Today, it is the world's dominant language. Tomorrow, that may change.
is chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages and has functional speaking knowledge of at least 26 tongues
What are the prospects for the English language?
They look overwhelmingly rosy. Spoken or studied by more people than any other language, English now seems to be triumphing over its greatest rivals: The French global TV service “France 24″ is now available in English, and all Chinese children study English at school – compliments that are not returned.
In the early 21st century, there is no contest: From science and politics to sport and popular music, there is no language whose currency matches English, nor even challenges it.
But hold on: English is not the first language to have had the world at its feet. Latin was once the global lingua franca, and the very currents that bore it to the fore bore it away. The same thing could happen – easily – with English.
In 1623, Francis Bacon – arguably then the smartest man in England – placed his hopes for the long-term success of his books, including the first extended exposition of empirical science, in the continued dominance of Latin. He had good reason. After one and half millennia of uncontested ascendancy, Latin was the single medium of the powerful and educated throughout Europe, from Portugal to Poland. Latin was Europe's master language, and Europe was fast becoming master of the world.
Bacon's prediction was, however, vain. Over the 16th to 19th centuries, even as European power spread around the world, Latin gradually lost its uses, in public affairs as in science, in a spreading wave from western to eastern Europe.
What so unexpectedly killed Latin, then? And could it happen to English?
One cause was the rise of powers such as France and England, independent politically and intellectually of the rest of the European system. These powers used their own national languages and projected them around the world.
Another was the unprecedented scientific progress of the age, achieved outside Latin-speaking academia. Men such as René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes and Galileo published increasingly in modern languages; Latin lost its intellectual cachet. It remained an elite language, but more and more people were finding elites stifling.
Hard as it is to conceive for our own time, world languages really are vulnerable. Latin was not the first world language to collapse. Greek ranged from Egypt to Afghanistan before Persians, Arabs and Turks cut it back to being the language of a small European country. Akkadian, then Aramaic, pervaded the whole Near and Middle East for 3,000 years. Egyptian perhaps holds the record for endurance, holding on in Egypt's peerless splendor for almost 4,000 years until it finally yielded to Arab overlords.
And how long has the spread of English lasted so far? Really only 31/2 centuries at most, since the British settled in the Caribbean and North America. English is clearly a latecomer among world languages.
Some argue English is of a different order, just as the present age is different – more global – than all that went before. English predominates not in some part of the world, but in the world as a whole. This is new. Some already are concluding that this triumph of English can never be undone: Where, after all, will the competition come from, if everyone is brought up with English as their language of international communication?
A sage of languages, David Crystal, recently opined in his book English as a Global Language: “It may be that English . . . will find itself in the service of the world community for ever.”
This is doubly premature.
Think of what happened to Latin. No single language matched it, or replaced it. But its position was compromised by a clamoring alliance of vernaculars. Latin publications fell behind in France in the 16th century, in Germany in the 17th, in Italy only in the 18th. But the trend was everywhere against Latin, just as in today's Internet the balance is steadily swinging, worldwide, against the monolingual leadership of English.
And English is not even now in a position of global majority. Only if all its aspiring foreign learners are included do the English numbers contend with Chinese, which is still clearly the official language of the greatest number of people in the world. (English, by that count, is second, but on a par with the much faster-growing Hindi.) And if one compares mother-tongue speakers, English recedes even further, behind Spanish, which also is growing much more quickly.
The pendulum of language dominance, then, while still swinging in English's favor, does seem to be slowing. Paradoxically, the foundations of its prestige – its association with trade and science – are in historic terms weak. Mediterranean trade did not sustain Phoenician; nor science, ultimately, Greek. (Holy languages, such as Arabic and Sanskrit, engender greater loyalty.)
As the balance of world income swings to the Pacific nations, the predominance of their languages will grow and “English-speaking elites” will begin to find the historical associations of English something of an embarrassment.
It will not even be necessary for one language to be chosen as “the new world language,” for as computer processing gets cheaper and faster, technology is clearly going to solve the problems of interpreting – even face-to-face, or with mass audiences. People will speak as they think, and the world will understand.
When that happens, “World English,” that interesting product of the late second millennium, will take its (somewhat junior) place with the languages of Greece and Rome, and Nineveh and Tyre.