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Would the global triumph of English be so bad?

So asks John McWhorter:

The main loss when a language dies is not cultural but aesthetic. The click sounds in certain African languages are magnificent to hear. In many Amazonian languages, when you say something you have to specify, with a suffix, where you got the information. The Ket language of Siberia is so awesomely irregular as to seem a work of art.

But let’s remember that this aesthetic delight is mainly savored by the outside observer, often a professional savorer like myself. Professional linguists or anthropologists are part of a distinct human minority. Most people, in the West or anywhere else, find the fact that there are so many languages in the world no more interesting than I would find a list of all the makes of Toyota.   So our case for preserving the world’s languages cannot be based on how fascinating their variegation appears to a few people in the world. The question is whether there is some urgent benefit to humanity from the fact that some people speak click languages, while others speak Ket or thousands of others, instead of everyone speaking in a universal tongue.

See also this article about Indians who write their novels in English rather than in one of the local Indian languages, partly because they just do, and partly in order to increase their potential readership around the world. The piece is by Chandrahas Choudhury, himself the author of a novel in English. He also blogs.

Both pieces were recently linked to by Arts & Letters Daily, to whom thanks.

I suppose a danger of everyone on earth speaking the same language, as was explained in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is that we would all of us then understand each other’s insults.

… the … Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.

But this is to assume that hostility causes wars. I think it is at least as true to say that wars cause hostility.

Quite aside from the rights and wrongs of English conquering everyone and everything, there is the intriguing question of whether it in fact will so triumph, or whether any other potential universal language, like Spanish or Chinese, will triumph, in the nearish future. Perhaps English will triumph, but in the process it may itself fragment. If one language does triumph, it may well be English, but not necessarily English as I know it.

89 comments to Would the global triumph of English be so bad?

  • I certainly hope that one language doesn’t replace all others, as that would put me out of work. More seriously, it would be a very dull world indeed. The supposed hostility angle is silly, BTW: people fight over things subjectively material, insults are just an excuse.

  • Corsair

    When Greek was the universal language of the hellenistic world, was it the same Greek? Could someone from Sogdiana understand someone from Sicily? Same applies to Latin. I’d be glad to know the answer.

  • Some dude

    English is a terrible choice. What, with all the irregular spelling and whatnot.

    Esperanto is the way to go.

    But anyway, no language will triumph. Ever hear of the tower of Babel?

  • Brian, follower of Deornoth

    Esperanto? Volapuk is clearly superior.

  • This interview with Indian science fiction writer Ashok Banker has quite intriguing relevance, here. Particularly this bit.


    What made you decide to write in English? Are there any nuances with that particular language that you’re not quite able to accomplish in Hindi?

    Not-Lol. I’ve met this particular cultural bogey before and it remains as unfunny as ever! My mother tongue was English, not Hindi, and in fact, there are more English-speaking people in India than in the US – it’s one of our two official national languages in fact. And of course, you probably know that India has the fastest growing publishing industry and English-literate readership population in the world – I believe our publishing business is No. 3 right now and on track to be No. 1 at this rate in the next two decades or less. I grew up speaking only English, learned Hindi only later in school because it was a compulsory subject (as were either Marathi or French – I took French), and English remains the only language I’m completely fluent in even today. So I have no idea what cultural stereotype you have of me, and am not responsible for it but it’s as offensive as my asking someone named Johnson why he chose to write in English instead of Swedish! Still, I guess you didn’t mean anything by it, so let’s chuckle and move on. :~)

    Read the whole thing though. He’s one of those people who are prickly but interesting. (People probably describe me this way).

  • Laird, precedor of Deornoth

    The premise in the short-lived TV series “Firefly” was that the “universal” language was a hodge-podge of English and Chinese (Mandarin?). Makes sense to me.

  • Anything that would piss off the French as much as the total or near total triumph of english is fine with me.

    Esperanto was George Soros’s native language. That is enough reason to abolish it from the vocabulary of liberty loving people everywhere.

  • English will probably triumph. Chinese will become increasingly prominent as one of the major languages behind English but it simply will not be able to compete for a number of reasons. First of all Chinese lacks the geographical spread of English – which is used as a native/official language by countries on every continent. Secondly English is (despite the many problems it presents for learners) far more accessible to billion+ speakers of other Indo-European languages and the script/alphabet used is far more familiar to most people than the Chinese script. Finally, English simply has a massive headstart and is far and away the predominant language of the international culture/the internet, science and technology. For Mandarin to overtake English as the world language not only would more people have to start speaking (itself a big ask for the reasons outlined) but people and nations would actively have to start switching from English to Mandarin and there simply is no good reason to do this.

    A more likely competitor to English is Spanish which shares some advantages – wide geographical spread (intercontinental) and relationship with other Indo-European languages – in addition to simply being easier to learn (usually) than English. However it’s hard to see people outwith the Americas switching from Spanish to English let alone in Asia/Middle East/Africa.

  • Bruce Hoult

    When I was at school in the 70′s I was told that I’d need French for this and German for that, but the fact is that English has already won. Hollywood did its part but the internet has already absolutely sealed the deal. People will no doubt retain their own languages as well for a very long time, but when they want to talk to each other they are and will be using English.

    That’s been true for quite a while in the elites, but you only have to look at web sites such as livejasmin.com, cams.com and many others to find quite literally tens of thousands of very ordinary young women in countries such as Russia and Romania who have a very pressing commercial reason to learn english.

  • To overgeneralise wildly, there are two types of places linguistically. There are places where vernacular language that the bulk of people speak at home is the more or less exclusive language of culture, commerce, and education, and those where different languages will be used at least some of the time for some of these functions by a significant portion of the population.

    In the first category, and excluding English speaking countries for a moment, I would include such places as Japan, Korea, China, the Arab world, Brazil, and the Spanish speaking countries of the Americas. In these countries it is possible to live your whole life, get an advanced education and an advanced job, have a sophisticated cultural existence etc without the inability to speak another language being a significant disadvantage to you. In other places, say the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Malaysia, South Africa, New Guinea, etc, it is necessary to know the languages of education and commerce, which are different languages from those you speak at home, in order to live an economically and culturally rich life. I could not have lived anything remotely resembling the life I have lived if I were born in Gothenberg and only spoke Swedish, but I probably could have if I were born in Sendai and only spoke Japanese, or even if I were born in Hamburg and only spoke German.

    This is not a new phenomenon. Much of the world has long been multilingual for this reason and the roles of different languages in this mix has long been fluid. There have always been many languages that acted as lingua francas in areas and between groups where there were many vernacular languages. (The expressions “lingua franca” and “vernacular language” are references to this phenomenon in their very existence).

    What is new, is that lingua francas other than English are in most places dying as lingua francas. In most places on earth, where two people from different cultural groups needs to communicate, they now do this in English. This is what annoys the French. If the world is reduced to speaking one language, French will be one of the last to go, but it has lost its role as a bridging language. In South Africa under apartheid, Afrikaans and English theoretically had equal as official languages. Now they are two of many equals in theory, but English is the common language when one is needed. The USSR attempted to impose Russian as a common language on a large area, but failed. On the other hand, anyone smart and curious in Eastern Europe sees what is available in English and seeks it out. The opportunities to seek it out are much great too, almost anywhere.

    Europe is integrating culturally, socially, and economically. An aspect of this is that even for the larger European countries with their own languages such as France and Germany, English is necessary to participate in this wider European cultural life. (Spain is interesting, because as well as participating in this European trend towards English, Spanish language culture worldwide is so rich and vibrant and now always proceeding in the same trend in the same way. Portugal is similar but more minor in European terms). Similar things are happening in Asia, although more strongly in some places than others, and in some places other lingua francas are growing at the same time as English. (I would include Mandarin and Malay/Indonesian in this list)

    This trend has become dramatically stronger in the 20 years since I started travelling a lot. Growth in electronic communications networks and of cheap international travel is clearly part of it.

    Still, though, I wonder at a series of historical events, that are partly connected but at least partly also coincidence. The most powerful global empire was British. When that empire died, a former colony of that colonial power (from a previous empire) became the most important global power. And this power then did the bulk of the work in inventing electronic communications networks and the machinery for cheap global travel. All these things were brought about by people speaking the same language. Some of this was luck.

