where English has official
    status, only five percent of the people actually speak the language.
    Then there are the psychological effects: Enforcing English on the
    national or global level sends a negative message, making non-English
    speakers feel both inferior and unwelcome. And finally, establishing
    English as the only language would mean deciding that the natural
    condition of the world is not bilingualism or multilingualism, but
    rather one language, for one and all.

    The biblical story of the Tower of Babel laid the groundwork, at least
    in the West, for the belief that a single language equals a united
    humanity, and that a reunified humanity might once again reach the
    heavens. While the search for a Proto- World language, the ancestor of
    all today's languages, has occupied philologists and theologians for
    centuries, it remains elusive. Perhaps there wasn't one single
    language that kicked things off for the human species, and it's not
    clear that we should end up with a single world language
    either--English, or otherwise.

    English started as an obscure language on a small island off the coast
    of Europe. The nineteenthcentury essayist Thomas De Quincey once
    sniffed that in its earliest form, English had a vocabulary of only
    800 words, most of them having to do with war--a nasty and brutish
    assessment, but a believable one to anybody who has slogged through

    Currently, however, English has the largest vocabulary of any
    language--close to half a million words. The number of English
    speakers is strong and growing. According to one estimate, 514 million
    people speak English as their first language. Yes, there are more than
    a billion speakers of Mandarin Chinese and another half billion who
    use either Hindi or Urdu, but none of those languages has the
    international reach of English, which enjoys widespread acceptance as
    a second or auxiliary language. English has official status in former
    British colonies like India and Nigeria, and all around the globe it's
    the most common lingua franca, a third language to be used when two
    people who don't share a common first language need to communicate.

    About 400 million people speak reasonably fluent English as their
    second language, and as many as another billion have learned some
    English as a foreign language. In contrast, French, which not that
    long ago was the preferred language of diplomacy, war, and high
    society, not to mention haute cuisine, has only 129 million speakers
    today. There are fewer speakers of French in the world than of Arabic,
    Portuguese, Russian, or even Bengali. But real evidence of the decline
    of French is the fact that its orbit has shrunk: French remains a
    second language in some former colonies, but it has lost its éclat in
    the councils of power, in the foreign language classroom, and even on
    the menu.

    Now English is the foreign language everyone must learn if they want
    to communicate beyond their borders, beyond their neighborhoods, or
    beyond their labs. Scientists around the world who don't read and
    publish in English risk becoming marginalized: They will be unable to
    take advantage of the latest findings in their fields, and their own
    work will go unread and unrecognized by the international scientific
    community. Writers in nonanglophone countries agonize over their own
    literary dilemma: whether to publish in their national or local
    language to reach their compatriots and keep their culture vital and
    productive, or to write in English to secure an international audience
    and the stature that may come along with it.

    For some, the fact that English is the international language of
    science is reason enough to promote it globally; the further advance
    of the language would be a natural and rational process. Agree or not,
    is it even possible for English to become the only language people
    learn, eventually displacing the other 6,800 languages currently being
    used and turning the planet into a monolingual Brave New World? By
    virtue of its global sway, could English push all other languages to
    the brink, much in the way that Wal-Mart drives out mom-and-pop

    Using history as a guide, we know that every language that has so far
    qualified as universal has not been able to make the leap to world
    domination; rather, all of these languages have receded or
    disappeared. Latin, which came from a few dusty Italian farms and
    cities, was the language of politics and government, of law and
    education, of science and religion, from the time of the Roman Empire
    through the Renaissance. As late as the eighteenth century, to be
    literate meant to know Latin. If your universe was Western Europe,
    Latin was the universal language-- so much so that we still honor it
    on our money. We just don't speak it anymore.

    French, which actually grew out of Latin, had a brief turn as the
    world language, but in the end it was English that took Latin's place
    as master of the linguistic universe. Of course, as nations continue
    to jockey for political and economic power, and the linguistic
    influence that flows from it, there's always the chance that English
    will share the fate of French and Latin. After all, no language has
    been the master of the universe for very long.

    Some are prepared for such a case, having already designated a
    replacement for English were it to disappear. Hawaiian has its
    supporters as a candidate for the next world language, as does
    Finnish. The desire to return to the pre-Babel days, when a single
    language was spoken and no translation was necessary, prompted several
    hundred visionaries over the years to invent languages that would be
    immediately understandable by anyone who encounters them. The most
    famous of these artificial languages is Esperanto, which claims about
    2 million speakers worldwide. Its creator had two goals: to produce an
    auxiliary language that would let people communicate easily across
    cultures and to promote world peace.

