Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Are There Alternatives to Global English?

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in Indonesia; 30 speakers of Pam in Cameroon; and only 1 speaker of Wichita in the United States (these numbers are outdated, and these languages may have even fewer speakers now).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 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. 

Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Word Count.

Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language. He is the author of A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. You can follow him on Twitter @DrGrammar. Click here to read more articles by Dennis Baron.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Tuesday September 27th 2011, 12:52 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
>Esperanto has about 1,000 native speakers

Curious what you mean by "native speaker" here. As in, grew up speaking it as a primary language?

Anyway, interesting article. It would also be interesting to explore (speculatively, I suppose) whether there is anything linguistically inherent in English that has helped (along with conquest and commerce) to make it such a dominant language. (Purely objective linguistics generally suggests that no language is "easier" or "harder" to learn, but that's for people who grow up speaking it; are some languages easier to acquire by adults as a non-native language?)
Tuesday September 27th 2011, 1:53 AM
Comment by: Tureeda M.
I've learned from foreign and Native American students, speaking English gives them headaches, not all but many. It has also been stated that English contains more verb variables than any other language. I know for a fact, missionaries forbade the use of native tongues for colonizing efforts need for land acquisition. English is the language of business commerce that grows from need of necessity rather than desire.
Tuesday September 27th 2011, 2:25 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Of great interest to me is the fact of a single exception to the "rules" that have been common to ALL languages except that of a single small tribe in Central America. In their simple language, for one thing, some concepts (a system of numbering, for example) are completely absent! The discovery of this formerly unknown language in the 1980's flies in the face of the pronouncements of unassailable "basically irreducible truth" in language theory at the prestigious University of Chicago. The story appeared in the New Yorker ca. 1999.
Tuesday September 27th 2011, 3:49 AM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
Most of the global languages originated in areas with a long coastline (Italy, Spain, France, UK) and mountainous regions close to the sea. Topography has a lot to do with how populations - and languages - develop due to the necessity to trade. "The Mediterranean" by Fernand Braudel explores this.

For non-native speakers, English is easier to learn initially. This is because all the various historical influences eroded the noun/verb inflexions found in other languages. English also has a simple, mostly invariable, subject-verb-predicate order. However, the language is difficult to master, again because because of all the various influences which have produced subtle differences in meaning between synonyms and resulted in the many phrasal verbs, where using the wrong preposition can turn the meaning on its head.

Esperanto: I knew William Auld (d. 2006) who wrote in Esperanto and was even nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature. He spoke Esperanto daily with his family, but his children did not become "native speakers" of Esperanto. A language always reflects local culture, which is why dialects evolve. The people who speak Esperanto are too few and too far apart to share a common culture. Plus the fact that, for anyone who knows Latin-based modern languages, many of the arbitrarily chosen word endings seem peculiarly trans-gender.

"obscure island in the rainswept North Sea"
I would say that the island was anything but obscure to the people who settled in it, invaded and colonized it. It was a land of opportunity. And why did Dennis feel he had to add the adjective "rainswept"? To make the place sound even more unattractive?
Tuesday September 27th 2011, 8:42 AM
Comment by: Paula E.
It would be interesting to get Jared Diamond's (Guns, Germs and Steel, Collapse) would have to say about all of this.
Tuesday September 27th 2011, 10:37 AM
Comment by: Gordon W. (Jonesboro, GA)
To be intellectually incorrect, see what happens when man decides to build a tower with its top in the heavens? For evolutionists the disappearance of some languages should be of great comfort. It's a see there, I told you so moment.
Tuesday September 27th 2011, 8:25 PM
Comment by: Ferial E R (Woodbridge United Kingdom)
Footnote on rainswept: Here in East Anglia (England) the climate is drier than Israel's
Tuesday September 27th 2011, 8:27 PM
Comment by: Ferial E R (Woodbridge United Kingdom)
I meant to add, Suffolk where I live is the most beautiful of counties. (state)
Tuesday September 27th 2011, 9:01 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
I'm hoping for someone to chime in on my comment above.
I will find the reference to this astounding finding of a language not following the "rules". The author's premise was dismissed by the academic cognoscenti.
Wednesday September 28th 2011, 1:41 AM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
Roger Dee:
I found this forum discussion on the South American language of the Pirahã and Dan Everett, the person who has studied it most:
The Spiegel article, the Youtube video and the discussions are interesting. Everett's book also sounds interesting. He apparently found the language very difficult to learn.