  • Hugo

    Very amusing article about the eradication of the French language here: http://www.varsity.co.uk/archive/701.pdf (warning – large PDF).

  • I recently read a fascinating book about the rise and fall of “imperial languages”, from Sumerian to English (and beyond). Empires of the Word by Nicholas Ostler. He tries to anayse the common factors that caused/enabled various languages in the course of history to become widespread and influential. For a while. English won’t stay Top Dog forever either – history hasn’t ended.

    Is it political/military hegemony (Latin)? Not always. Being the sacred language of a major religion (Arabic, Sanskrit)? Rarely. Economic influence / being a lingua franca for trade (English)? Sometimes. Something inherent to the language itself? Maybe.

    Highly recommended.

  • “But let’s remember that this aesthetic delight is mainly savored by the outside observer, often a professional savorer like myself.”

    Learning a foreign language while actually living and working in the country where it is spoken often has an aesthetic value greatly amplified by the practical expansion of one’s freedom from having learned new vocabulary, sentence patterns and so on. Languages are frontiers, which, when crossed, concentrate the mind. Their aesthetic value is not limited to linguists.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    English Triumphant wouldn’t bother me too much, but I suspect Esperanto’d be an easier sell just because it’s nobody’s language in particular and because it’s easy to learn. That’d be for a utilitarian common tongue that would let me find a toilet in Kazakhstan, mainly.

  • When Greek was the universal language of the hellenistic world, was it the same Greek? Could someone from Sogdiana understand someone from Sicily?

    Probably depends on whether you would regard Rumanian and Portugese as dialects of Latin. Or, to take another example: my desk neighbour at work is Moroccan (and speaks Arabic, French and English fluently and German pretty well. Being monolingual is much more unusual than we native English speakers tend to realise – but that’s another discussion). He says he could talk to an educated Iraqi if they both made an effort to speak schoolbook classical Arabic – which not every Moroccan or Iraqi can, by any means – but in his opinion it’s a joke to regard the everyday speech of Morocco and Iraq as as “the same language”.

    The same is probably true of every major widespread language. English and American would be a lot further apart than they are if we hadn’t had global mass communications for the last hundred years.

  • Kevin B

    The most powerful global empire was British. When that empire died, a former colony of that colonial power (from a previous empire) became the most important global power. And this power then did the bulk of the work in inventing electronic communications networks and the machinery for cheap global travel. All these things were brought about by people speaking the same language. Some of this was luck.

    And, yet more luck, one of the two countries poised to take over as the new centre of global communications – perhaps as the new superpower – is a former British colony where English is the major tongue.

  • but in his opinion it’s a joke to regard the everyday speech of Morocco and Iraq as as “the same language”.

    There is a lot of truth in the old saying that “A language is a dialect with an Army and Navy”. Languages are mixed up with nationalism. Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian seem to be mutually intelligible, and if Scandinavia had ended the 19th century unified, we might now talk of one “Scandinavian” language, the way we now talk of “German”, which seems to contain at least as much difference between its far flung versions as the Scandinavian languages. (Friends tell me that the influx of refugees to Germany from the east at the end of WWII had a homogenising impact on the language, too, so it was once worse). And we have an example of a European country that has recently broken up and in which what was previously claimed to be one language: Serbo-Croat is now claimed to be at least three (Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian). On the other hand, in China, languages that are about as close as English and Russian are frequently claimed to be “dialects” of one Chinese language. The use of Mandarin in traditionally non-Mandarin speaking areas has been dramatically on the rise in recent times though – this is a clear instance of a non-English language becoming more important as a bridging language, although the role of nationalism here makes it very complex.

  • Bill Chapman

    I favour Esperanto as a planned international language. It is relatively easy to learn and use. It has stood the test of time. I recommend it.

    Take a look at http://www.esperanto.net

  • MarkE

    Michael, many years ago I learned Italian in order to be able to speak to my then in-laws. I learned secretly using a Linguaphone course in the car to avoid embarrassment (no one is impressive at lesson 1) and reached a point where I could understand Italian TV when I visited, but I never managed to understand the in-laws. When I finally admitted my attempt to my wife she laughed and told me her parents spoke the old Sicilian dialect. How different that is from “standard” Italian I don’t know, but it was different enough to beat me.

    Bill, I’m not sure Esperanto is the answer, because it will be everybody’s second language. I would expect a future world language to have arisen from an active language, spoken as a first language by a large enough population to allow it to evolve naturally.

  • Laird

    Wonderful article, Hugo; thanks for the link. I especially liked “If in desperation you are forced to use French, at least have the decency to speak it badly. A good French accent is a sign of licence in a woman and of effeminacy in a man.”

    But it would have been helpful if you had mentioned the page upon which it appears, or at least the title. For the benefit of everyone else here, it’s on Page 9, and is called “Towards a Common Language”

  • I favour Esperanto as a planned international language. It is relatively easy to learn and use. It has stood the test of time. I recommend it.

    Meh. I too learned Esperanto many many moons ago and found it a great language and it is easy to mutate more sensibly than the ‘official’ ways (I mean seriously, “lupfantomo” for ‘werewolf’? Forget it… the Esperanto for ‘werewolf’ *must* to be “lycantropo”).

    But sadly Esperanto is also a waste of time. The structure of a language is (largely) irrelevant compared to the fact about a billion people at least already (more or less) speak English worldwide and it is already the international language of trade. Starting from scratch with Esperanto, or anything else, just ain’t going to happen. Better to gradually rationalise International English via natural evolution than start with a new language.

  • I favour Esperanto as a planned international language

    And right there is the very reason that it is not and never will be.

  • In reply to “some dude” I agree. Esperanto certainly is the way to go.

    It’s unfortunate that only a few people know that Esperanto has become a living language.

    During a short period of 122 years Esperanto is now in the top 100 languages, out of 6,800 worldwide, according to the CIA World factbook. It is the 22nd most used language in Wikipedia, and a language choice of Google, Skype, Firefox and Facebook.

    Native Esperanto speakers, (people who have used the language from birth), include World Chess Champion Susan Polger, Ulrich Brandenberg the new German Ambassador to NATO and Nobel Laureate Daniel Bovet.

    Your readers may be interested in the following video. http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8837438938991452670

    A glimpse of the language can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

  • Millie Woods

    A French first language student of mine at McGill asked me to read her thesis on neural anatomy to check the correctness of the English. I asked her why she hadn’t chosen to write in French, an option available at McGill. She said that because she had studied in English it was easier for her to write in the same language rather than try to translate the accrued knowledge to her native tongue.
    I find two of my French/English grandchildren, bilingual from their language acquisition phase, follow the same principle. What they learn in one language they discuss in that language. All very fascinating.

  • bilingual from their language acquisition phase

    Does this mean that one parent was natively Anglophone and the other natively Francophone?

    This is possibly an impertinent question, but if so, I think that was a rather sweet way of describing it.

  • Kristopher

    We are already getting a universal language.

    Simplified English. English without complicated irregular structures, or more than a few tenses, and large words deliberately removed.

    And it is also picking up foreign borrow words, based entirely on common usage on TV or the movies.

    Foreign workers from differing countries use simplified English to talk to each other all the time. The second a native English speaker shows up and tries to use the full language, he becomes incomprehensible to everyone else there.

  • Millie Woods

    Okay Michael full disclosure.
    I was being professorial and I’m not proud of myself. The facts are these – the parents in both cases are bilinguals. We bilingual Quebeckers call ourselves blings but bling in the UK has vastly different connotations.
    The thing is that we switch grotesquely from one language to another which at a meeting once caused one of my colleagues to ask – what language are we speaking anyway?

  • David Gillies

    I constantly code-switch between English and Spanish in social settings. Most educated people here can speak some English but I find I achieve higher bandwidth by adapting which language I am speaking at any given time to the situation. Sometimes it even pays to switch in the middle of a sentence.

    The discussion of universal languages might be a bit moot, though. If the transhumanists are correct, then in a few decades a minor cognitive hurdle like not knowing a language will be rendered completely irrelevant by technology.

  • I was being professorial and I’m not proud of myself.