    The creators of languages like Volapuk, Ido, Novial, and Solresol (the
    last based on the musical scale) were similarly optimistic about
    furthering international accord through mutual understanding. So far
    as international cooperation goes, however, the two Irelands, the two
    Koreas, and India and Pakistan (India's Hindi and Pakistan's Urdu use
    different writing systems but the spoken languages are mutually
    intelligible), show us that having a common language doesn't
    necessarily lead to either mutual understanding or peaceful
    coexistence. In any case, the small number of speakers adopting these
    artificial languages isn't enough to move the world toward peace.

    If sweet reason hasn't converted the world, let alone a single nation,
    to one language, neither has the use of force. For many years in
    America, young speakers of Spanish, Navajo, Chinese, and other
    minority languages were beaten, humiliated, or given detention if they
    used their first language in the classroom or on the schoolyard.
    Around the same time an Amarillo judge accused a Spanish-speaking
    mother of child abuse, a small Texas insurance agency fired two women
    bilingual in English and Spanish, hired for their ability to speak to
    Hispanic customers, because these women spoke Spanish rather than
    English to each other. Knowing English is one thing; forcing people to
    use it is quite another. As any student failing a language requirement
    knows, you can't make a person speak a "foreign" language.

    If English can't be enforced at home, it certainly couldn't be
    required abroad. For a good part of the twentieth century, Russia
    tried to force its language on a huge expanse of Europe and Asia, and
    we know how that turned out. Latin may not have fallen in a day, but
    with the rapid collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian lost most of its
    clout almost overnight.

    The truth is that when one language begins to dominate, and its
    presence is felt internationally, resistance movements stimulate a
    resurgence of local language vitality. The Internet provides a perfect
    example of what happens: In its first decade, Web life was almost
    entirely in English, and when computer users in other countries began
    to log on, they found an English monopoly. But this was only
    temporary; while it's estimated that over half of all Internet Web
    sites are still in English, the percentage of other languages on the
    Web is growing as more and more countries acquire computer technology.
    On the world scene, language loyalty trumps the incursion of English
    every time.

    So while English plays an important role in the increasingly
    multilingual, globalizing world, global language is not following
    rapidly on the heels of multinational corporations. Rather than
    imposing a standard language on an unwilling world, English itself is
    going native, forming local varieties with distinctly local forms and
    flavors wherever it lands. Because of this, sociolinguists have begun
    speaking not of English, but of Englishes, the plural emphasizing the
    increasing diversity that English experiences as it shows up in new
    places and contexts.

    We call Latin a dead language because there haven't been native
    speakers of Latin for centuries, but the language didn't actually die.
    Instead, the Latin spoken in different parts of Europe gradually
    differentiated to form what we now call the Romance languages: French,
    Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian being the most familiar.
    The process took several centuries. With English differentiating as it
    spreads across the planet, it could meet Latin's fate and morph into
    new tongues. This kind of language birth isn't likely to happen
    though--in fact it hasn't happened on any large scale since Latin made
    like a noun and declined. The centripetal force of global
    communications and international travel works against that outcome.
    But if--or when, as some would say--the English-speaking world loses
    its political and economic hegemony to Europe or the Pacific Rim, the
    power of the English language will be relaxed and the world's
    Englishes will be left free to diverge from one another.

    The future of English is tricky to predict. Will it unite the world
    and take us back to Eden, or divide the world even further and lead us
    to a new Babel? Or will it simply lose its vitality and shuffle off
    this mortal coil, leaving the stage to a yetto- be-named player? For
    now, though, Finnish and Hawaiian must wait in the wings, for barring
    nuclear disaster, it looks as if English will remain the 800-pound
    gorilla of the world's languages for a little while yet.

    Related stories:
    [3]Oh What a Tangled Web We Weave
    [4]Lost In Translation
    [5]Something New Under the Sun


    3. http://science-spirit.org/articles/Articledetail.cfm?article_ID=452
    4. http://science-spirit.org/articles/Articledetail.cfm?article_ID=461
    5. http://science-spirit.org/articles/Articledetail.cfm?article_ID=454

More information about the paleopsych mailing list