Monday, 2 November 2009

Bend me, shake me, anyway you want me...

In the hit parade of the most spoken languages on Earth, English comes in at number 2 with a whopping 328 million speakers. Mandarin Chinese is sitting pretty in the number 1 spot with the smug air of Bryan Adams humming 'Everything I Do', or whatever it was called. And, when you have 845 million speakers, more than double that of English, you can afford to be somewhat smug. English, however, is locked in a bitter tussle with Spanish to retain the number 2 spot. It seems that the figures are debatable in the extreme, as I am sure is true of anything that is counted in such high numbers, and depending on who you believe, Spanish could be number 2 rather than the number 3 that it gets on Wikipedia. It depends on who's doing the counting. I tend to take Wikipedia as irrefutable truth - why the hell shouldn't I? - and so, for the sake of my arguments here it is the main source of information. If you think the figures are wrong, that's fine; let's not argue about a few million speakers here and there.

If we define 'speak' as being able to convey ideas, intentions and emotions with a reasonable degree of competence and efficiency, I speak two languages: English and Welsh. English is very much my first language, my mother tongue. Welsh is my secondary language; it is not the language used in my home but I used it frequently as a child and young adult until I moved to England in the late 90s. The point of interest that has burgeoned this post was first raised in the discussion to a blog post written by Carl Morris regarding the comments of Janet Street-Porter on the Welsh language. To paraphrase, Street-Porter claimed that Welsh had 'no words for anything modern', a comment which is, of course, a load of pungent and bigoted nonsense. Anyway, Carl and the commentators cover the ridiculousness of this regrettably very common notion that Welsh is a somehow backward and antiquated language that cannot cope with the modern age and therefore has to awkwardly borrow words from its neighbour. I have many times heard the theory that Welsh simply appropriates English words to fill gaps in its vocabulary. Usually this theory is offered by monoglot English speakers which makes it ironic in the extreme. Surely no language in the history of human communication has borrowed, plundered and annexed vocabulary as English has done to suit its needs. Surely, then, a bilingual Welsh speaker is allowed to dip into English to fill a specific hole in his or her native vocabulary?

Which brings me onto the real reason I'm here. In the debate on the capability of Welsh in the modern age, I began to think about the dominance of English generally. OK, English may only be second (or third) in the big count of native speakers, but I'd be prepared to wager a great deal that if we include those that speak some English as a second or foreign language, the young, upstart bastard of a tongue from Northern Europe would easily sit atop the hit parade. It is the lingua franca of a mind numbing amount of arenas. It is the common tongue of the wide variety of peoples in the British Isles as well as the present and former colonies (most notably the USA and Australia) of the British Empire. It is the official language of worldwide air traffic control and the unofficial lingua franca of business, economics, and science. In fact, all notable scientific journals are published in English. (While I'm thinking about it, isn't the term lingua franca deliciously ironic, given the barely contained irritation of French speakers at the perceived dominance of English).

I've seen Spanish speakers communicate with German speakers using English. When I visited India this year, I very rarely had problems communicating with people of all walks of life when using English. In the same country, I was fascinated to see Tamil and Hindi speakers converse in English.

How did English come to find itself in this position? There are a number of commonly given theories:

1. Lazy English monoglots
2. The British Empire
3. The American economy and media

I am going to discount theory 1 immediately because I actually think that the idea of native English speakers generally being too lazy or ignorant to learn to communicate in other languages and therefore forcing others to use the language to speak to them is a myth. Sure, it will be true of a few individuals, but it is also true of many individuals from many countries. The Italians, for example, are particularly famous for their reluctance to learn or use other languages. And if you get to roll beautiful Italian sounds around your mouth every day, why would you bother to speak another language? Italian is not a lingua franca of anything much outside of Italy and hasn't been since it's grandad Latin fell out of favour. So, no; I don't think the lingua franca status of English is resultant of the laziness of those for whom it is the mother tongue.

Theory 2 is far more compelling an explanation for the widespread use of English. Without the British Empire's determinedly entrepreneurial and often violent expansion, would English be a global language? Well probably not, but I don't really like 'What if?' history, because we'll never really know so let's not bother wasting time thinking about it. Anyway, there have been some other pretty formidable empires in the modern era. Take the USSR. It's common language was, of course, Russian. What language would you use to do international business with a member of a former USSR country? That's right. English.