    Oh, no problem there. I was being nosey. As is probably clear from my comments in this thread, I am fascinated by this kind of thing, and I was just curious. The one word “Quebec” was probably enough, although there are of course various ways in which one can end up bilingual in Quebec.

  • Millie, you say that both parents are bilinguals. I am curious: when my son was a baby (16 long years ago) the conventional wisdom was that for a kid to be perfectly bilingual he has to identify specific persons with a specific language, i.e. even if say one of the parents or other caregivers is bilingual, they should decide on one language they speak to the child and stick with it, while other adults may speak a different language to that child. It worked perfectly with my son, who at the age of 3 was a little speaking dictionary: you could ask him to translate a word from one language to another and he would give you the answer. My husband was actually trilingual by the age of 3 (again, 3 different adults spoke 3 different languages to him). OTOH, a single-mother friend of mine who had a baby a year after I did spoke two languages to her son, and at the age of 3 he was a very poor and confused speaker of both. I am curious how all of this is playing out in Quebec, where, as you say, everyone is bilingual?

  • Esperanto? Volapuk is clearly superior.

    From an adoption standpoint: No. Esperanto has a long-standing vibrant worldwide community large enough to sustain itself and the language it speaks and to show that it works; Volapuk does not.

    From a functional standpoint: No. Esperanto is easier than Volapuk but as expressive as any national language.

    Esperanto was George Soros’s native language. That is enough reason to abolish it from the vocabulary of liberty loving people everywhere.

    Actually, Soros didn’t choose to speak Esperanto, his parents did for him. He spoke it approximately until he moved to the U.S., after which he and Esperanto parted company. English, on the other hand, was a language he chose to speak. By this logic, which suggests that we do the opposite of Soros, liberty-loving people everywhere should reject English and adopt Esperanto.

    I would expect a future world language to have arisen from an active language, spoken as a first language by a large enough population to allow it to evolve naturally.

    Esperanto is an active language. It may not be spoken widely as a first language, but it is used extensively within its community, which is large and dynamic enough to allow the language to evolve naturally, which it has indeed done over its more than 120 years of existence (see next point, below…).

    I favour Esperanto as a planned international language
    And right there is the very reason that it is not and never will be.

    That’s “plannED” in the past tense, as in “was created planned, but no longer is”. Esperanto started out an artificial drawing-board project, but soon after its publication in 1887, it was set free. Since then, it has grown, evolved and matured, just like any other, to become the living natural language it is today. Its evolution has not been destructive, however – it has evolved enough to fill in gaps and smooth out wrinkles but not so much as to fracture it into dialects or render it incomprehensible every few years.

  • But sadly Esperanto is also a waste of time. The structure of a language is (largely) irrelevant compared to the fact about a billion people at least already (more or less) speak English worldwide and it is already the international language of trade. Starting from scratch with Esperanto, or anything else, just ain’t going to happen. Better to gradually rationalise International English via natural evolution than start with a new language.

    Actually, the structure of Esperanto is quite relevant, in spite of the large numbers of English speakers (which, by the way, still represent a minority of the world’s population, the vast majority of which speaks no English whatsoever, with most of the English-speaking remainder speaking English only poorly). There are two reasons why this is so.

    First, a number of real-life experiments (see here, or for more details, here) have shown that Esperanto is an excellent preparatory step to learning other languages – so much so that the time saved on the language learned after Esperanto can exceed the time spent on Esperanto, with a net result of the acquisition of two languages for less than the price of one. Now, learning any language before another one would speed up learning the second one, but Esperanto’s characteristics make it possible to master it quickly enough for the time saved on the second language to exceed the time spent on Esperanto. If everyone were to learn Esperanto before learning English, they’d learn English faster and get Esperanto for free. Widespread global use of Esperanto would follow naturally.

    Second, even if Esperanto were not used as an accelerant for language learning, it is easy enough to learn – at least five times easier than English, for all but native English speakers – that if we were to switch from English to Esperanto as an international auxiliary language, Esperanto would pay for itself in just a couple of decades. Assuming a relatively stable 1.5 billion English speakers, of which 1 in 4 are native speakers, to teach all the current English speakers Esperanto would cost about 1/4 what it cost to teach the non-native-speakers English (the natives get English for free, and the cost of Esperanto is 1/5 that of English for the same level of mastery), or the cost of teaching about 400 million people English. Sure, that would add to total language-learning cost, but people have a limited lifespan, and every year, of that 1.5 billion, somewhere around 23 million would have to be replaced through natural attrition. Assuming stable proportions, of those 23 million, 3/4 would be non-natives, making the cost of teaching all the replacements Esperanto about 1/4 that of teaching just the non-natives English. Each year, the cost of teaching about 17 million people English would be saved. In just 400/17 = about 24 years, the savings would start to exceed the initial investment. I think the break-even point would be reached sooner, though, as the number of Esperanto speakers attains a critical mass where enough see the benefit of learning Esperanto and realize it is easy enough that people who would not have had the means or inclination to learn English to consider Esperanto.

    That said, the psychological hurdle of getting from where we are now to where a large number of people speak Esperanto would be considerable, as people tend to see what’s in front of them with much more clarity than what is 20 years down the road. If English were to be “rationalized”, though, it would only hasten its fracturing into dialects, then separate languages, as native speakers stick to their variants, while non-natives learn another type of English. And I’m not convinced that a rationalization of English would necessarily make it all that much easier to learn.

  • All things being equal (which they are not) I think it is indisputable that Esperanto is easier to learn than English as it consistent and intuitive to most Europeans. But the vast amount of English language cultural artefacts (arts and entertainment) go a long way to spreading and entrenching English regardless.

    Actually I think Esperanto is a nice sounding and practicle language, but I think the ‘established base’ issue will continue to make English expand (and the fact it takes no political direction for this to happen is a huge bonus for English…whereas Esperanto will only expand into a meaningful competitor in terms of sheer scale of usage if pushed by a lot of governments for a great many years).

    I am not sure if fragmentation of English will be a major issue (maybe yes, maybe no), as I suspect it may end up with a more or less universal written form (Internet English) and a series of semi-interchangeable spoken meta dialects.

    Due to its structure, English is unusually ‘damage resistant’ (i.e. it remains intelligible even when horribly mangled), so I suspect it can survive more dialecting than most.

  • Well said, Miĉjo!

    This thread started with the question of whether it would be a bad thing for the World to speak English.
    Advantages would be that trade and aid and cultural wisdom and environmental custodianship could be done on a global scale.
    Disadvantages would include the loss of other languages and cultural identity, injustice during the long period of transition while poor and isolated people wait their turn for inclusion, and an immense waste of precious time as billions of people learn “i after e except after c, unless the word is of French derivation or is just weird”, and a hundred similar principles, when they could be learning something more useful to the world or their families.
    As to whether it is inevitable, the Reinhard Selten won the 1994 Nobel Prize for his work on game theory in economics, a way of predicting what will happen when people act in their own interest. He concluded that Esperanto is likely to be adopted because it offers power at a competitive price.

  • Language follows function… and while the English-speaking parts of the world dominate economic activity, the ‘universal’ language will remain English.

    China is rising fast economically, and militarily, so, expect to see a bid for Mandarin to become standard in at least the asian parts of the world.

    The title of ‘top’ language is always fluid, but I suspect we’ll have regional mishmashes (a la Bladerunner) for the forseeable future.

    I originally learned French to get chicks. My other half is a more fluent speaker of it than I am, so, we speak it frequently enough, but for fun. Here is a tidbit though: our ‘just us’ language, when we dont wish to be understood by anyone else, is gutter Romany.

  • China is rising fast economically, and militarily, so, expect to see a bid for Mandarin to become standard in at least the asian parts of the world.

    Not a chance. The written form is a profound deal breaker. English will one day be the main language in Indian, probably must sooner than most people think (30 years I’m guessing) and the sooner the better as far as I’m concerned.

  • Millie Woods

    Alisa, first I didn’t say that Quebecers are all bilinguals because they aren’t. and now to get back to professorialism.
    My field is linguistics and I have a particular interest in child langhuage acquisition. The academic theory in linguistics about bilingual language acquisition was that if an infant learned two languages simultaneously both of them would never suffer from what is termed interference – using the structures of one language in the other.
    Nice theory. In practice it’s theory 0, reality 100. There was plenty of interference in both my French/English grandchildren. But what I found most notable was that if they learned or did some activity in one language but not the other, they would use that language exclusively when referring to that particular subject. One of the grandchildren was playing in a French kiddie orchestra and always referred to music and composers in French. I suppose the moral of the story is that academics should test their theories more rigourously before unloading them on unsuspecting students.