Paula E:
The Spiegel article (see the forum link above) on the Pirahã picks up on the same thread as the initial chapters in Guns, Germs and Steel, that "civilization" (or in this case language) has nothing to do with intellectual capacity.

The whole point of language is communication. The human race is pragmatic. It will use the words, syntax or language that get the meaning across fastest.
Wednesday September 28th 2011, 8:57 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Thanks, Alice, for finding the reference for me! Now I've got to get reading!
Another one of my recreational trains of thought has to do with the genesis of language. How do we acquire language in that formative period of life which has mostly vanished by age 5 or 7?
The study of the girl in Los Angeles, discovered at age 10 or 12 to having been deprived of any aural exposure to human languagesince birth, and the resultant inability of the scientific community to find any way to rehabilitate her. These are some of the fundamental examples of the failure of our greatest and smartest facilities to restore what was lost by the isolation of those early years. Think: "All the king's horses and all the king's men, couldn't put Humpty together again!"
Thanks for your input.
Wednesday September 28th 2011, 9:57 AM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
If you're interested in that, here's another link:
He investigates cognitive development. He's a fantastic speaker, by the way, with an amazing gift for making neuroscience accessible to non-specialists. There are a few YouTube videos where you can experience him live.

I remember reading an article about ten years ago regarding investigations into the successive development processes in infancy and the order in which hearing, vision, motor skills and speech are acquired (apparently, this has to progress in the right order). Haven't the time to find the link, but it was in the context of Michael May (blinded at the age of 3, vision restored at 46, who had problems with spatial relationships and recognizing emotions on people's faces).
Wednesday September 28th 2011, 11:02 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Thanks again, Alice.
Just for your info, I am a retired Medical Doctor who maintained my boards in Family Medicine for 35 years, so that may explain my interest in these cases I've mentioned. There are so many! My special interest was neurology but my practical work was in that marvelous front row seat on life in my work as rural family practice, emergency medicine, medical examiner in our county of 25,000 people.
Currently, I am trying to sharpen my writing skills in order to share some of my experiences in a broader sense with others.
Just a little FYI there!
Thursday September 29th 2011, 2:38 AM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
How interesting, Roger!
And here's a little FYI from me: I started out studying medicine. Though I didn't complete the course, I've retained an abiding interest. I ultimately became a professional translator/interpreter. I grew up bilingual (English, French), then added more languages as a teenager and adult, learning those languages in the countries where they are spoken. So I have experience of both intuitive and conscious language learning. To me, they involve so much more than articulating the sounds (melody and rhythm) and mastering the grammar. They have just as much, if not more, to do with social cues and understanding the culture and subcultures that produced that language. Because of my cross-cultural background, I became aware of that earlier than usual, even as a young child, when behaviors that were acceptable in one country turned out to be unacceptable in the other. I watched the "Genie" documentation last night. Very absorbing, but oh so tragic.
Friday September 30th 2011, 11:19 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Thank you, Alice.
We probably should not be doing this personal sharing thing on the public forum, but what the heck!
Anyone else want to chime in?
Language is such a wonderful and fundamental capacity. One almost despairs over the "corrupted" and careless usage so frequently heard today in "real" life; but, if people are COMMUNICATING, what does it matter?
I'm sure many on this forum share this feeling.

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.

There's a new online threat to writing: the creation of money-making meaningless text.
Apple's latest iPhone app will clean up your text messages, Dennis Baron reports.
Baron considers the spread of international English beyond the Anglophone world.