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  • The American moment is waning. Will English pull us through?

    The American economy is shrinking. The trade deficit is growing. U.S. military intervention is ineffective. Immigration is out of control. Not to worry, though, English will pull us through.

    At least that’s what Ali Wyne, a junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, argues on the website of Foreign Policy. Wyne reassures anyone worried that the American moment is waning, “the growing influence of English will ensure that the United States doesn’t fade into the sunset anytime soon.”

    According to Wyne, English has just added its millionth word, giving it a vocabulary twice as large as any other language. Also: there are more nonnative than native speakers of the language; everything important in journalism and in science is published in English; there are 650 million speakers of English in China and India alone; it’s the foreign language of choice around the world, even in France; and the number of languages in the world will decline precipitously from today’s count of 7,000, give or take, to a couple of hundred by 2100.

    Wyne then points to the once-global languages Latin and French to conclude, “great powers and global lingua francas tend to go together.”

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    According to Wyne, great powers and great languages go together. But remember, too, what the linguist Max Weinreich is supposed to have said, ‘A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.’

    All this makes for a great term paper (Wyne is a recent graduate of MIT), creative, exuberant, positivistic, and upbeat. Unfortunately, like too much journalism about the state of English, it’s all based on myth and misinformation.

    First off, English doesn’t have 1,000,000 words. Recently a publicity seeker has been making this claim, but it’s not based on any reliable word count. The Oxford English Dictionary records some 600,000 English words, many of them obscure and technical, and most people use a small fraction of that total. Besides, when it comes to vocabulary, size doesn’t matter. Shakespeare used 28,000 different words in his plays and poems, while the King James translation of the Bible has about 8,000 – and no one would dispute the intellectual or aesthetic power of either. Plus, I could count to a million and then claim I just added another million words to English. However, saying it doesn’t make it so.

    As for the “fact” that there are three times as many people using English as a second language than there are native speakers, that may be true if it means you can say “Hello,” “dude,” “O.K.,” “Coca-Cola,” and “Yankee go home.” But if it means that you can use the language effectively in a variety of professional and informal situations, then the number of second-language speakers who have a real command of English is way smaller. For example, although English is a national language in India, only about 5% of the population – maybe 50 million people – actually speak it.

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    Yes, many students in China, Korea, and Japan are learning English, but a few hours’ instruction a week doesn’t generally lead to fluency. That’s no surprise: although many students in America are learning Spanish in school, most can barely make their way through a Taco Bell menu, let alone speak to someone in Madrid or Buenos Aires.

    It’s true that English is the language of science, where it’s often supplemented by math, graphs, and charts. But so far as journalism goes, most readers get their news in their native language, not in English translation. And while the internet began its life in English, the dominance of English on the Web waned sharply once computers spread around the world and software allowed the representation of non-roman writing systems on line. Wikipedia still has close to 3 million articles in English, but German, French, Japanese and Dutch are catching up fast, and there are even 115,000 entries on Wikipedia’s Esperanto site.

    Finally there’s the issue of language loss. Wyne’s dismal prediction that there will be only 200 languages left by 2100 is way out of line, and even if it proves true that won’t bolster English’s market share, since less widely-spoken languages are giving way to other local languages with more prestige, not to the juggernaut of world English (juggernaut, by the way, is a Hindi word).

    Wyne’s conclusion that world-wide demand for English would ensure America’s continued prestige in the world is flawed. Languages don't prop up nations. Instead, nations prop up languages.

    Latin became a power tongue because the Roman Empire was a world power (at least in Europe and North Africa). After Rome fell, Latin retained some influence as the language of the Catholic Church and the language of learning (though only in the West), but everyday Latin, no longer under the sway of empire, did not, and it gradually evolved into what we now call the romance languages. One of them, French, only achieved widespread use as France became a leading European power from the 17th to the 19th centuries, but it too waned with the decline of French colonialism and the humiliating defeat of France in the 20th century’s two world wars. And Russian was the language to know for the Soviet in-crowd, but once the U.S.S.R. dissolved, the Russian language's red star faded fast.

    English has its own rags-to-riches story. Initially an immigrant language brought by Europeans to an obscure island in the North Atlantic, English gained strength during the Renaissance in tandem with British sea power, and it was further pumped up by  colonialism, the industrial revolution, and the eventual dominance of America, to the point where it’s now the global language of international capitalism, science and technology, and rock ’n’ roll.

    Of course Wyne’s report of the death of the American moment may be premature. Although other economies may be declining less rapidly, there’s still a world-wide recession, not just an American one. And while one or two other countries may have more manpower, the American military probably still holds the edge in firepower.

    But take away those props – the army, the navy, the almighty dollar, and the Fender guitar (most are made in Mexico, by the way) – and it’s likely that the title of “World Language” will pass to whatever country takes the place of the U.S. as the one to be feared or imitated. All the previous “world languages” bowed out when their sponsor-countries did, and no one should be surprised that if America drops in the global rankings, English won’t be there to prop it up and give it a second shot at the title.

djr@olemiss.edu Jun 11, 2009 11:40 am

"All the previous 'world languages' bowed out when their sponsor-countries did ..."

Not exactly true. All the previous world languages bowed out AFTER their sponsor-countries did, and in at least one case--Latin--that "after" took centuries (depending on how you count the bowing out of the Roman Empire and the subsequent bowing out of Latin as the dominant scholarly language of Europe, fourteen or fifteen centuries).

Of course the timing of these things is pretty complex. If America does "bow out," that won't happen overnight; we could be bowing out over five years, or twenty, or fifty. And presumably the world dominance of English would last a little longer than US world domination, but how long is a little? That would be difficult to time with any kind of precision as well. But my guess would be that English would survive the crumbling of the current US empire by decades--especially given the fact that Chinese characters make Mandarin an unlikely choice for the next world language. (Unless they went to pinyin ...)

That doesn't mean that Wynne is right about the "growing" dominance of English propping up the US as it fades. Much more likely would be a scenario in which a variety of postcolonial englishes (and their pop cultures) emerge into greater international prominence; while academic English--our period's scholarly Latin--would have only vestigial effects on the US, for example helping US universities continue to attract large numbers of foreign students, and thus in some small measure helping to maintain America's international prestige. But not for long, surely--and not exclusively the US. If academic English remained the dominant language of scholars around the world for another century, say, I would imagine the emerging economic powerhouses would begin (or continue) hiring British and American scholars and creating their own centers for training in academic English. Hong Kong has been doing this for some time, for example; and there's no reason mainland China should not expand their programs in academic English as well. They're already hiking up their academic salaries, in an increasingly successful bid to begin attracting foreigners.


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