  • Millie Woods

    Perry, you’re very perceptive. It’s the phonetic structure of spoken English which contributes hugely to its communicative power. The Me Tarzan, you Jane mode is embedded in English where the words which carry the message, the nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs are always clearly defined and phonetically distinct while the grammatical and structural entities, auxiliary verbs, conjunctions and prepositions are often reduced to a single sound or contracted – bacon ‘n’ eggs for example.

  • Repse

    “Therefore more than half of our time was given to learning English and mastering its arbitrary spelling and pronunciation. It was a painful discovery to have to learn a language that was not pronounced as it was written. It was a strange experience to have to learn the spelling by heart. But that is by the way, and irrelevant to my argument. However, for the first three years, it was comparatively plain sailing.“

    (Gandhi : “Education)

  • All things being equal (which they are not) I think it is indisputable that Esperanto is easier to learn than English as it consistent and intuitive to most Europeans.

    And for non-Europeans. Check out these testimonials from Asian Esperantists – the consistent pattern is that while Esperanto may be marginally more difficult for non-Europeans than for Europeans, it is still much, much easier to learn than English.

    But the vast amount of English language cultural artefacts (arts and entertainment) go a long way to spreading and entrenching English regardless.

    True, they help. What I have observed in Esperanto, however, is that those who make up their minds to learn it find a great deal of motivation – albeit of other kinds. Esperanto is easy enough to learn that you can not only see and feel your progress, but be able to communicate – really communicate – after as little as a few weeks of applied study, with full mastery achievable in months, not years. Its complete regularity and its logic, its almost total lack of idiom and its fully productive word-building system with almost complete freedom to create words on the fly combine to generate a level of confidence, pleasure, excitement and creative energy in Esperanto learners that teachers of other language would envy. Talking to people from all over the world on an equal footing, almost as well as in your native language, after just a few months of study, is exhilarating. The motivation is strong and real.

    Actually I think Esperanto is a nice sounding and practical language, but I think the ‘established base’ issue will continue to make English expand (and the fact it takes no political direction for this to happen is a huge bonus for English…whereas Esperanto will only expand into a meaningful competitor in terms of sheer scale of usage if pushed by a lot of governments for a great many years).

    Yes, English will continue to expand. Esperanto, although smaller, also has an established base, and is expanding, by little more than word-of-mouth, at a rate (year-to-year percentage) greater than that of the world’s population. With no other help, Esperanto will eventually reach a critical mass by itself, although it would take a while. If it every received official support, however, it could expand very quickly. If it became a mandatory subject in schools, millions of competent Esperanto speakers would be turned out each year, due in part to the fact that, unlike other languages, mastery is achievable in less than a year.

    I believe Esperanto’s main obstacles to be external. Esperanto doesn’t grow faster largely because people haven’t heard of it, or have, but are held back by misconception. These two factors affect people’s reactions to Esperanto negatively.

    Due to its structure, English is unusually ‘damage resistant’ (i.e. it remains intelligible even when horribly mangled), so I suspect it can survive more dialecting than most.

    Because English has a relatively simple grammar, it is often assumed to be an easy language to learn and use. And at a basic level, it is. However, everything else is difficult, making English a hard language in which to become a competent speaker. Its complicated phonetics offer a plethora of very similar vowels that can be distinguished reliably by non-native speakers only under clear conditions and only with a great deal of practice. Its complex intonation system carries much more meaning than is ever taught in English classes – if it is mentioned at all. Its spelling system is anything but, making the non-native speaker constantly unsure how to pronounce or write words. It has a high degree of polysemy and is chock-full of idioms, making speech a minefield of potential errors and traps for the non-native speaker. Its huge vocabulary combines those of two entire languages in an often haphazard, unpredictable, illogical fashion, creating a large mnemonic burden for the non-native speaker.

    What tends to stabilize English – or at least one variety of English – is its current international usage. Esperanto has been unusually stable for much the same reason. Places like the British Isles, with a bewildering array of very different English dialects in spite of their relatively small area, show that English is just as subject to dialectization as any other language.

    It’s the phonetic structure of spoken English which contributes hugely to its communicative power. The Me Tarzan, you Jane mode is embedded in English where the words which carry the message, the nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs are always clearly defined and phonetically distinct while the grammatical and structural entities, auxiliary verbs, conjunctions and prepositions are often reduced to a single sound or contracted – bacon ‘n’ eggs for example.

    English’s phonetics are actually complex and subtle, as mentioned above. Because of the large degree of polysemy (number of meanings per word) and idiom (unpredictable context-dependent shifts in meaning), words are anything but clearly defined for non-native speakers. Pronouns are easy to identify, but nouns, adjective, verbs and even some adverbs are very often interchangeable, and because English has very little inflection, there are few indications of part of speech other than the complex, ambiguous, idiom-laden syntax. The kind of reduction you mention actually makes English more difficult for the non-native speaker, for several reasons: it reduces the redundancy that enhances comprehension, it tends to be pronounced unclearly, it undergoes significant regional variations, and it tends to be idiomatic. Again, real competence in English is anything but easy for non-native speakers.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    Agree very much with Sanjay. Chinese pictograms rely on the same whole-word learning/memorization that touched off the Phonics Wars – the associated difficulty of learning, more than anything else, will ensure Mandarin will never replace english.

    Another point I’ve read about the deficiency of Mandarin is that it does not lend itself easily to an index system of knowledge – current index systems are all based on the IPA system.

    Could the english language be improved? Of course. But then again, it’s not as big a deal as Gandhi claims.

  • Please do not overestimate the position of English.

    I live in London and if anyone says to me “everyone speaks English” my answer is “Listen and look around you”. If people in London do not speak English then the whole question of a global language is completely open.

    The promulgation of English as the world’s “lingua franca” is impractical and linguistically undemocratic. I say this as a native English speaker!

    Impractical because communication should be for all and not only for an educational or political elite. That is how English is used internationally at the moment.

    Undemocratic because minority languages are under attack worldwide due to the encroachment of majority ethnic languages. Even Mandarin Chinese is attempting to dominate as well. The long-term solution must be found and a non-national language, which places all ethnic languages on an equal footing is essential. As a native English speaker, my vote is for Esperanto :)

    See http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=_YHALnLV9XU Professor Piron was a former translator with the United Nations

  • Brian, follower of Deornoth

    Miĉjo,

    I didn’t mean it; I actually know damn-all about either of them. I just knew a couple of fanatical Esperantists a while back, and mentioning Volapuk was one way of livening up a dull evening.

  • I live in London and if anyone says to me “everyone speaks English” my answer is “Listen and look around you”. If people in London do not speak English then the whole question of a global language is completely open.

    The vast majority do, so that does not really tell us much.

    The promulgation of English as the world’s “lingua franca” is impractical

    As it is happening in front of us, clearly not so impractical. English already is the closest this world has ever seen to a global lingua franca and suspect we are by no means at the high water mark yet.

    and linguistically undemocratic.

    I could not care less and in any case, democracy is a political mechanism and this is not a political issue, it is a social one. People are choosing English because it makes sense in the prevailing circumstances and as long as that is the case, English will continue to spread without any government master plans or need for ‘democracy’ to be involved. It is this very fact that it is *not* being driven by political intervention and direction that make this linguistic wave so powerful.

    However Esperanto would make more sense given a clean slate, no argument there, and if the internet had existed in 1887 we would probably be having this discussion in Esperanto now.

  • MarkE

    Working in an multinational office, I have just heard a Turk swapping some very scurrilous gossip with an Italian, using English. Maybe the fact we are in Ireland has some influence, but I have heard the same happen in an office in Rotterdam.

  • James Waterton

    I think we need to take some of the arguments against English posed by the Esperanto camp with a grain of salt. They desire Esperanto to prevail as the world language, and, for this to take place, they must make the case why English is not a suitable world language, and why Esperanto is.

