Impressive statistics point to the fact that English is either
dominant or well established on all six continents. Furthermore, it is the main
language of the Internet, not to mention books, newspapers, airports and air
traffic control, international business and academic conferences, science and
technology, medicine, sports, international competitions, pop music, and advertising.
In addition to this, an estimated three quarters of the world's mail is written
in English. In terms of information technology, it is the structural framework
for all programming languages. Moreover, about 80% of the information stored
on computers is in English.
Despite these impressive statistics, the development of English
as a world language is not always viewed with enthusiasm by those that have
to learn it. Indeed, the factors that seem to contribute to the spread of the
language (political and military might, economic power, and religious influence)
has made some view the current progress of English as a lingua franca with concern,
and even antagonism. The main concern is that it gives the originating culture
(namely, the US) an unfair advantage and unprecedented influence in world affairs,
not to mention scientific and technological research.
Yet how secure really is the English language in its present position? The following essay probes into this question by looking to the past as a guide for the future. As already mentioned, there were precedents of languages that obtained an almost universal status, yet all of these have since declined and lost their influence. Could it be that English will likewise fall into decline and lose the influence it presently has?
The Fate of English
Historiographical comparisons, while they do not provide
an exact blueprint for present or future events, are nonetheless useful in helping
us to understand the underlying processes of change that takes place. History
never travels in a full circle; at best it spirals toward some horizon in the
distance. Subsequently, in trying to understand the "the ever changing
role of the English language in the age of the Net", it appears that Latin
provides a suitable historiographical comparison which can give us an indication
to where the English language within the world of networking might be headed.
As with Latin, English became a world language primarily
through imperialist conquest. Moreover, both languages were associated with
an empire whose scale was determined, for the most part, by advanced communication
systems. As Parkinson notes, communications have always defined the size (and
to some extent, the nature) of a political state. Rivers were the first and
most basic means of communication: thus, the Nile, the Tigris, and the Ganges
were the basis of large empires; on the other hand, the Tagus, the Mekong, and
the Scheldt were able to support only smaller political entities.
The Roman and British Empires broke through the constraints
of the river system (the most basic and standard means of communication that
had been in use for thousands of years), with the former using roads and the
latter extending its domination via the oceans. As a result, both empires were
able to expand the reach of their political and social influence. At present,
American English is going even further, thanks to computer networking, which
transcends many of the physical constraints of traditional communication systems.
This has already led many to proclaim, perhaps prematurely, that telematics
has brought about "the death of distance".
Ironically, communications systems have always outlived the
empires that have either created them or utilized them to their full potential.
As Will Durant observes, it is one element among a host of others which has
been tenaciously maintained from one civilization to the next: in all, "they
are the connective tissue of human history." Language, however, is not
among such elements. Rather, it follows the changes in the political fortunes
of the state. Hence, Latin is no longer widely spoken, while British English
is on the wane. Subsequently, what is of interest is to what extent is English
in general following in the footsteps of Latin down the path to obscurity.
When dealing with the decline of Latin as a major language,
the question that most people tend to ask is when did people stop speaking Latin.
Wolffe points out that the question is misconstrued; people never spoke a uniform
Latin in the first place. Instead, like the English of today, Latin was used
widely throughout the empire, yet with differences in pronunciation and vocabulary.
These linguistic differences were a reflection of the social and cultural differences
of a multinational empire. Relative uniformity, nevertheless, was achieved through
the written (and especially, literary) language thanks to a standard spelling
and grammar system. When this written, literary language came under pressure
with the fall of the Roman Empire, a period commonly referred to as the "Dark
Ages", the language easily succumbed to the predominant influences of the
succeeding Romance and Germanic languages. As Crystal explains: "if a language
dies out [it's] because its status alters in society, as other cultures and
languages take over its role."
It would appear that English is following this same process.
