Posted by Lexington Green on June 15th, 2003 (All posts by Lexington Green)
Susan Sontag has this piece entitled “The World As India”. She engages in a lot of tortured and empty agonizing about what it means to do a translation. Pure academic navel-lint gathering. She then embarks on a trivial and superficial discussion of the idea that the world is (linguistically) India writ-large, which it isn’t. Then in her last few paragraphs she gets to what one might reasonably think is the point, the establishment of English as a world language.
She offers this dunderheaded speculation:
“…the initial ascendancy to international lingua franca of the tongue in which Shakespeare wrote was something of a fluke. One of the key moments was the adoption in the 1920s (I believe) of English as the international language of civilian aviation.”
The first thing you notice is what a truly crappy prose style she has. She gets paid for this? The second thing you notice is she has nothing to say you haven’t read before, and written better. Third, and least excusable, she is too damned lazy to do any research at all. Of course, there has been buckets of research regarding the historical facts surrounding the spread of English around the world. But, rather than, say, read a book, she just tosses in the weasel phrase “(I believe)” when she makes something up. Too bad no one else in any other profession can do that.
One need not look far to find an example of the right way to do it. Five minutes on Google located H.L. Mencken’s excellent essay which has got be about seventy years old now. Mencken provides facts and analysis beyond anything Sontag ever dreamed of on this very topic. His essay “The Future of the Language” may or may not be considered state of the art amongst modern linguists, but it is pretty convincing to the layman:
The history of every language of Europe, since the earliest days of which we have record, is a history of simplifications. Even such languages as German, which still cling to a great many exasperating inflections, including the absurd inflection of the article for gender, are less highly inflected than they used to be, and are proceeding slowly but surely toward analysis. The fact that English has gone further along that road than any other civilized tongue is not a proof of its decrepitude, but a proof of its continued strength. Brought into free competition with another language, say German or French or Spanish, it is almost certain to prevail, if only because it is vastly easier—that is, as a spoken language—to learn. The foreigner essaying it, indeed, finds his chief difficulty, not in mastering its forms, but in grasping its lack of forms. He doesn’t have to learn a new and complex grammar; what he has to do is to forget grammar.
Once he has done so, the rest is a mere matter of acquiring a vocabulary. He can make himself understood, given a few nouns, pronouns, verbs and numerals, without troubling himself in the slightest about accidence. “Me see she” is bad English, perhaps, but it would be absurd to say that it is obscure—and on some not too distant tomorrow it may be very fair American.
Mencken also mentions the practical, commercial reasons for the dominance of English:
The English control of the sea has likewise carried the language into far places. There is scarcely a merchant ship-captain on deep water, of whatever nationality, who does not find some acquaintance with it necessary, and it has become, in debased forms, the lingua franca of Oceanica and the Far East generally. “Three-fourths of the world’s mail matter,” says E. H. Babbitt, “is now addressed in English,” and “more than half of the world’s newspapers are printed in English.”
None of this is novel. To the contrary, it is old hat. But at least Mencken was a decent writer. And at least he knew that English as the dominant language in maritime trade went back deep into history. And at least he respected his reader enough to provide some facts.
Sontag is no doubt typical of the supposedly smart people of our age who lack the most basic awareness of the practical realities of the past. She has no feel for the fact that Britain and America have been the dominant ocean-going traders for over two centuries, and what that must necessarily mean. Why does she have no gut feel about historical development and historical causation? Because she views history as subjective and mutable, a field for ideological score-settling. As a result Sontag and other would-be savants remain nothing but idiots. Unable to make any sane use of the historical record, they can add nothing to the discussion of current events or future policy which is worth listening to.
Anyway, we citizens of the blogosphere must be wary, and avoid any smugness. While we are not likely to become as bone-stupid as Sontag, we face certain hazards. We can become enamored of ephemera, of whatever was posted fifteen minutes ago. Very often the old guys (some of whom don’t even have anything online) were often better, wiser, more lucid, more learned men (and women) than we are. So, don’t just click the mouse, hit the books, too.