The Times, 1995-02-25

The Times, 1995-02-25

Date: Mon, 27 Feb 1995 12:24:12 GMT
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Subject: The Times, 1995-02-25
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Saturday February 25 1995

pa^go 18


The Times
Letters to the Editor
1 Pennington Street
E1 9XN

Fakso: +44 171 782 5046

Telefono: +44 171 782 5000

"Letters to the Editor should carry a daytime telephone number. They
may be sent to a fax number — 0171-782 5046."


Mi legigis la artikolon per OmniPage kaj rapide provlegis. Mi lasas la
originalon apud la komputilo, do vi povas demandi pri eventualaj
eraroj. La nekutima literumo "cringeing" estas en la originalo.

"The Times" estas unu el la gravaj tutlandaj "seriozaj" ^jurnaloj de

Subtitolo de bildo de du ^capelportantaj blankuloj parolantaj al
negroj: "A missionary at work in Africa, circa 1800: more than a
billion people are now thought to be English-speakers, so easy is the
language to learn"

The triumph of English

Simon Jenkins

Our infinitely
adaptable mother
tongue is now the
world’s lingua
franca — and not
before time

Sensational news from across
the Atlantic. Representative
Peter King this week intro-
duced a Bill into Congress
declaring that "English be the official
United States language". He wants
all federal support for other lan-
guages and bilingual programmes to
cease forthwith. English, says Mr
King, is the "the bond that unites the
American people".

This is the moment for which the
British have been waiting since the
Boston Tea Party. Pitt is cheering in
his grave. The Spanish dogs are
cringeing in their lairs. As for the
French, pouff! They are nowhere to
be seen. Their response on Thursday
was to expose four CIA men for
engaging in "cultural espionage".
This is Gallic paranoia. The men
were reportedly trying to decipher
some "intellectual property" that has
long baffled American intelligence,
presumably the French language.

Like Mr King, I have always
believed that the sooner the world
speaks English, the happier and
more prosperous it will be. Promot-
ing this language should be a priority
of the United Nations. At the last
count, 650 artificial world languages
have been tried. Esperanto is the
latest to collapse. None has worked
because English has triumphed.
Those who do not speak it are at a
universal disadvantage against those
who do. Those who deny this
supremacy merely seek to keep the
disadvantaged deprived. Mr King is
right: "By encouraging new Ameri-
cans to continue to use their native
language . . . the Government is help-
ing to exclude these immigrants from
mainstream society and any access to
economic progress."

When I first travelled on the
Continent an obligatory item of
equipment was the phrasebook. To-
day most travellers — tourists, stu-
dents, researchers, businessmen —
simply do not bother. Most of the
people with whom they have contact
reckon to speak English, or are
embarrassed if they do not. This is
not Anglo-chauvinism or linguistic
indolence among English-speakers
(though it is partly the latter). It is an
economic and cultural fact. English
will do in Africa, Russia, the Middle
East, India, South-East Asia, Austral-
asia. It will do because English is the
language the world wants to learn, as
the British Council knows well.

When the Warsaw Pact was wound
up, it was wound up in English.
When the G7 meets, it meets in
English. English is the language of
the United Nations antechamber, of
international peacekeeping, of world
banking, of diplomacy, of air traffic
control. English is the language of
academic research, space travel and
scientific discovery. I am told that
only 10 per cent of library requests for
science and technology material
worldwide are for non-English publi-
cations. English is the global comput-
er language. It is the language of
news gathering and world entertain-
ment. The only sub-
stantial world body
that struggles to
keep going in a
"foreign" tongue is
the French-speak-
ing European Com-
mission in Brussels.
With luck, enlarge-
ment will put an
end to that.