The British Empire undoubtedly brought English to the four corners of the globe and you can see its influence most keenly in India, where English unites cultures and tongues that are otherwise utterly different. However, the British Empire also, at one time, contained the New World, or, as it now more commonly known, the United States of America. Which leads us nicely onto point 3.

The effect of American culture on the rest of the world is significant to say the least. Hollywood has spread its creations across the whole world, to the point that you could probably share a knowledge of the works of Arnold Schwarzenegger with remote Mongolian tribes. However, again I am not sure that this influence is why English is so resolute a global language. While the films of Hollywood are seen around the world, most non-English speakers watch them with soundtracks dubbed into their native language. I once spoke to a Spanish lady that remembered vividly the moment she realised that Sean Connery was not Spanish. As far as I know, she is still coming to terms with Connery's famous Scottish accent. So perhaps the effect of American culture is more our experience than that of speakers of other language.

Of course, all of these three points were and are very important when one thinks about the spread of the English language beyond the borders of England. Indeed, without any one of them, perhaps English would not be a global language. But, for me at least, English would not have been adopted as a ligua franca for anything if it didn't do the job very well. The fact of the matter is that English can cope with a mind-bendingly diverse range of situations. The bastard, mongrel nature of its conception 1500 years ago means that it was born adaptive and agile. It emerged as a lingua franca for the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Danes that were terrorising the slightly less agressive, slightly more curmudgeonly Celts on the island of Britain in the 5th century or thereabouts. Their tongues were similar enough to share information about how to get rid of Celts most efficiently and they quickly melded into a distinct dialect.

(It is notable how little influence the Celtic languages had on early English, something that seems to point to how total and effective the Scandinavian ethnic cleansing of what was to become England was. Like all things Dark Ages Britain, this is hotly debated and disputed but it seems to make sense to me; if the invaders settled and integrated peacefully, surely more words with Brythonic origins would exist in English today).

This new language of English existed happily enough in a North Sea focused culture alongside their Scandinavian parents until 1066 and all that. Ironically, the invaders were themselves Scandinavian, although their language had merged with that of the Franks. They were, of course, the Normans and they also brought with them an unparalleled mastery of the arts of aggressive territorial expansion, with an emphasis on the word aggressive. Their particular brand of French/Norse was immediately installed as the official language of governance and aristocracy, and the totalitarian nature of this new ruling class meant that English in its oldest form could not survive as it was. Within a few hundred years, English was again melding with other languages to form a new distinct language.

For the last 4 or 500 years, the vocabulary of the old bastard language has expanded exponentially. From the Elizabethan era onwards, words have been loaned, borrowed and coined with a relish almost totally unique to English. The OED now estimates there to be more than 600,000 words, with an estimated 25,000 words being added to the language every year. That's not too many less words than the entire vocabulary of French added to the language every year (the best guess I can find was that French had about 35,000 words at its disposal). This, then, is truly a language that can flex, bend and adapt to any circumstance. It can incorporate new words and grammar rules into itself with the ruthless efficiency of the Borg assimilating a culture into the hive. As a result, English is a language that you can bend a long way in lots of directions without it breaking. You can mutilate and distort it and still be understood where other languages would break under the strain. This also makes it an easy language to learn, but an incredibly frustrating and difficutl language to master. Teaching 10 year olds to get a grip on their mother tongue is an infinitely difficult job, believe me. Our spelling system is, quite simply, nuts. You try to explain why trough, through, and plough all share -ough but don't rhyme. Or indeed have any of the sounds you'd expect with those letters involved. Or why we say that there are 5 vowels which are a, e, i, o and u and that all words have vowels in them and then give out sky, by. and try as our weekly spelling test words. English is a conglomeration language that is constantly enforcing grammatical rules and spelling systems from at least five different ancient languages. The only good thing about all of this is that it's hard to be utterly wrong when you speak English; even educated native speakers can argue for hours about definitive uses of English and still not be able to agree. My pathetically puny endevours to speak Croat when travelling through the Balkans were met with absolute bemusement until I realised that I had a word order wrong and an accent stressed incorectly. English would have no problem with this; Croatian imploded into a meaningless string of utterances.

The fact is that I can listen to an English learner absolutely murder my native tongue and break pretty much every rule they thought they knew, and yet still be able to glean their meaning. English is the language equivalent of a green sapling in a storm: it will bend without breaking when more rigid, brittle saplings snap. Surely this is why it is the pre-eminent global language? If it didn't work, the world wouldn't have bothered using it and found something else. We're just lucky that we already know it; what a privilege that is.

