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Resistance may be futile: Are there alternatives to Global English?

By Dennis Baron

English is a world language. Once an insignificant set of immigrant dialects on an obscure island in the rainswept North Sea, English is now the de facto language of multinational business, of science and technology, and of rock ‘n’ roll. Non-English speakers around the globe seem to be learning English as fast as they can. Plus there are more than three times as many English articles in Wikipedia as there are German, the second-biggest language of the online encyclopedia. When it comes to the global domination of English, resistance may be futile.

There have been world languages before, and though none of them, not Latin, French, or Proto-Indo-European, enjoyed the market share claimed by English today, all of them lost world-language status when the world’s political and economic situation changed. Right now, though, the position of English remains strong.

There are anywhere from 350 to 500 million native English speakers, and up to 1 billion more who use it as a second or additional language to some extent. That’s 20% of the world’s 6.9 billion people. There are close to 7,000 languages spoken around the world today, but according to Ethnologue, 39% of the Earth’s people speak one of eight brand-name languages: Chinese, Spanish, English, Arabic, Hindi, Bengali, Portuguese, and Russian (Japanese is number 9). Of these, only English can claim global dominance.

In contrast, Ethnologue finds that “94% of languages are spoken by only 6% of the world’s people.” The Big Eight are pushing out mid-sized languages like Bulgarian (almost 8 million speakers), Finnish (4.7 million), and Basque (only 600,000, but fairly energetic). And smaller languages may have an even bigger problem. About half the Earth’s languages have fewer than 3,000 speakers, and as many as 500 “endangered” languages don’t have enough speakers to ensure their transmission to the next generation. Ethnologue reports 250 speakers of Emplawas in Indonesia; 30 speakers of Pam in Cameroon; and only 1 speaker of Wichita in the United States (these numbers are outdated, and these languages may have even fewer speakers now). At this rate, it won’t be long before everyone on the planet has to choose from a limited menu of English, Mandarin, Hindi, or silence. And the Hindi and Mandarin speakers will have to learn English as well so they can communicate with one another, as well as with English speakers, who seem reluctant to learn anyone else’s language, at least so long as English retains the world-language crown.

But, while linguistic diversity may continue its decline, there’s resistance to globalization in language as well as there is in business: the McDonaldization of the planet’s goods and services is being offset by a renewed emphasis on local craft and home-grown industry, where products marketed as “limited edition” are actually made in limited numbers, and boutique beers compete successfully against giants like Miller and Bud.

In the language marketplace, while English and Mandarin continue to surge, boutique languages are attracting a growing number of adherents as well, whether it’s a niche language like Esperanto, created to bring about world peace, or an artisanal lingo like Klingon, whose speakers strike a more warlike pose. Esperanto has about 1,000 native speakers and as many as two million who boast some familiarity with the language. No one has managed to get close enough to the Klingons to count them, though in 2006 the Guinness Book of World Records announced that for the first time Klingon had surpassed Esperanto in market share.

The Earth’s linguistic landscape is constantly changing, and English may ultimately find itself going the way of Latin.

The conventional wisdom has it that Latin lost its monopoly on world-wide communication and devolved into a set of local languages after the fall of Rome. But Rome didn’t fall in a day, and provincial blends resulting from the contact between Latin and local lingos may have already been developing long before Rome lost its economic and political hold on Europe. Today we hear complaints about Spanglish, Konglish, and Franglais, blends of Spanish, Korean, and French with English. For all we know, long before the fall of Rome, speakers both of Latin and of the Celtic and Germanic languages it competed with voiced concerns about the deleterious influences of Bretinus (a fusion of Celtic Breton and Latin), Germanium (Gothic and Latin), even Italiatina (an Italic-flavored Latin patois, though it sounds more like a kind of pasta).

In any case, after Rome fell, Latin persisted as a scholarly language alongside the developing vernaculars, and it may be that as the world’s political and economic focus continues to shift, today’s English varieties—American, British, Nigerian, Australian, Irish, Indian, the English of Hong Kong or Singapore, and so on—will evolve into separate, local spin-offs on the model of the Romance languages, all related, to be sure, but different enough, each from the next, to constitute separate tongues.

It may be, too, that globish, a stripped-down form of international English analogous to the international forms of Latin that survived the Fall, will continue to exist alongside these developing varieties of English. And it is likely too that, as English continues to evolve, it may wind up being replaced by languages like Breton (500,000 regular users); Latin (no native speakers, but an unreliable internet source says about 3,000 people know enough Latin to carry on a conversation, plus there are 75,000 entries on Vicipædia Latina); or Hawaiian (the 2000 U.S. Census lists 27,000 speakers, but there may be as few as 1,000 native Hawaiian speakers). Perhaps it will be a Big-8 language like Mandarin or Hindi. Or perhaps the next world language, like English before it, will have its origins on a small, windswept island (Hawaiian seems like a good candidate), or a climatologically-challenged northern terrain (anyone care to vote for Finnish?). So far as artificial languages go, there really is no hope here for Esperanto or even Klingon. But with the way computers are taking over all the workings of the planet, the next world language could well come from the nanocircuits of a computer chip, C++, Java script, or some other form of computer code, against which resistance will be futile.

