Humans have utilised language for some 100,000 years. In that time, some languages have risen, and others have fallen into obscurity. The list of today’s endangered languages, those heading toward extinction, includes dozens of languages with just a handful of speakers, like Ainu, which is spoken in Hokkaido, Japan. The National Geographic Society estimates that out of the 7,000 or so languages spoken on Earth, one dies every two weeks. On the other hand there’s English, which is the most widely spoken language since humans started using language.
This world map of languages is the result of a complex set of processes. Two of these processes that have had a particularly outsized impact on the languages we speak today are colonisation and the globalisation of communication, as outlined by Professor R.M.W. Dixon in his 2012 book The Rise and Fall of Languages.
Both for changes within languages and for changes to languages, there are two main modes of change: abrupt or gradual (language splitting). Professor Dixon outlines how profound linguistic changes do not occur gradually, but rather abruptly, typically over the course of a generation or two. Change, in other words, is more like a succession of steps than a constant climb. But how do these abrupt changes occur, and can we expect that today’s dominant languages – Chinese, Spanish, English, Hindi, and Arabic, in order of native speakers – will undergo the same process?
Linguist and historian Nicholas Ostler in his 2010 book The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel examines how English became a lingua franca.
English, while indisputably the world’s dominant language today, is not without flaws. Its use has generated societal issues in certain nations, leading to its rejection, while in others it has provided a compromise communication option.
The globalisation of English occurred as a result of a number of historical developments, each of which has left its mark. Languages spoken over broad swaths of land are first and foremost produced and preserved by big polities—empires—and English is no different. However, an empire’s choice of language has historically mostly been pragmatic; nationalism has only lately motivated governments.
At its zenith, the British Empire in 1922 ruled over 458 million people or 25% of the world’s landmass. The impact of the British Empire on its constituent countries’ culture, legal systems, and language was immense. In the colonisation process, indigenous inhabitants experienced the erosion of their native languages, belief systems, and cultural traditions.
The current status of English is without precedent, Ostler argues. At the same time, it plays a major part in finance, science, tourism, commerce, politics, sport, and even entertainment and popular music around the world.
It appears practically embedded, with no clearly comparable opponent; even in China, one of the only countries with a language with more native speakers, every schoolchild today studies English. And India, which is expected to surpass China in population by 2050, is already capitalising on an English proficiency inherited from the British Empire and meticulously preserved and nurtured since then. If it keeps its usefulness as a worldwide medium of communication, English is unlikely to break into a family of languages, Ostler argues.
If we survey humankind’s linguistic history, there are numerous examples of languages that rose to prominence and then fell into disuse. Perhaps the most widely known one is Latin. While it is still learned and studied, it’s not spoken. It’s dead, not extinct. The spread of Latin was the result of the expansion of the Roman Empire, and subsequent use by the Catholic Church. This process is known as language imperialism.
The working definition of linguistic imperialism, according to linguist Robert Phillipson is: “the dominance asserted and maintained by the establishment and continuous reconstitution of structural and cultural inequalities between English and other languages.”
Indeed the author argues that the mere teaching of English is an act of linguistic imperialism. One of the key ideas in this school of thought is that the spread of English, largely through language education around the world, has undermined other languages and marginalised the opportunity for broad multilingual education.
From the 18th century, English’s spread, according to Phillipson, was the result of English-speaking countries’ desire to conquer and quell other nations. This process negatively affected the life chances of many non-English speakers, and put pressure on indigenous languages. And this isn’t a process that’s confined to dusty old history books.
For example, in the US, the predominance of English has driven the demise of many Native-American languages. Ethnologue today lists 245 indigenous languages in the US, with 65 already extinct and 75 near extinction, many with only a handful of elder speakers remaining. One aspect of this demise is that many of the languages spoken around the world have yet to be documented, or preserved in the form of a dictionary.
The final curtain
There are several stages to a language’s demise and terminology to match.
- A vulnerable language is one where children speak their parents’ language only at home or when conversing with relatives.
- An endangered language is one that children no longer study, although it is their mother tongue.
- A critically endangered language is one where the youngest speakers are grandparents.
While language pedants may lament a perceived decline in the usage of English, with adults mimicking teen slang and the populace’s understanding of grammar diminishing, resulting in what’s argued to be an expressive decline, it’s clear that the prevalence of English in much of the world is here to stay.
However, that’s not to say that English isn’t evolving. In fact, it has been subject to constant evolution since its earliest roots. There is no one standard form of English that’s spoken around the world – there are many versions of English.
From Germanic settlers who moved to England, through the Norman conquerors from France and the influence of the Celts and Angles, English roots form a rich tapestry of influences. This diversity, as well as its recent past as the language of the Empire, indicates that English’s reach and influence will likely continue.
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