    However, they’re overdoing it a bit – especially their contention that English is impractically difficult to learn. I disagree. It is not critical for non-native English speakers to have a grasp of the nuances of the language that native speakers wield, as the Esperanto acolytes would have us believe. English can (and does) function perfectly well as a world language without this level of proficiency. The reason ESL students aren’t taught much about the intonation patterns of English is because learning this would be confusing and also unnecessary. Someone who uses incorrect intonation (or doesn’t use it at all) will still understand a native speaker who uses English correctly to a high degree of precision, and will also be understood effortlessly by a native speaker.

    More important than intonation is English stress patterns. This is taught in ESL classrooms. However, many non-native English speakers – even advanced speakers – get it wrong all the time. For example, many stress the second part of the word ‘comfortable’, thus saying “comFORTable” with four syllables, instead of the correct “comftable”, which has three (I’d use phonetic symbols if I had the font loaded). This might be incorrect pronunciation, yet it still causes little or no difficulty in understanding for the listener. Someone who uses incorrect intonation and stress patterns can still be easily understood. Consequently, these are not important considerations when weighing the suitability of English as a world language. Apart from that, I accept much of Micjo’s critique of English linguistics. Certainly, English is not an easy language to learn. But it’s not all that difficult, either.

    And I have to say that I think the Esperanto camp is flogging a dead horse. In most countries around the world, the educated elite recognise the necessity of learning English, and insist their children do so. And this practice is trickling down as we speak. In two or three decades, the process will largely be complete. Esperanto will not reach a “critical mass” relative to English in the organic manner described by Micjo above – the English language’s ascendancy is only going to gather speed in the future. Because of this, Esperanto is going to become less and not more relevant.

  • Brian Baker wrote:

    communication should be for all and not only for an educational or political elite. That is how English is used internationally at the moment.

    Not at all. I find it that people in non-English-speaking countries are proficient in exactly the level of English that suits their needs, i.e. a restaurant owner in a Turkish resort town knows enough English (and German, Russian and Hebrew) to tell you what you will be eating and how much it will cost you, and the same is true for a taxi driver or an hotel receptionist. If any of them ever feels the need to discuss political philosophy with their customers, they will probably make the effort to educate themselves in both the subject matter and the language in which they might want to discuss it. And democracy is so overrated anyway – personal choice is much more effective.

  • michael farris

    The current spread of English as a second language has some definite drawbacks to native speakers. Remember, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

    1. It encourages them toward monolingualism (it’s not good to be monolingual when everyone else is bilingual – they can freeze you out anytime they want and you’re more or less at the mercy of their good will and desire to communicate).

    2. English is widespread as a second language, that does not mean it is loved the way it is by native speakers. Is it good for a language to be spoken so often by people who don’t really care about it?

    3. It helps makes any English speaking country a magnet for massive destabilizing immigration (especially illegal immigration and no, eliminating welfare won’t stop that).

    4. It retards progress in many countries. Part of the purpose of English in many countries (including most former colonies in Africa and Asia). This is the rarely examined flipside of the idea that English is tied inevitably to progress and advancement.

    There’s more, but that’s a start. There will be different disadvantages with any other proposed ‘global’ language (including Esperanto, which I speak and read fluently).

  • michael farris

    On English breaking up. Spoken language change operates independently of other factors, as much as people would like to believe otherwise. While language change is not uniform (different languages change at different speeds at different times) when speech and writing are only indirectly and inconsistenly related (as with English) the trend is for drift to gather in speed.

    Internationally, different varieties of English are moving further apart rather than closer together and the supposed unifying powers of hollywood, the bbc and the internet aren’t changing that.

    Recently on a vacation (at a place with a lot of British tourists) I found that eavesdropping I could understand on average about 80 % of British on British conversation (and at times it fell a _lot_ lower). I’m sure that I could have communicated with any of them easily enough face to face (if they toned down their accents) but honestly, I can eavesdrop on Polish conversations more easily than British ones.

    I’d say English is heading in the direction of Arabic and/or Chinese; a single fairly well unified writing system that is largely removed from everyday speech. Different speech communities can directly communicate by using idealized pronunciations that are very distinct from everyday speech.

    That will take a while to happen yet, but the everyday speech of natives will continue to fragment and there’s nothing that will really change that for the foreseeable future.

  • (especially illegal immigration and no, eliminating welfare won’t stop that)

    Why not? I agree it will not stop all immigration, but I do think that it will stop most of the destabilizing kind – or are you saying that all immigration is necessarily destabilizing? Because if you are, then the US pre-welfare state is a very strong case to the contrary.

  • Excellent discussion!

    Perhaps those non-native English-speakers, who favor the hegemony of world English, might not be quite so favorably disposed to it, if they were for example members of the Celtic fringe (e.g. Manx or Irish) and see their language and heritage being eaten up every day by the English-language juggernaut? I’m all for preserving bio- and language diversity, and so I too favor the common SECOND, non-ethnic language Esperanto. No way do I want ‘one ethnic language for the world’!

    And there are 7 reasons why I think so in the Prague Manifesto

  • 1. It encourages them toward monolingualism (it’s not good to be monolingual when everyone else is bilingual – they can freeze you out anytime they want and you’re more or less at the mercy of their good will and desire to communicate).

    Well, yes. As someone who speaks English and only knows a few fragments of a few other languages, I wish my language skills were better. On the other hand, it is seldom wise for multilingual people to try to freeze people out by switching into languages that they do not think the others understand. Situations in which things that are said and not meant to be understood are in fact understood perfectly well happen a lot, in my experience. There will be an unknown Tagalog speaker in the room far more often than is expected.

    No real disagreement though. This is certainly a fair point.

    2. English is widespread as a second language, that does not mean it is loved the way it is by native speakers. Is it good for a language to be spoken so often by people who don’t really care about it?

    It has become loved in some of the places it has ended up in. There are some delightful variants of English in India and Singapore and places like that. It takes a generation or two, perhaps, but it happens.

    There is a question here as to why people are acquiring English. If it is for utilitarian reasons – so I can get a job or communicate with English speaking tourists – then it probably isn’t likely to be loved. If it is being learned for cultural reasons – so I can watch movies that have not been dubbed, or communicate with like minded people in far places on the internet, or read the new Harry Potter novel before the other kids in the playground – then I think it is more likely to be loved. Many people, including I suspect large numbers of children and teenagers, are learning English for cultural reasons. The opportunities to do so and the reasons to do so are greater than ever before. This is an interesting trend, if nothing else.

    3. It helps makes any English speaking country a magnet for massive destabilizing immigration (especially illegal immigration and no, eliminating welfare won’t stop that).

    Firstly, I would contest that this happens more in English speaking countries than in non-English speaking countries. Is there more immigration to Britain than to (say) Germany, France or Italy. Wandering around the outskirts of Berlin, France, or Milan, and comparing it to London, it does not feel so to me.

    And I don’t think immigration – even illegal immigration – is inherently destabilising, at least not when the immigrants come and get jobs. I live in an area full of relatively poor Latin Americans and North Africans. Judging by the amount of advertising I see (in various mixtures of English, Spanish, and French) for immigration related services (“Become legal and increase your social status”) many of them are not legal, but if there are social problems in the area, they tend not to be caused by members of these groups.

    4. It retards progress in many countries. Part of the purpose of English in many countries (including most former colonies in Africa and Asia). This is the rarely examined flipside of the idea that English is tied inevitably to progress and advancement.

    You will have to give me some examples as to what you mean here. This is too broad for me to really know what specifically you are thinking of.

  • We need a common, neutral, rich, robust, easy-to-learn language to be a second (auxiliary) language, without replacing any of our national language, culture, or heritage. One language has proven successful in doing just that, with speakers world-wide. The language is used for every conceivable purpose that a language can be use for. It is phonetic, regular, rich, and precise. That language is Esperanto. The proof is in the pudding.

  • Kristopher

    Sanjay: Might take a while … the Hindi speakers in parliament are reluctant to give up their hopeless dream of making Hindi the official language of India.

    It will take the non-hindi speakers a while to slap them into reality.

    I remember on a train trip through India admitting to the folks in my compartment that I was an IT person … they had been talking to themselves for about a half hour using a random assortment of southern India languages, when suddenly they started gossiping about me in English.

