Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel

English is currently the lingua franca of the world, used as a common language of communication. How did it get to be that way, and why English? And will it be "different" than previous lingua-francas?

Through history, there have been a number of languages used as lingua-francas. Some have been the language of imperial rulers. Others have been trade languages. Occasionally a dominating people uses a different language as the common one for communication (such as the Turks using Persian.)

There is also a difference between a second language used for communication and a native language learned at home. Second languages tend to be more stable, while first languages are subject to frequent innovation. Latin gave rise to the many Romance languages in relatively recent history. Even more recently, we have documentation of the rapid diversification of native American "common" languages under the Spanish regimes.

There are a number of reasons why languages become lingua francas, and a number of reasons why they fall. Sometimes policy causes them to fall away. Other times, they simply fall away due to lack of interest. Would English be able to maintain its global status without the similar status of the United States? Some languages, such as Mandarin Chinese, have huge numbers of speakers, but very little use outside of their native populations. (I've known Chinese or Indian people that communicate in English as their "common language".)

The book starts out fast, though in the middle it gets a little bogged down in technical details. (Some lingua-francas in central Asia still escape me.) At then end, it breaks in to modern technology and machine translation. He argues that advanced automated translation will allow everybody to communicate in their own language, thus eliminating the need for lingua francas. However, he also mentions the example of a European Union study on machine translation where the romance-language speakers had radical different feelings of the success than the non-Romance speakers? Why? Because a single word had a different connotation when translated from the French to English. If this can be the case, how can we expect people to communicate in their own, different languages?

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