Widely spoken throughout the world, it is not a uniform language but reflects
the different social and cultural conditions in which it is used. For instance,
the most common difference between American English and British English is in
pronunciation and spelling, with Canadian English subject to the conflicting
influences of the two (and, to a certain extent, French). Meanwhile in Europe,
Euro-English has developed in symbiosis with the political evolution of the
European Union. Further south, South Africa continues to build a new vocabulary,
peppering the English language with Afrikaans words. Similarly, Australians
and New Zealanders have their own differences in terms of accent and pronunciation
vis-à-vis British English, not to mention a large number of additional
terms for plants and animals peculiar to their region. Moreover, the historical
legacy pertaining to their ethnic origins adds a further dimension to their
use of English.
If the varied and fragmentary use of English is one indication
of its progression toward decline, as had been with Latin, then what is yet
to come is the demise of the empire upon which the English language is based.
Although the sun has already set on the British Empire, through which English
initially had been able to permeate throughout the world, the American Empire,
using an amalgam of capitalism and technology (namely computer and networking
technology) has been able to pick up where the British have left off, thereby
sustaining the international influence of the English language - at least for
a little while longer.
Yet the present dominance of world affairs by the US, this
"Pax Americana" (in line with the Pax Romania and Pax Britannia of
old), is also bound to fall. Arnold Toynbee, in his "A Study of History",
traced the rise and fall of human civilizations and came to the discovery that
the life-cycle of a civilization follows along a certain pattern, from beginning
to end. Accordingly, he concludes that western civilization is of no exception
and has been following along this same pattern; indeed, he sees that western
civilization is already in an advanced state of decline.
The view that western civilization is in decline is not limited
to the field of historiography but is shared by others. Mark Stahlman, for example,
fears that present trends toward an "Information Society" are leading
us toward a "New Dark Age". The fact that Stahlman refers to this
future as a "Dark Age" is interesting in that it falls into line with
our comparative analysis between Latin and English, for it was the advent of
the "first" Dark Age which relegated the use of Latin to insignificance.
Thus, Stahlman's notion of the "New Dark Age" could very well be the
event that will render English to irrelevance in the same way Latin was centuries
Whether adhering to Stahlman's view that western civilization
is being targeted for destruction or Toynbee's organismic interpretation of
historiographical decay, it is clear to most observers that the main reason
western civilization is in decline is because it is no longer capable of rediscovering
its creativity. Stoller ventures further, adding that postmodernism (pomo) in
itself is an unconscious acknowledgment that the western world is living in
a period that has peaked, an ebb like the decline of the Roman Empire, which
had marked the transition between slavery and feudalism. Hence, the art that
we see around us today merely "exemplifies the decadence, disintegration,
and decay of the late capitalist epoch." She points out that "late"
in this sense refers to morbid and moribund, not dead - at least, not yet.
If western civilization is indeed headed on a downward slide
toward oblivion, then it is doing so with a fight. Samuel P. Huntington, in
an article in Foreign Affairs magazine entitled "The Clash of Civilizations",
puts forth a neo-Cold War hypothesis that a conflict between civilizations is
inevitable. As a result, his short-term recommendation for the western world
is "to promote greater cooperation and unity with its own civilization".
Ironically, his call for unity only further credits Toynbee's hypothesis, for
Toynbee concluded that in all past civilizations it was the achievement of unity
that marked the beginning of the end. Therefore unity, both politically in Europe
through the EU and economically in North America through NAFTA, is merely further
evidence of the advanced state of decline of western civilization.
...It is important for native speakers of English...[to]...accept the fact that their days of hegemony over communications are numbered. Furthermore, an effort is needed in countries where English is officially the national (and only) language to be more receptive of foreign languages...
English language use is fragmenting and in an inevitable
state of decline. This decline follows along the lines of a natural process,
and has precedents in the rise and fall of other languages, such as Latin. Although
there may be some attempts to forestall this decline or even control this process,
such attempts will be futile and doomed to failure in the long run.
It is important for those who use the English language at
present, as either their main or sole means of communication, to acknowledge
the influence of other languages and cultures, and to realize the fact that
communication systems, such as the Internet, as they become global, at the same
time also become multi-lingual....
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