    In front of me.

    Apparently the word “Computer” was used, which caused everyone in the compartment to switch to English without even noticing it.

    I agreed with their assessment of my foreigner dodginess.

    They all asked me simultaneously “Do you speak ?”

    Then they got embarrassed … and then we all laughed our asses off.

  • Kristopher

    Sorry … Let’s try again:

    They asked “Do you speak ( insert random India language here ) ?”

  • Laird

    FWIW, I read the Prague Manifesto cited by Mankso and (with the exception of #3, which I am not competent to judge) I think it’s bunk.

  • Eric

    Returning to the question of whether or not a global language would be a good thing… I wonder. One of the supposed advantages (for the government) of newspeak in Orwell’s 1984 was a thought that couldn’t be expressed in the thinkers language couldn’t be formulated at all. If that’s true, the death of a language, any language, might mean the death of the chance for humans to understand dark matter, say, or develop a faster-than-light drive.

    When I first read the novel I thought the idea was bunk, but with age I become less certain. Perhaps it’s not as ironclad as Orwell envisioned, but we may well be retarding our development as a species if we all start speaking the same language.

  • “we may well be retarding our development as a species if we all start speaking the same language.”

    more likely, mankind would certainly profit from a language that enhances its creative capabilities.
    Esperanto is on the right track. You can very easily find out why by yourself.

  • Perhaps my opposition to English as the future global language, should have included inefficient, as well as impractical and undemocratic. Also potentially fatal, as in its use in air traffic control.

    Its use in air traffic control has even killed people. See http://www.airliners.net/aviation-forums/general_aviation/read.main/3494984/

    We need to move forward and use an easy language, in other words not English, for international aviation use. In this way people would not be killed !

  • Bruce Hoult

    It is an error to think that air traffic control uses English. It uses *words* from English but with very restricted vocabulary and standardized phrases, which the JFK controller does not follow. If he had said “Confirm you have clearance to the gate” then he would almost certainly have been understood the first time.

  • James Waterton

    Brian Barker, the link you posted above does not provide evidence that the use of English in air traffic control “has killed people”. It contains a recording of an exchange between an American air traffic controller and a (presumably) Chinese pilot of a plane, which landed without incident shortly after said exchange took place.

    I’m going to take a wild stab in the dark and posit that you posted the link to support your claim with the assumption that people wouldn’t check it, and simply believe your assertion. This kind of deceptive tactic weakens your argument. And it also reinforces my earlier observation that the Esperanto camp is exaggerating the case against English to make the imperative to adopt your language as the world lingua franca – and discard English – appear more urgent than it actually is.

  • Bill Chapman

    It’s the phonetic structure of spoken English which detracts hugely from its communicative power. Even in parts of the world where English is supposed to be an official language there are huge communication barriers for a native speaker of English. On a recent visit to Cameroon,I found it difficult to understand even those who had had an education in English. In addition to this was the challenge of the ubiquitous pidgin, which is initially even less transparent. By contrast,when I met Esperanto speakers in Cameroon,I had no difficulties at all.

  • In answer to the question on whether or not the use of English in air traffic control has lead to death indeed requires more evidence.

    It is worthwhile to remember that two of the three worst aviation disasters in history (Tenerife and Charkhi Dadri) had language or communications breakdowns cited as primary or secondary factors.

    Please see http://pdf.aiaa.org/preview/CDReadyMATIO02_685/PV2002_5801.pdf

    I cite more evidence if required

  • Brian: even so, what makes you so sure that the use of Esperanto would have prevented these accidents? We are talking about human errors here, which are ultimately unavoidable – or are you saying that the use of Esperanto can prevent humans from acting like humans? Anyway, I get the point: Esperanto is great and superior to English. It may well be the case, but I happen to like English (and Russian, and Hebrew), imperfect as it may be. BTW, Italian and French are music to the ears, and Spanish…I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s just wonderful. All are perfectly imperfect. You know, human:-)

  • Millie Woods

    The chief reason people learn a second language is to have access to information that is not available in their mother tongue or to communicate with people of another language. At this point in history English is the primary language of access in the world. I am a French/English bilingual. French is there because I lived most of my life in Quebec the French speaking area of Canada. English is there because it is far and away my language of preference. Native speakers of English who number close to half a billion and are found on almost every continent in their creative output of ideas and inventions far exceed what is available in my other language with a world wide representation of only seventy million. Speakers of English tend to believe that all languages are equal and that knowledge available to them has its equivalent in all other languages which is most definitely not the case.

  • Brian: even so, what makes you so sure that the use of Esperanto would have prevented these accidents?

    The blindingly obvious truth is that air traffic control errors due to communications issues are caused by people speaking a second (i.e. non-native to themselves) language, and *which* language is used is not really the issue, no mater how much advocate of this or that language might like to think.

    To argue this is a plus for Esperanto is preposterous… the only clear conclusion that comes out of this issue is the one for ever increasing man-out-of-the-loop automation of aviation (which is simply stating the bleedin’ obvious to anyone who knows anything about the subject). The job of a pilot should be to relax in the cockpit, dreaming about the hot stewardesses (in their language of choice) whilst the on-board computers chat non-stop with the traffic control computers in a language made up of a stream of Ones and Zeroes… unless awoken by an alarm telling them to get into Chesley Sullenberger mode because some god-damn birds kamakazi’ed in both engines… at which point a pretty basic *technical* exchange in human language will suffice.

  • OK Perry, your mentioning hot stewardesses gender-neutral flight attendants made me think of the inflatable automatic pilot yet again – it is all your fault!

    (which is simply stating the bleedin’ obvious to anyone who knows anything about the subject)

    That link should prove to anyone that I know everything one needs to know about the subject.

  • Midwesterner

    To build on what Eric and Millie said, people who do not speak a language do not have unmediated access to that language’s archives. The history and practice of individual liberty is written in English.

    An important step in the destruction of liberty is to destroy awareness of it. An important step in the destruction of awareness is to suppress the language in which it is documented. The loss of hegemony of the RCC came with the loss of the translation monopoly from the original by the church. The entire history of liberty is a far greater library than the Bible, difficult to comprehensively and clearly translate, and absence of English skills will be a serious detriment to unfiltered awareness by those lacking them.

  • There is a lot of good stuff on liberty in French and German too… for the most part translated into English fortunately for the Anglosphere’s monolingual masses.

  • Robert

    Historically, languages have fragmented, but historically, most people seldom spoke to anyone living more than 20 miles away. The world is different now

    These days, most of the first world routinely communicates with people living on different continents, and so are exposed to all their language innovations. In the face of that, divergence simply can’t happen.

  • Eric

    more likely, mankind would certainly profit from a language that enhances its creative capabilities.
    Esperanto is on the right track. You can very easily find out why by yourself.

    You’ve missed the point. The development of conceptual thinking and fluency in one’s mother tongue occurs at roughly the same time. The brain development, the way the neurons are actually wired together, of a Mandarin speaker is different in some quantifiable way from that of an English speaker. Should the entire world switch to a common language, any language, we’ll be losing out on the whatever advantages that differentiation provides.

    The point is it may be the development of practical fusion power or a hyperdrive is just waiting for a brilliant user of some obscure bush language in deepest Africa to provide the critical insight. I’m leery of rejoicing in the idea of a monoculture language for roughly the same reason I don’t like a monoculture in crops – in my engineer’s mind there are some advantages to doing the same thing a bunch of different ways.

  • Nuke Gray

    Language power is based on economic power. English spread because the British Empire became strong. French lost economic strength, and thus linguistic strength, when the French didn’t embrace industrialisation.
    Whilst Esperanto might have some pleasant features, it definitely has some planned elements. I have always been surprised that Communists didn’t adopt it as their language. That would be a good point for discussion- do social planners favour planned languages? If not, why not?

  • This is a terrific debate about the future of global inter-communication.

    There seems to be a misunderstanding that Esperanto is nobody’s mother tongue. This is not so.

    Please see http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=l0ErKbLL5WQ

  • This is a terrific debate about the future of global inter-communicatio.

    There seems to be a misunderstanding that Esperanto is nobody’s mother tongue. This is not so.

