The Lingua Franca of the Net

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 before.

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....

Copyright © 1996-2000. All Rights Reserved. Alle Rechte vorbehalten
Verlag Heinz Heise, Hannover