September 12, 2010

THEY AREN'T DYING, WE'RE KILLING THEM OFF:

Lost in Translation (Alex Rose, SEPTEMBER 9, 2010 , Obit)

Over 400 million people currently speak English as a first language, while 300 million others speak it as a second — in fact, there are now more students of English in China than there are people in the United States. It has proven the most miscegenated language of all time, having been cobbled together from dialects as disparate as fifth century Germanic tribal tongues, Old Norse from the Vikings, early French from the Normans, then retrofit with elements of Latin and Greek, all the while dropping great swaths of its vocabulary and grammar and patching the gaps with little flourishes of Dutch, Arabic, Spanish, or whatever it happens to come into contact with.

But everything changed in the 20th century. With the rise of consumer culture, a global information network and an international marketplace, a universal language was needed, and it wasn’t going to be Esperanto. In a few short decades, English became the lingua franca of international trade, as well of science, medicine, air travel, and over 80 percent of the World Wide Web, taking along with it the values and perspectives of late capitalism. “Anglo-American culture and its language,” writes McCrum, “have become as much a part of global consciousness as MS-DOS or the combustion engine.”

Compelling though it may be, the bulk of McCrum’s argument rests upon a conviction that English qua English offers a unique way of viewing and classifying the world, a theory I imagine most linguists would dismiss as unscientific. “The cultural revolution of Christianity both enriched Old English with scores of new words,” he writes, “and just as importantly, also introduced the capacity to articulate abstract thought.” Does he really mean to suggest that no intellectual life had existed in Europe before the Church of England?

The real problem, though, is that for all his enthusiasm for the English language and its myriad idiosyncrasies, McCrum sees no downside to its unprecedented spread. The correlation between the rate at which the world’s languages are vanishing — on average, one every 10 days — and the rate at which English is infiltrating the globe, is lost on him. In this way, McCrum can come off less like a popular historian than a missionary, touting the influence of English as proof of its superiority, while failing to acknowledge what is lost as a result.


It's a simple Darwinian process and the superior is slaughtering the inferior.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 12, 2010 9:23 AM
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