    Please see http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=l0ErKbLL5WQ

  • David Gillies

    I think we can probably gauge the likelihood of Esperanto becoming a true world language as inversely proportional to the degree of monomania exhibited in its supporters (this is true of many other things as well).

    For a native English speaker living in a majority-English speaking country, the utility (other than aesthetic) of learning another language is close to zero. A limited subset of other languages can be substituted for English in that above statement, to one degree or another. But try substituting ‘Esperanto’ to see how ridiculous it is.

  • Sunfish

    David…

    You don’t understand! English is the language of linguistic hegemony! And so are Spanish and French and Mandarin and Hindi! Only this made-up language isn’t like that! (And it’s father can beat up the other made-up language’s father too!)

    Seriously, though…

    As a native English-speaker in a predominantly-Anglophone society, I’m with you about 90%. However, I’m willing to bet that probably 90% of our non-Anglophone immigrants[1] all speak one particular language, and so IMHO there is actual utility to learning that one language.

    [1] Do the immigrants of questionable documentation status to the UK also all speak the same language?

  • David

    Are you talking of the monomania of English speakers or of Esperanto speakers :)

    For those who think Esperanto won’t work, or listen to “experts” who say it will not succeed, please have a look at http://www.cazitech.com/press_quotes.htm

  • I think we need to take some of the arguments against English posed by the Esperanto camp with a grain of salt. They desire Esperanto to prevail as the world language, and, for this to take place, they must make the case why English is not a suitable world language, and why Esperanto is.

    I’m sure it wasn’t your intention, but your wording here suggests that the Esperanto community harbors an ulterior motive or is being deceptive about Esperanto. There is some truth in your sentences above, but the logic flows in the reverse direction. Esperantists don’t just theorize about Esperanto, they experience it by using it, noting that it is indeed easy to learn and use and capable of expressing anything and everything. Knowing at least one other language (in many cases, two or more others), they compare, discuss and conclude that Esperanto is much easier to learn and use than any national language, including English, which translates into a much lower cost of acquisition and a much greater likelihood for the average learner to achieve competence. They are aware that there is a language barrier that people desire to overcome for various reasons, but observe their struggles and their overall modest success in learning national languages, including English, and the problems that result when they serve as international auxiliary languages. The conclusion – not the premise – is that Esperanto is an excellent proven solution to the language problem, certainly a worthwhile alternative to existing solutions, and therefore worth promoting. Esperantists who make these claims are very sincere about them, and anyone can check them by learning Esperanto and getting involved in the community.

    To say that Esperantists desire Esperanto to prevail as THE world language is only partly true – not because there is no desire to promote Esperanto, but because of the qualifier “as the world language”. This expression can be interpreted at least two ways: as a unique replacement for other languages, and as the sole international auxiliary language. I’m guessing you didn’t mean “unique replacement for other languages”, but in case you did, most Esperantists see Esperanto’s vocation as a common second language, not a replacement for national languages. I think you probably meant “sole international auxiliary language”, and if you did, most Esperanto speakers actually don’t have a huge problem with the existence of national languages functioning as such. What tends to bother them is when they become mandatory – de jure or de facto – without adequately addressing the problems they were thought to solve, especially when a better alternative is available.

    However, they’re overdoing it a bit – especially their contention that English is impractically difficult to learn. I disagree. It is not critical for non-native English speakers to have a grasp of the nuances of the language that native speakers wield, as the Esperanto acolytes would have us believe.

    All the nuances wielded by native speakers, no. But some are unavoidable, enough to make English difficult beyond a very basic level, and increasingly difficult at progressively higher levels. Phrasal verbs, for example, are highly idiomatic but extensively used. The idiomatic and somewhat messy Latinate/Germanic vocabulary dichotomy is an issue even at a basic level. Polysemy is high in a number of very frequent words to which even beginners are exposed and which tend to enter into idiomatic expressions. There is a marked tendency to use simple juxtaposition of nouns to express relationships between them, but the relationship is often hazy and often idiomatic.

    English can (and does) function perfectly well as a world language without this level of proficiency. The reason ESL students aren’t taught much about the intonation patterns of English is because learning this would be confusing and also unnecessary. Someone who uses incorrect intonation (or doesn’t use it at all) will still understand a native speaker who uses English correctly to a high degree of precision, and will also be understood effortlessly by a native speaker.

    Intonation is not as common an issue as some of the others I mentioned. However, it is one of many that have smaller impact individually, but collectively make English hard. An example of intonation that would be very difficult for a non-native speaker to distinguish: a French book vs. a French book. The former, with both “French” and “book” stressed, is a book from France, with “French” as an adjective. The latter, with only “French” stressed, is a textbook for learning French, with “French” as a noun. Subtle, idiomatic, and typical of the intonation patterns of English.

    Consequently, these are not important considerations when weighing the suitability of English as a world language.

    For those who learn English solely to use it in places like airports, banks, hotels and restaurants, or only where they will interact with other non-native speakers, I would tend to agree. However, for everyone else, involvement with or exposure to natives becomes unavoidable. You want to use it passively, just to enjoy movies, books, and so forth? The vast majority are produced by native speakers for native-speaker audiences, with the full force of all the difficulties I mentioned earleir; unless you master them, you will miss out on a great deal. You want to learn it to get ahead at work? Just to understand documentation? Written mostly by native speakers. To function in a multi-national workplace? You will eventually have to interact and/or compete with native English speakers in an environment where the ability to communicate, demonstrate and negotiate is of great and ever-increasing value.

    And I have to say that I think the Esperanto camp is flogging a dead horse. In most countries around the world, the educated elite recognise the necessity of learning English, and insist their children do so. And this practice is trickling down as we speak. In two or three decades, the process will largely be complete.

    I agree that the educated elite see English in that manner. But at what cost? If English replaces the local language by becoming the native language, the local language will have been lost, a tragedy decried by so many in this forum. If not, even if started early, the total time required to reach an adequate level of competency will be enormous, taking valuable time from other subjects, including the students’ native languages, for results that are, in most cases, only mediocre. What Esperantists point out is that if students everywhere learned Esperanto first, they would, after only a year of serious, applied study, have a language with which they could communicate with the world. The time saved could be spent on other endeavours, and if those other endeavours should include learning English, it would be considerably easier to pick up.

    Esperanto will not reach a “critical mass” relative to English in the organic manner described by Miĉjo above – the English language’s ascendancy is only going to gather speed in the future. Because of this, Esperanto is going to become less and not more relevant.

    Actually, Esperanto is already growing organically, not by leaps and bounds, but slowly and surely – with notable hotspots in places like Brazil, China and parts of Africa – almost certainly faster (percentagewise) than the Earth’s population. It does so with almost no governmental or commercial backing. There is some publicity for Esperanto, more so with the advent of the Internet, but it is decidedly low-key and low-pressure. Most people who go on to learn Esperanto find out about it because they stumble upon it, not because it was shoved in their faces, then learn it, not because they have to, but because they want to, in spite of the concurrent growth of English.

    The real question is whether current trends will extend into the future. I see no reason why Esperanto’s plodding forward should not continue. With the world’s population expected to peak at around 10 billion, in some decades, perhaps in 100 years, Esperanto could reach a size large enough to start a domino effect, provided English does not supplant too many other languages by then as a native language. However, should Esperanto be made a subject in primary and secondary schools, that could all change very quickly, as a contingent of competent Esperanto speakers rises and reaches adulthood.

  • Nuke Gray

    I read a book on religions, and conversions to them, and they pointed out that most people converted to a religion because most of their friends were involved already. I wonder if becoming an Esperanter is like that? A friend introduces you to this new language/religion, and your friends join in, and soon it seems to make sense to do the same. Christianity grew from a few hundred to millions in a few centuries, because of a steady conversion/growth rate. Give it another century or two, and they’ll take over the state, and outlaw other tongues! (We have the one TRUE language- we don’t need the rest!)

  • Give it another century or two, and they’ll take over the state, and outlaw other tongues! (We have the one TRUE language- we don’t need the rest!)

