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The Decline of English – Say Hello and Wave (Goodbye)

in Language Connect

jensgbyeNicholas Ostler, a linguist and author who earned his stripes in the language world studying at Oxford’s Balliol College, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has recently published his much-awaited book The last Lingua franca: English until the return of Babel.

This work charts the rise of English over the last centuries but maps a bleak future for the lingua franca in general, citing similar deceased lingua francas, examples of which go way back in time.

A lingua franca is defined as ‘a language systematically used to communicate between persons not sharing a mother tongue’.

For centuries, English has been the world’s lingua franca.  There appear to be many contributing factors to its ‘success’. During the 16th century, the Reformation positioned English as the language of business; seafaring, trade and colonisation all provided the English language with a constant and growing tongue supply, which has thrived over hundreds of years.

From the 1980s onwards, the birth of the Internet meant that the English language, via the media of television and radio which started in the 1920s, together with music, began to steadily saturate the media across all corners of the world. The internet slang which developed during the 1980s gave rise to acronyms rooted in the English language, such as LOL and LMAO – many of which are used by non-English speakers.

Olster declares that ‘the main story of growth in the Internet…is of linguistic diversity, not concentration.’ Therefore, one could reason that whilst the Internet appears to propagate English dominance across many territories, it simultaneously empowers other languages, which will inevitably tip the scale back into balance in the years to come. Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish, and French are the fastest growing languages online.

Ostler is fascinated by how one language can dominate over another, to be universally accepted as a lingua franca. He is just as eager to map out how a language inevitably declines. His argument centres on the premise that the fate of all lingua francas is devolution; as simple as Newton’s adage – what goes up must come down. English will follow in the footsteps of earlier lingua francas such as Latin, Greek and Phoenician.

Ostler presents the ‘three Rs of lingua franca death: economic Ruin, political Relegation or social Resignation’. Colin Fraser, in his review, adds that Russian has been a victim of the latter; a former lingua franca in Eastern Europe, the use of Russian has almost been eliminated though social Resignation; the younger generation employ the cooler language of Hollywood and popular culture.

Hundreds of millions of people learn English as a second language, however Ostler predicts that soon they will not need to.

He presents the possibility of a “virtual” language: one that is not spoken or read itself but that would allow the user to understand what is being written or said without learning the original language. A sort of “virtual reality”, where the user can communicate without actually experiencing the language in the traditional sense of possessing knowledge of it. This ‘virtual reality’ will be borne by technology. Ostler believes that developments in machine translation technology will mean that everyone can speak each other’s native tongues at the click of a button; computers will ‘remove the requirement for a human intermediary to interpret or translate.’

This is a bold statement – given the limitations of Google Translate, Babelfish and other electronic offerings, it is hard to envisage a time when a machine could replace a human translation, with all the inference, subtleties and cultural nuances which real people necessarily impart on their translations.

Ostler maintains that the emergence of the new ‘Superpowers’ – Brazil, China and Russia – will essentially take over from Anglo Saxon power, and that as its influence diminishes, the English language will lose its currency. The new superpowers will not ‘indulge the nostalgia of their Western suppliants by speaking to them in English.’

It is not that there will be a new lingua franca to take English’s place; the concept of a lingua franca will be defunct. However, how soon English will join the family of ‘dead languages’, is wholly unclear. Fraser pronounces, ‘I doubt we will lament the loss of English’s usefulness for a good time to come’.

Ostler argues that ‘the survival of a lingua franca is always a matter of confidence and ideology as much as reasoned calculation.’ Could it be that English will not mirror the decline of Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, or Persian, based on the communication which the Internet and other technologies have afforded it?

Laura Marsh, in her comprehensive review, concludes that Ostler’s reference to Babel is meant to conjure up the ideal of the tower being rebuilt, as a ‘monument to human ingenuity and technological achievement.’ However, she argues that whilst ‘the ideal of effortless communication’ is comprehensible, it is a fallacy. In practice, a communication without language is an ‘impoverished cultural exchange’, full of ‘irritating misunderstandings’ and is dangerously dependent on technology.

This situation evokes the other message of the Babel story – that the world is catastrophic confusion when there is no shared language. Marsh argues that we should steer clear of this disorder, ‘even if the current dominance of one language seems overwhelming or unfair’.

The belief that English will maintain its status as lingua franca forever is, of course, a narrow-minded one. However, the arguments which support its decline, don’t necessarily point to a world without any lingua francas; if anything they point to the emergence of many lingua francas.

Ostler’s argument that the advent of a virtual language will do away with the need to speak a variety of languages is counter-intuitive; without the crutch of a lingua franca, people will inevitably fight harder to preserve their own mother tongues.

The most interesting question now, according to Marsh, is what kind of lingua franca or lingua francas will replace English?


Laura Marsh ‘Tongues Twisted’, review for the New Republic:

Colin Fraser’s Book review for the Scotsman:

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