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The New Word Order: Or, the Awful English Language (With Apologies to Mark Twain)
2006, Q3 (February 19, 2007)
By Ronald W. Garrison, Carolina Chapter Senior Member

Ronald Garrison
Ronald Garrison

In my last article, I described some of the difficulties involved in preserving various kinds of information over long periods of time. Obviously one of the higher-order issues, for some types of content, is the language used, which must be comprehensible by any future discoverer of our messages. This is an issue potentially even more complex than those involving computer languages: Although human language changes far more slowly than computer languages, it is defined with far less certainty and rigor, and there are thousands of such languages currently in use.

An interest in preserving information leads to two different desires: On one hand, like many scholars, I deplore the extinction of languages, and do not want whatever ideas are tied to those languages to die with them. At the same time, a single language, in which much of the world's business can be conducted, has always seemed attractive. Fortunately, there does not appear to be much conflict between these two objectives; however, humanity does not seem to be doing very well in satisfying either of them. What follows is an assessment of the role of English in satisfying that second desire, the one for a global language.

A very common point of view among native English speakers is a kind of triumphalism, in which English is seen as the emerging common language of the world. This view is expressed very convincingly in the first episode of Robert McCrum's nine-part video series, The Story of English (narrated by Robert MacNeil), and in its companion book. Very impressive facts are pointed out. English is used all over the world; it has transcended the need for British or North American economic or military power, and has taken on a life of its own; aircraft and ship communications everywhere are in English; and whole regions of the world, particularly sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian subcontinent, rely on English as a substitute for the many local languages of those areas. One might easily conclude that, for native English speakers, there is little need to learn other languages, and even less need to be concerned about any solutions to language barriers other than their own mother tongue.

Not so fast. There are important questions about how dominant English will be on the world scene in the coming decades, about how desirable English would be as a dominant language for any world community, and even whether English is the single language that we like to think it is.

Just as Chinese, the only real rival to English in number of speakers, is not a single language but several languages connected by a unified writing system, English has deep schisms of its own. English has many pidgins, creoles, and dialects. There are regional variations, such as "Spanglish" and "Japlish." Even the English used for special purposes such as airline traffic and sea commerce is not English as we normally think of it: instead, special, very restricted subsets are used, referred to by such terms as "airspeak" and "seaspeak."

The kind of "standard English," the language of the well-educated, that might be thought of as the world's common language is indeed widely used all over the world, by hundreds of millions of people; but a recent report, English Next, commissioned by the British Council, casts doubt on how dominant we can expect our language to be in the coming century. Even the proponents of an ambitious educational effort, the World English Project, described in that report will, if they succeed, only make English speakers of about three billion people, of a total world population of some seven to eight billion. At the same time, the report acknowledges competition from other languagesfor example, a surging interest in Mandarin Chinese in east Asia, particularly South Korea, and in Spanish in the southwestern US The report cites an estimate that, in 2003, English represented only about 28% of the global economy a percentage that is, without doubt, decreasing.

The Internet, once thought by many to be a medium for ensuring the dominance of English, turns out to be developing along a very different course. English Next cites estimates of 85% of Web pages in English in 1998, dropping to 68% in 2000. It may well be that, by now, there are more Web pages in Chinese than in English. Perhaps even more important, it is estimated that only about 8 to 15% of Web content in English uses the language as an interlanguage between nations and cultures. This means that, as Internet access grows, we can expect most Web content to involve people using their own native languages, so that the share of English on the Web can only shrink in coming years.

A very different question is whether worldwide dominance of English, even if it were to happen, would be a good thing. At the risk of stating the obvious, let me point out that English has serious difficulties that interfere with any role in facilitating serious communication among billions of people. It is an extraordinarily difficult language to learn. Its proponents like to point to its propensity for incorporating elements from other languages, but whether this is desirable or not depends greatly on the uses to which the language is put. Our mother tongue is a wonderful medium for poetry, literature, humor, endless wordplay, and even great rhetoric (and is surely without parallel for malediction!) But for business, science, engineering, news reporting, and other prosaic pursuits, the anarchic model of development that English has always followed can be seen as a profound weakness.

English is not, as some seem to think, going to the dogs; rather, it is and has always been a mutt, a pastiche of almost random acquisitions from a series of invasions (by Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and French, primarily), followed by contributions gained from others when it became the invader, as first the UK and then the US rose to positions of global dominance. Any attempt to standardize the language seemed completely contrary to the laissez-faire attitude that guided its evolution; so that, for example, when William Caxton, circa 1476, took on the question of how to spell words for the purpose of printing and, reasonably enough, decided to spell words as he heard them spoken, he gave us spellings that were far from phonetic, simply because large groups of people, even within walking distance of each other, pronounced words differently.

(By the way, English is not written with a large enough set of letters to directly map to all of its various phonemes — its alphabet is, like so many things about it, borrowed from somewhere else.)

As we know, the problem does not stop with spelling. English has parts of speech, but there are few word endings or anything else to indicate those parts, so there is little to prevent confusion and ambiguity. Thus we easily generate constructions such as "Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana." We get "plus" becoming a conjunction, and used to start sentences. We get "for free" used to describe the price of services, with "free," an adjective, suddenly subbing as a noun. And "up" has become a verb, as in "We've upped our standards — now up yours!? At times the language itself seems to almost force inconsistency and sloppiness for example, in the way it becomes almost impossible to avoid the phrase "different than."

It's small wonder, then, that even Robert McCrum acknowledges that, "Despite the myths, English is, from some points of view, a spectacularly bad choice as the world's alternative language."

If we suppose that a global interlanguage would be desirable, and that such a language should be logically structured, easy to learn, and favorable to clear expression, how might such a happy condition be created? There have been numerous attempts at constructing new languages, such as Esperanto, that have enjoyed very limited success. McCrum refers to these as monuments to late nineteenth century scientific rationalism, and although it could be questioned whether early twenty-first century postmodern irrationalism is any better, his point is noted — idealism may not be the best approach, at least not where something as plastic and uncontrollable as language is concerned.

But does that justify the viewpoint at the opposite extreme, which says that nothing can be done, that everything should be left to the workings of some imagined free market of words? Perhaps it is time to think outside the box. Perhaps academics who study such matters should deviate more from their natural inclination to "describe but not prescribe" in matters of language, and help us to find a way to guide the development of one or more existing languages in a desirable direction, without putting forth a complete solution that requires solving the whole problem in a single leap.

It may be, however, that the modern media environment, by its very nature, will offer powerful resistance to any attempt to improve things at more than a glacial pace. The linguist John McWhorter, in his book The Power Of Babel: A Natural History of Language, wonders whether the prevalence of the written word in the modern world, by exposing people to a common language, will cause the evolution of language to virtually stop. At first, this seemed to me like an odd concern, coming from someone who had just spent much of his book describing how the evolution of language is not progress, but is really more like continental drift in Earth's crust, where the change is not clearly for the better or worse, but is merely change. But if we think in terms of trying to guide the evolution of language toward a more desirable condition, then under such conditions, perhaps his concern is worth noting.

If he is right, then will the global interconnectedness of our conversations freeze the features of our languages in place? If so, farther into the future than anyone can foresee, much of the human race will be stuck with English as we now know it.

Ron can be reached at rgarrison1 at nc dot rr dot com. End of article.

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