    Except the exact opposite is what we see. Esperantists tend to love languages and often speak several, some before coming into Esperanto, some after learning it as a first foreign language (I speak French, Arabic, some German and a bit of Hebrew in addition to English and Esperanto, and I’m by no means exceptional; perhaps other Esperantists reading this might like to chime in with the languages they speak). International Esperanto gatherings like the World Esperanto Congress offer classes in the local language, which are heartily attended. Esperantists tend to be strong proponents of language diversity; the Prague Manifesto writes it out explicitly.

    So, the short answer to your question is a most categorical NO!.

  • Language power is based on economic power. English spread because the British Empire became strong. French lost economic strength, and thus linguistic strength, when the French didn’t embrace industrialisation. Whilst Esperanto might have some pleasant features, it definitely has some planned elements. I have always been surprised that Communists didn’t adopt it as their language. That would be a good point for discussion- do social planners favour planned languages? If not, why not?

    Very interesting comment. First, about Esperanto’s planned features. Esperanto was a centrally planned language back in 1887, but it was very soon thereafter set free by its inventor to evolve at the whims of the community, with only a small immovable core of grammar and vocabulary to assure stability, and even that was a request (with which the community voluntarily complied). It has since matured into a complete, living freely evolving natural language, that has just happened to resist change, not because it is centrally planned, but because its international usage and vocation are strong incentives against radical change or fracturing into dialects.

    I have an Esperanto manual published in France several decades ago with a preface by the French Communist party recommending Esperanto as the language of the proletariat brotherhood in their international struggle against the oppression of the ruling classes. I think this recommendation was issued, not because of any appeal from central planning, but because of Esperanto’s international vocation and its lack of support from wealthier classes. The Soviet Union at one point encouraged study of Esperanto, but when Stalin realized that Esperantists not only could, but did, communicate freely with other Esperantists outside the Soviet Union through the medium of Esperanto, he did an about-face and cracked down on them, exiling some to Siberia, imprisoning others, and executing yet others.

    My experience with Esperanto is that it has the wherewithal to appeal to many people for many reasons, depending on how it’s perceived. Lest you think that it’s only the language of Communists, there is an International Catholic Esperanto Union, a weekly Vatican broadcast in Esperanto, a periodical Catholic revue in Esperanto, a yearly Christian ecumenical congress in Esperanto, a Nigerian pastor who publishes weekly on the Internet in Esperanto. The Baha’i and Oomoto faiths take a positive stance toward Esperanto, encouraging their members to learn and use it. A vast array of other belief systems are represented in the Esperanto community, including atheism, agnosticism, or no interest in any belief system at all.

    To answer your final question, I know of no evidence that social planners favour planned languages. That said, one fear shared by a significant number of Esperantists is that if a government should ever grant official status to Esperanto, it might be tempted to tinker with the language, which could maim or destroy it.

  • I read a book on religions, and conversions to them, and they pointed out that most people converted to a religion because most of their friends were involved already. I wonder if becoming an Esperanter is like that? A friend introduces you to this new language/religion, and your friends join in, and soon it seems to make sense to do the same.

    I really doubt it. I knew no other Esperantists when I learned it; I stumbled across it in a Usenet group. I learned it, not because it “made sense” in some indescribable, irrational way, but because I looked into it, tried it a bit, saw that it was easy and fun, and went from there. Having become fluent at it, I have come to understand rationally how beneficial it can be, just as I understand how a car, a job, an education, good health and general peace can be beneficial. I suspect strongly that most other Esperantists share my experience. And even if you’re introduced to something by a friend, that doesn’t make it a cult. How many couples are formed through a mutual acquaintance? How many people pick a school or an employer because of recommendations by friends? Same with Esperanto.

    Again, the answer to your question is NO!.

  • Nuke Gray

    Sure, Esperanters are peaceful NOW! History shows that when a small group becomes big, then it changes.
    And I am sure there are different reasons as to why people adopt tongues or faiths, but being introduced to something by a friend is a factor, none the less.

  • Sure, Esperanters are peaceful NOW! History shows that when a small group becomes big, then it changes.

    You overestimate the degree of cohesion in the Esperanto community. I actually also expect it to change as it grows, but if anything, the cohesion will drop, not increase, as the community becomes larger and therefore more impersonal overall. There is no Esperanto conspiracy now, nor will there be when it grows larger. I suppose, though, that if you know nothing about it, it’s not hard to convince yourself that something sinister is afoot.

    And I am sure there are different reasons as to why people adopt tongues or faiths, but being introduced to something by a friend is a factor, none the less.

    Absolutely. Still, I reiterate: dissemination through one’s friends, even as the primary means, does not make a cult of something. What makes it a cult is how it works internally. Esperanto just doesn’t fit the definition of a cult.

    By the way, the term is “Esperantist”, not “Esperanter”.

  • Nuke Gray

    The correct term for someone who rants on and on about Esperanto IS Esperanter!
    In one regard, you are right- studying Esperanto does make you appreciate the superiority of your own language more! What’s with the inbuilt sexism? Hundo = Male dog, Hundino = female Dog. Why not have Hundulo = male dog?
    And some words contradict the rules of Esperanto itself! For instance, ‘-er’ can mean ‘part’. ‘-anto’ is an active ending, a doer. Does ‘Esp-’ mean anything? ‘Esperi’ means ‘to hope’, but the ‘er’ ending suggests another root word! Where is the overriding logic in the very name of the language!? I could go on about ‘Apro’ + ‘ilo’ (boar + tool) = April, the name of the month, but you get the picture.

  • Might I suggest you study a bit more? “Hundo” is not “male dog”, but “dog”. There already is a way to say “male dog”: “virhundo” (“hundulo” means “dog-person”, not “male dog”). Even if “hundo” really meant “male dog”, surely female dogs wouldn’t feel sleighted, and humans wouldn’t care. The only words whose root form designates a male, with “-ino” indicating the female, are a very small number of words for humans, mostly family relationships (e.g., “viro” = “man”, “virino” = “woman”; “patro” = “father”, “patrino” = “mother”). Whether or not the “-ino” suffix is sexist is a matter of point of view; does the derivation go from primary to secondary (which can be perceived as sexist against females), or from general to specific (not particularly sexist), or from neutered to sexed (arguably sexist against males)? At any rate, I’ve never felt it to be sexist, and I’ve never heard female Esperantists complain, either.

    No rules have been broken. As it has always been, to form the constituent element, you add “-er-”; the instrument, “-il-”. That said, Esperanto has never claimed to be completely unambiguous, let alone flawless – only to work well. Words that are ambiguously parsable out of context are few; ambiguous in context, extremely rare. From my experience, significant lexical ambiguity is so rare in everyday conversation and writing as to be negligeable. In real life, the derivational word-building system works very well and is imbued with a clear logic, in spite its imperfections.

    About ranting by Esperantists: what has been said here that could be termed extravagant, violent, bombastic or declamatory? I read back through the posts in favor of Esperanto, including my own, and while the strength of the arguments varies, the points made are relevant and respectful.

  • I find the fact that indivuals want to learn Esperanto, in order to insult Esperanto speakers, an interesting concept :)

    With regard to English versus Esperanto as the future global language can I suggest http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g2LPVcsL2k0

    Dr Kvasnak teaches English at Florida Atlantic University

  • > Eric

    The development of conceptual thinking and fluency in one’s mother tongue occurs at roughly the same time. The brain development, the way the neurons are actually wired together, of a Mandarin speaker is different in some quantifiable way from that of an English speaker. Should the entire world switch to a common language, any language, we’ll be losing out on the whatever advantages that differentiation provides.

    According to the latest findings, the brain areas related to the “mother” language are disjointed from those related to later acquired languages.

    As English is a language much more difficult to learn than Esperanto, so to reach proficiency, one has to start learning it very soon, what interferes with the learning process of the mother tongue.
    Entire populations have been “converted” to English after a few generations.

    Esperanto is not meant to replace any existing language. This would be resented by the majority of Esperantists as a disaster.
    I believe the systematic study of Esperanto should not start before 12.

    The risk you describe could (theoretically) exist if one language becomes the planetary language. It’s quite another matter to prove Esperanto is a greater thread than English (among other candidates).

    It is also difficult to measure the differences in a Chinese brain and an English one.
    I may only tell that I understand them both when they speak Esperanto. So their brain should not be that different from mine.

    RemuŠ