Returning to the hit parade of languages, Welsh, my other language comes in at number 266, just behind Ancash Quechua and just ahead of Songe. This means that in linguistic terms, the Welsh are slightly less influential than they are in global football terms, which is pretty bad to be honest. I like the dual state of being able to speak a global language and a language so obscure to the rest of the world it was used as a code to guard sensitive information in the Second World War. A language so prevalent I can chat happily to a beggar in Mumbai in it and another so rare that the Ewoks use snippets of it in Return of the Jedi and no one notices. I enjoy that!


  1. An intriguing and plausible theory but not without flaws!

    "What language would you use to do international business with a member of a former USSR country?" is not a scientific question is it? It depends who you're asking! I'm sure loads of people in Georgia, Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia, etc.. maybe even Finland would say Russian. Utterly millions!

    I could probably go with English being hard to break once people have some knowledge of it. I have some personal experience of that. But it's always wonky to extrapolate personal experience to fact, however fun it may be!

    In a given situation people do NOT have free choice of the 7000-8000 languages currently in use.

    For instance I think Malay is a somewhat unbreakable language. (To pluralise a noun just double up, e.g. "kelip" is "firefly" and kelip kelip is the plural. It uses Latin alphabet and words are super easy to read, 100% phonetic. And so on...) But if you don't have opportunities to learn Malay, even odd words, then it won't grow.

    This brings it back to imperialism, of the literal kill-the-natives kind and the cultural kind.

    A Malay language army never conquered an English language army. In fact it was the reverse.

    Obviously the difference between the two kinds of "imperialism" is there is some degree of consent to cultural imperialism. The natives want their Elvis, their Arnie and their Beckham.

    Malaysia is independent now but they love the west now, like never before. And among all the languages, English continues - and retains - a high profile.

    If Beyonce offered to play at the Eisteddfod it would be a tough call.

    Then the rest is about the "stickiness" of the language. But that comes AFTER people have had some exposure to it?

    People tell me Spanish is "easy" to learn too. I don't know what that really means. It's subjective.

    Is Welsh "hard" to learn? Well it's harder to find exploding helicopter films in the language (Hofrennydd Wedi Ffrwydro II doesn't exist... yet). But otherwise it's totally subjective.

    Even the sounds, while we think they're unusual from an English perspective, are probably no less typically unusual than any other language. People struggle with English "th" (as in thistle) which is a voiceless fricative sound just like the famous "ll" (as in llew).

    When it comes to reading and writing English is a beast, like you mention. The downside of its mongrelness.

  2. Leroy, If you'd bothered to watch Highlander, you'd realise that Sean Connery is Spanish.

    Admittedly he is a Spaniard with a thick Scottish accent, (who starred opposite Christopher Lambert AKA the Highlander Connor MacLeod, with his own peculiar American-French accent, presumably native to Glenfinnan) but he is definitely Spanish.

    That's just cold, hard facts Leroy. You can't argue with facts.

  3. Perhaps we need to debate the nature of 'fact'!

    I am quite prepared to accept Connery's Spanishness as fact. Highlander is pretty water tight in its accuracy, so I stand corrected. Thanks for that Spiller.

    I guess the whole which lingua franca do you adopt for a situation depends on where you're standing, and with whom you're doing the standing. A Ukrainian and Belorussian business meeting = Russian. Ukrainian + Belorussian + Nigerian = ?. I'm guessing English though.

    I think I downplayed the colonialism part to be deliberately controversial! It amused me. I think you're right though Carl...for a language to stick it must first be stuck.

    The thing that struck me most in the thinking about all of this though was what a staggeringly massive, beautiful, bewildering and beguiling language English is. Sometimes I forget that when I use my tiny corner of it without too much thought on a daily basis.

    I do think Welsh is a more rigid language (in its formal mode) than English. That doesn't necessarily make it harder to learn; as you said, the difficulty of a language is entirely subjective depending on your previous experiences and ability to learn.

    But there's something about English that makes it very sticky, and easy to get stuck in.

  4. What do you mean by "rigid"? Curious.

  5. Less bendy? I just think that English can bend a lot. It has the biggest vocabulary of any language and you can usually say the same thing in a bewildering amount of ways, leaning toward a nuance as you please. I don't know exactly how many words are in the Cymraeg vocabulary arsenal, but I'd guess 20-30,000? Rhys Ifans described how you have to talk around things in Welsh somewhat; you have to explain more than you do when speaking English. Of course, it depends what you're talking about: many things are easier to say in Welsh than English, and vice versa.


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