Linguists used to
attribute the dominance of English to
imperial history: "Had it not been for
Francis Drake, the world would
speak Spanish." Yet Spain, Portugal,
The Netherlands and Arabia all have
imperial histories. The world’s most
prominent tongue is Han Chinese,
with more than a billion adherents
but it is not one language, being as
variegated as French, Spanish or
Italian. There are 370 million native
English speakers and 240 million
Spanish speakers in the world,
followed by Hindi, Arabic, Bengali
and Russian in that order. Add those
who now treat. and use, English as
an official language or a lingua
franca (such as millions of Indians
and Africans) and English shoots
over the billion mark. The Cam-
bridge Encyclopaedia of Language
puts it at a maximum of 1.4 billion

To deny English supremacy is not
to stand up for little nations or for
cultural diversity: it simply keeps
non-English speakers poor. It also
costs millions of pounds in transla-
tion. Linguistic chauvinism stops
young people getting better jobs and
stops their communities from inte-
grating into wider polities. One of the
poorest states in
south India used to
be Kerala. In the
1960s the state gov-
ernment introduced
compulsory Eng-
lish into the schools.
The state is now one
of the richest, since
Keralans can do
business in an inter-
national tongue and
find jobs throughout the Middle
East. This has not damaged Keralan

English has not won the battle to be
the world’s language through a trial
of imperial strength. As the American
linguist Braj Kachru points out,
English has achieved its hegemony
through its inherent qualities, by "its
propensity for acquiring new identi-
ties . . . its range of varieties and
above all its suitability as a flexible
medium for literary and other types
of creativity. "

English has few inflections,
endings or cases. Its grammar is
based on simple word order. It has no
clicks, tones or implosives. Its alpha-
bet is phonetic and has 26 letters
(against 74 in Khmer and 85 in
Cherokee). A student of Chinese or
Japanese must learn 2,000 charac-
ters. English script can be scrawled
and shorthanded. As a spoken
tongue, it may be an ugly duckling
alongside Italian or Irish. Yet its
pidgins are easy to learn. Any
language that can enable Shake-
speare to talk to Al Haig is a triumph
of communication.

English need not be protected by
French Academies, Canadian consti-
tutions or Flemish language rioters.
It can survive in the backstreets of
Harlem or the opium trails of Burma,
on a Soyuz spacewalk or the throne at
Buckingham Palace. The world must
just take a deep breath and admit
that it has a universal language at
last. It would save itself much money
and trouble. The one quid pro quo it
should demand is that English
lexicographers bow before the great
Webster, and accept American or-
thography. English spelling is still
awful. If we English can alter denie
interiour and musick, we can surely
end the absurdity of thorough, centre
and enough, if the world is to learn
them by heart.

Then linguists can devote
themselves to defending and
preserving the world’s "sec-
ond" languages, not as rivals
of English but as manifestations of
ethnic and cultural character. Eng-
lish is a bastard tongue, displaying
character only in dialect. To want to
protect French from Anglicisation as
an international language is a lost
cause. To protect French as one of the
aesthetic marvels of European civili-
sation is essential. To insist that
Welsh sit alongside English on a
Dyed station or in a Cardiff parking
ticket brings ridicule on a lovely
language. But by all means encour-
age it in schools, promote its litera-
ture, even subsidise its television

Language is the most vivid trace
element of ethnicity in the world’s
history and geography. I am in-
trigued that there may once have
been 2,000 distinct languages in
South America, relics of the primeval
grunts that mankind brought across
the Aleutian bridge from Siberia in
10,000 BC. Few of them were record-
ed and only some 600 still survive,
most of them still unstudied.

I am equally intrigued by the
"isolates", languages whose vocabu-
lary and grammar evolved from the
earliest past uncontaminated by any
other tongue. Most have gone:
among a handful of survivals are the
Japanese Ainu, the Mexican Tarasca
and the precious, mysterious Basque,
Europe’s only aboriginal tongue.

These languages merit the protec-
tion we give to works of ancient
architecture. They are the archaeolo-
gy of civilisation; full of wisdom
legend and beauty, messages from
the Earth’s own time-travellers. All
this will vanish if linguists expend
their energies trying to compete with
English. So Congress must vote the
King language Bill. John Major
might even take a leaf from the same
book and demand English language
supremacy in Europe at the 1996
summit. That is an act of federalist
harmonisation that should warm the
most sceptical heart.

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