Dennis Baron is Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois. His book, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, looks at the evolution of communication technology, from pencils to pixels. You can view his previous OUPblog posts here or read more on his personal site, The Web of Language, where this article originally appeared. Until next time, keep up with Professor Baron on Twitter: @DrGrammar.

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Recent Comments

  1. Tim Morley

    Where on earth did you pull that factoid from? Not only that “Klingon surpassed Esperanto”, but falsely attributing it to the Guinness Book of Records?

    The annual week-long World Congress of Esperanto usually attracts around 2000 delegates, and every part of every event throughout the week uses Esperanto, so it’s safe to assume that pretty much everyone there is a very fluent speaker. It’s also safe to assume that they represent a tiny fraction of the total number of speakers, given that they’re the ones who will take a week off work, pay the conference fees, and their flights and hotels.

    The President of the Klingon Language Institute cheerfully admits that “all the fluent Klingon speakers in the world could comfortably sit around a table in a restaurant”.

    Try googling stuff. You find stuff out.


  2. Bill Chapman

    Esperanto works! I learned it in my late teens, and I’ve used it in speech and writing in a dozen countries over recent years. As a planned auxiliary language, it is easier to learn and use than national tongues, including English. I like the phrase “niche language” used here to describe Esperanto. It is not a rival to English, but it does jhave its place.

  3. James Gilmore

    I’m a little worried that a professor of linguistics failed to research major points of his article before publishing. What does that say for linguistics as a field of study? However, trolling Esperantists for blog hits seems to be increasingly common amongst “journalists” and I have to wonder if this isn’t the case. Either way, ರ_ರ.

  4. Michjo

    The statement, “in 2006 the Guinness Book of World Records announced that for the first time Klingon had surpassed Esperanto in market share”, is false. What the 2006 edition of “Guinness World Records” actually said was that Klingon is the most widely spoken FICTIONAL language – not constructed language – by number of speakers – period.

    A fictional language is one that was intended, designed and constructed to be the language of a fictional setting. This definition fits Klingon, Vulcan, Quenya and Sindarin – but not Esperanto, which has been not just intended but actually used, since its inception, as the language of a real community of real human speakers in real life. Since Esperanto is not a fictional language, any comparison between Klingon and Esperanto as fictional languages is meaningless. All the more so that the “had surpassed Esperanto” part was, in fact, added later as people picked up on the record but missed the crucial qualifier “fictional” in the original statement, thinking that since it was the most widely spoken (fictional) language, it had obviously overtaken Esperanto.

    Esperanto is actually much *more* widely spoken than Klingon. As Tim points out, it is estimated that the number of proficient Klingon speakers – a couple of dozen at most – can go out comfortably to dinner together. With Esperanto, however, you’d have a bit of trouble fitting the couple of million or so proficient speakers (and growing, with almost no official support) into a restaurant. While not a huge number, it’s large enough, varied enough, widespread enough sustained enough to show that Esperanto works for anything.

    You mention that English is spoken by 20% of the world’s population. You realize, of course, that that means that 80% speak no English whatsoever. English may be widely spoken, but at 20%, is hardly universal. That 20% figure also says nothing about the average level of proficiency, which is appallingly low, most being non-native speakers of whom few have succeeded in mastering a language that is deceptively difficult for the vast majority of the world’s population. What Esperanto offers is an alternative to English as an international auxiliary language, one that is easy to learn for everyone – yes, even in spite of its Indo-European lexical base, and yes, much easier to learn than Globish – without sacrificing anything in terms of expressiveness.

  5. Brian Barker

    I don’t know if you or any of your colleagues are interested but the Esperanto-Asocio de Britio will have an Esperanto stand at the London Language Show at the end of October.

    Tickets to the show are free, but you need to book using this link

    Amike salutas

  6. Gene Keyes

    Interesting take on the Big 8, but you do indeed need to check out Esperanto more than just giving it a brush-off. Google “Esperanto” and you will get 109,000,000 results. I just returned from the 96th World Congress of Esperanto in Denmark: people from 67 countries and no translators needed. Esperanto is a global culture in its own right, with thousands of original and translated books, plus periodicals, podcasts, YouTubes, music and rock groups, and websites galore — mine includes the original pamphlet (in HTML, English) by Zamenhof propounding Esperanto in 1887. The Web has provided a big homeland to this international _second_ language, and you need not look to an obscure island for another one. It’s all around you already, all around the planet, all around cyberpace. Thinly spread; and still a long way to go, but that’s why the word “Esperanto” means “one who hopes”.

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