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Babbling in search of the new tower?

| Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Language is one of the most foundational elements of what it means to be a human, yet any two random individuals from our planet would have difficulty communicating with one another. The relatively recent development of centralized nation-states has made communication both simpler and more complicated through language standardization. As the world becomes more and more interconnected, the need for a global lingua franca becomes more pronounced.

Before standardization of writing forms, centralized education systems and vast global trade, the common man spoke various forms of dialect continuums. A dialect continuum is when the spoken language differs only slightly from adjacent towns, but in aggregate these differences over large distances lead to mutually unintelligible dialects. Language was fluid and not shaped by discrete political borders.

With the advent of nation-states, there has been a strong push toward domestic language standardization. A shared language not only fosters a common national identity, but also serves practical purposes such as simplified communication and lower administrative costs. Providing government services in multiple languages is not only expensive, but also can be awkward; trains in Belgium and Singapore make lengthy announcements in four languages. France is a prominent example of how an infamously strong central government developed a single national language from many unique local dialects and languages. In 1539, France enacted the Edict of Villers-Cotterets, which codified Standard French into law as France’s sole official language. The French government has created institutions such as the Academie francaise to not only ensure the preservation of the French language, but to also promote the standardization of the language. In fact, the French government is so committed to the idea of “one country, one language” that France is the only European Union member to not ratify the EU Charter for Regional and Minority Languages.

Language standardization within nation-states has undoubtedly simplified domestic communication, but this convenience has come at a price. In the French example, local languages such as those spoken in Brittany and Corsica have almost gone extinct. Somewhat paradoxically, fringe dialects actually simplified communication in certain situations. Towns on the German-Dutch border used to speak dialects of their respective national languages, which were mutually intelligible to speakers of the other language. However, when the German and Dutch governments standardized their languages, residents of these border towns could no longer easily communicate across the border. Instead of a dialect continuum, residents of these towns spoke “standard” German and Dutch, which was largely influenced by the dialects spoken near their country’s respective capitals. Standardization of national languages has led to the near disappearance of many dialects which served as valuable bridges between countries.

It is impossible to learn even a fraction of the many thousands of languages spoken on this planet. Thus, lingua franca languages play an important role as a bridge between speakers of different languages. English is currently the world’s de facto lingua franca. English’s status as a link language is evidenced by the fact that it only has 340 million first language speakers but 510 million total English speakers. Speakers of other languages everywhere from Brussels to Bangalore see the value of learning English to communicate with the broader world. But throughout history, various languages have held this mantle. For much of the 17th through 20th centuries, French was the world’s primary language of diplomacy, commerce and culture. Many of Europe’s great royal courts spoke French rather than the local vernacular. A similar phenomenon existed in Mughal India, where the royal administrators spoke Persian instead of one of the hundreds of local native Indian languages. In modern-day India, English is extremely prevalent in business, government and the courts, serving as a valuable lingua franca in a nation with 22 official languages. After the United States, India has the world’s second-largest English-speaking population. Interestingly, each epoch’s lingua franca sheds light on that era’s underlying realpolitik power dynamics.

International institutions such as the EU and the United Nations are heavily dependent on lingua franca working languages. The use of English is so prevalent within EU Institutions that the dialect of English spoken is known as Euro English. The EU administration’s dependence on the English language will surely be questioned with the imminent departure of the organization’s largest English-speaking member. But lingua franca languages have an even more pronounced informal impact. English language films and music are nearly ubiquitous anywhere in the world. Recently, after strong lobbying from French radio stations, the French government lowered the quota of French language music that had to be played on French radio stations from 40 percent to 35 percent due to the popularity of English music. Even non-native English-speaking artists such as Daft Punk and ABBA chose to make music in English, rather than French and Swedish, to cater to a larger audience.

Language is not static; it rapidly evolves and is shaped by the broader political climate. The number of languages used will likely shrink as the world shrinks. There are many causes for this linguistic consolidation ranging from multinational businesses seeking to standardize communications, to a desire to understand the next blockbuster Hollywood hit. Do American English, Indian English and Euro English serve as harbingers for the world’s linguistic future, where more and more of the world speaks some form of English albeit slightly different than the Queen’s Received Pronunciation?

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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