Old News: English as a World Language

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.

9 thoughts on “Old News: English as a World Language”

  1. As you point out so well, the ascendancy of English wasn’t some random “fluke”. America and Britain have been super powers in trade, technology, industry, and political power for at least two centuries. At the start of the 20th century they were perhaps first among equals. But they advanced and grew quickly, as did their influence. Americans invented the Airplane and pioneered heavier than air flight (which explains the “flukiness” of English becoming the language of aviation). Since the end of WWII especially America has been the primary engine of technological development in the world. The digital computer, data networking, useful communications, weather, remote sensing, and positioning satellites, long distance communications, advanced materials technology, the useful civilian and military jet aircraft, all of these things, though they may have been initially invented in other countries, were developed into useability primarily by and in the United States. Add in the sheer population and industrial capacity of the anglosphere and it’s easy to see why it has become so influential.

    But there’s something even more important in the mix I think. The anglosphere is an active force, and a positive force as well. It has engaged the world in a variety of ways (militarily, politically, technologically, culturally, and in trade) and done so in a largely positive fashion. It has not sought, as the Soviet Union or the former European empires did, to subjegate or control. To create captive markets or to control sources of natural resources. Rather, it has sought to trade freely and to lift up. To truly “civilize” in the most realistic meaning of the word. It has fought and defeated oppressive tyrannies, and replaced them with free democracies. It has fought and defeated (most often indirectly) poverty and lack of development and replaced them with prosperity, technological advancement, and industrial strength. Look at Germany, Austria, Italy, Japan. Once they were held under the boot heal of fascism and militarism, now they are free. Look at South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore, once they were poor 3rd world nations, now they are approaching per capita prosperity levels of the developed world. In another decade and another after that there will be more similar examples. Iraq. Malaysia. Who else? Iran? Indonesia? Do not think that such things do not matter. They do, greatly. No matter how much grousing at the US the people of the world may do, they still instinctively know the generative source of freedom and prosperity in the modern world.

  2. Robin, I yield to no one in my devotion to the Anglosphere — particularly the part known as the U S of A. My only quibble is that you impute perhaps too noble motives to Britain and the US, especially if you go back a century or two. The Irish, to say nothing of the Apaches might take issue. But, generally, you are on the money.

  3. What terrible writing! I wonder if anyone proofread it or is she considered too brilliant to need it? Lazy and ugly to read – kind of sums up contemporary ivory tower writing and thinking nowadays, doesn’t it?

  4. Oh, I agree Lex, the active benevolancy of the anglosphere is a relatively new invention. That is a subject I have long put off addressing, it’s a deep and fascinating subject, maybe someday I’ll get around to it. Nevertheless, this benevolancy is a huge “force multiplier” for American and anglospheric influence, as witnessed by the much enhanced impact on the world of the anglosphere in the 20th and 21st centuries. Certainly the Wright brothers are part of the reason why the English language has been adopted so widely, but don’t think that Lincoln, Churchill, and Martin Luther King Jr. don’t have their role in that popularity as well.

  5. Still, Mencken judges languages by mentioning the “absurd inflections” that are present in German, as if English were the ultimate reference in the linguistic universe. Unlike Sontag, I’m not an anglophone, but I think wishing (as she does) that English becomes the world language is analogous to wishing that English sees the same fate as Latin – namely, being overused, misused, misunderstood and over-customized in simplicity’s sake. English, as it is spreading, is used with decreasing regard to proper grammar and acceptable style, full of acronyms, buzzwords and whatnot which makes it progressively harder to understand. In my view, the further spread of English will likely lead to its inevitable demise.

  6. One of the theories which I have encountered was that a good portion of English’s viability has been due to the almost absolute lack of regimentation and regulation. In languages such as Latin, “proper” Latin became more and more formal and increasingly arcane in a bid to weed out the “yokels” who didn’t speak the most “proper Latin”. As a result, the language became increasingly static and cumbersome and much more difficult to master.

    Similarly, when English and French were roughly equal in primacy, the French (as well as the Spanish and others) decided to preserve the purity of their languages, making the jump between proper speech and utter inadequacy quite large. Englishm, however, continues to evolve – even into forms that are more accessable to new English speakers. This, combined with the relative simplicity of basic grammar means that a foreigner can communicate more effectively with 100 words of English than I can with, lets say, 100 words of Russian or Arabic.

  7. Granted, English evolves – but so do other languages. But my point is that this very evolution of English could likely bring about its own, slow debasement. As people around the world learn English as they see it and as they would like it to be, what is still a rich and eloquent language could eventually split into several dialects. Thus, the very “customizability” of English makes it extremely susceptible to dialectalization – much more so, at least, than French.

    In addition, knowing 100 words of English without the necessities of grammar does not a fluent speaker make. Statistics (combined with my own late-night, utterly useless calculations) seem to show that even as the use of English is said to have spread significantly over the last decades or so, a whole 5 billion humans still do not speak a single word of English.

    As its global expansion continues, English is widely being misused and monstrously botched up by both bilingual (or trilingual, …) and native speakers who show little or no respect for the profoundly meaningful institution that is language. English is fundamentally such a rich and bountiful language – but this very richness is being abandoned in favor of luring more and more foreign-language speakers. With its growth in use, English is becoming a mere means of communication deprived of cultural foundations and lacking linguistic discipline, and will eventually carry no more meaning than morse code.

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