dilluns, de novembre 13, 2006

Response to a Student Post on the Future of English (English)

Well, obviously you feel very strongly about the future of the English language, but some of the other students have already painted parallel pictures that show how the demise of English will come about. It is not, at the end of the day a question of if English will die, but when. If you asked a Roman citizen if he thought there would come a day when Latin would not be the language of the Empire, he would have laughed at you. And while Latin continued to be used as a language of many cultural endeavours after the fall of the Empire, the language that was being used in universities and in scholarly works would have been incomprehensible to the citizens of the Empire at its height. They could have read it, but would not have understood spoken Medieval Latin, since it had long ceased to be a community language.

That's one of the possible death's of English frankly, because it is so analogous to Latin. Global English will take on a sort of moribund life of its own, static and essentially unchanging (it could not change much if it were to remain an international language), while the local variations of English would continue to evolve into new languages. That process would be very slow and it would be generations, perhaps centuries before the speakers of the regional Englishes would begin to see themselves as distinct from Global English.

However that's assuming a lot of variables will not change. English has only been the international language for about 40 years (generously speaking). Really, it did not fully supplant French until the mid to late 1970's, and while many Americans are confused or bemused the persistence of French in the wake of the English language's rise to power, the rest of the world still uses French as a first or second international language (including the English!). What appears to be a meteoric rise to global domination is really the result of coincidences that no one is in control of. Currently, the world's largest economy is the European Union, followed by the United States and then by Japan, Germany, and China (using nominal GDP, the arrangement is a little different with PPP GDP, but you can poke about the data yourself to see what that really means). A number of other European Union countries fairly well fill in the other top ten slots, and only one of them speaks English. French and German are the mostly widely spoken languages in the Union and are the languages of its wealthiest and most developed (refering to HDI components as well as GDP) members. The playing field is still very crowded when it comes to economic domination. Yes, English is the big man on campus today, tomorrow may be another story.

The knives are out, of course, with a number of global languages [linguae francae] (Spanish, French, Portuguese, Arabic) and some regional ones (Chinese, Hindi [actually relatively few people in India can speak English], German, Russian) struggling in the world marketplace not so far out of reach of English. These are all languages with more than 100 million speakers, all mega languages, and all serious contenders for the next world language. Will any of the supress English? Maybe, maybe not, but the economic and political variables are quite profound. Take HDI (Human Development Index). While the United States has the second largest GDP (the largest of any one country), it now ranks only 8 in HDI (better than China's 81 of course). This lower score in HDI while other countries increase in HDI and have high GDP's demonstrate a certain degree of volitility in the world in which all countries are playing.

Languages like French often remain on the periphery of the Anglo psyche because we really don't see Africa. More than 20 countries in Africa use French as an official, co-official or administrative language, and with the world's 6 largest GDP and an HDI of 16, France's influence in Africa is far, far greater than England's or the United States. Canada, our neighbor to the north, is effectively 1/3 French speaking (between first language speakers and speakers of languages other than English who also speak French and French and English bilinguals. Canada has the world's 8th largest economy and an HDI of 5.

Portuguese is the forgotten mega-language par excellence of English speakers. With 220 million speakers, and spoken by people in Europe, Africa and South America, the largest single country that speaks Portuguese is Brazil, the world's 11th largest economy (HDI 69). What will happen in 15 or 20 years? Will Brazil come to eclipse China and the US? It's not unimaginable. Brazil has already weaned itself from the titt of foreign oil by convirting to ethanol for fuel. Will China still be viable? Its growth rate is already slowing (among the other fastest growing economies currently in the world are abysmally poor countries like the Sudan [Arabic] and Chad [French and Arabic]; they are small potatoes today, but Chad and Sudan have lots of black gold...). What about the "Southern Cone" of South America? Chile, Argentina and Uruguay have always performed well (at one time Argentina had the world's second largest gold reserves). If they come to dominance, Spanish may well be the world's new language of the day.

What is good ot bear in mind is something my mother always says: "It's hard to imagine things ever being different than they are now."

So true, and yet, if we look back in our lives, we can plainly see things have not always been as they are, and so we know they will change.

Will there always be an English? Not likely. It will evolve and/or die off, some day. No, certainly not in our lifetimes, nor anytime soon. This is certainly a golden age for the language and the English speaking cultures, and we should enjoy the benefits of that place without hubris because one thing that history always teaches is that the mighty always fall! Whether we fall slowly and gracefully, or are clipped at the pass by a more earnest, upstart rival is yet to be seen.

2 comentaris:

Tree ha dit...

I always get excited when you speak of such things. Looking forward to reading more posts like this about our shared passion.

Gwyddno Schenectady ha dit...

Hey Tree :) Soon to be in the Vaterland. Yeah, I'm getting lots of inspiration from my online course!