The Last Lingua Franca; English Until the Return of Babel

Nicholas Ostler; Walker; 2010

Summary by Graham Mulligan

Lingua Franca was the common contact language of the eastern Mediterranean in which Greeks and Turks could talk to Frenchmen and Italians. In 1204 Constantinople fell to the Franks who were from Venice. Many now regard English as a lingua franca spread by Anglo-American colonialism and economic interests. Indeed it is the native language of some but for most it is rather the language most convenient for a specific purpose such as commerce or administration. As such, it is the language of elites and not the masses of common folk.

Ostler explains one of the early motivations behind the economic appetite to learn English is simply that business is normally done in the customer’s language. However both giant economies of industrialized Britain and the U.S. were built on domestic trade. If outsiders wanted in on the action they needed to speak English.

The present seeming ubiquitous appetite for learning English has prompted some (David Graddol, Nicholas McCrum) to propose an apolitical English language now separated from its British and American heritage and owned by no one nation or group. Can a lingua franca do that? First, one must distinguish ‘native language’ from lingua franca. Ostler explores the question of the coherence of the English language as a single entity. Historically widespread languages (Latin, Sanskrit, Chinese, Arabic, etc.) tended to breakup into families of languages (Romance languages: French, Italian, Portuguese). Linguists generally describe the language families of the world as Indo-European, the Bantu languages of central and southern Africa, the Polynesian languages of the Pacific, the Algonquin of N.America, the Semitic languages of SW Asia and Ethiopia.

The feeling of ownership of the language creates an interesting attitude amongst native speakers of English. Glaswegians, inner-city African-Americans and Australian drovers, for instance all “naturally feel that the language is theirs, that their English is as good as anyone else’s and that, if comprehension seems to fail, the problem lies with the international audience, not them” (p.44).

The diversity of English accents, genres, and dialects was first propagated by human migration notably British English imperial influence and then by distributed / broadcast / networked as general American culture and business influence. Now content in other languages as can be generated anywhere such as in Bollywood movies and Jamaican reggae videos. How English speakers accommodate to the diversity of the language will depend on the attitude held by each speaker group to each other speaker group. Witness speakers of BBC English sounding sophisticated to commoner’s ears and lower class speakers ‘putting on airs’ sounding la-di-da. Standards for interpreting one group to another however are not equal. Some Australian films such as Mad Max and Scottish films like Trainspotting are dubbed for U.S. audiences but no American films are dubbed for Australian or Scottish moviegoers. Linguists call all of this, a dia-system, “a kind of multidimensional interweaving of varieties of a single language” (p.57).

Ostler details the history of the trading languages of Central Asia and the Mediterranean such as Sogdian and Persian. Traders’ languages generally were learned for trade alone. The Silk Road brought contact with China but little influence on language in either direction, although some curiosities exist such as days of the week in Sogdian which transmit through Persian to Middle Chinese but survive only in association with meaning content, particularly the phases or elements (sun, moon fire, water, wood, gold, earth) in modern Chinese (p.130).

How do languages evolve? A lingua franca grows through recruitment. It has a purpose and therefore gains users. How can it guarantee its own future? It can develop into a full-fledged vernacular and become a mother tongue or it can find a new purpose. The first path is common, witness Russian replacing Siberian, Spanish for Mestizos, by royal decree in 1770, even English replacing Scots and Welsh and Cornish tongues. The process is first developing as a pidgin or partial language for communication then becoming a creole passed from generation to the next as the only language they know. The Romance languages of Europe all developed this way. The survival of the language no longer depended on a single purpose.

The other path to survival, a change of purpose, occurred for example when Sanskrit evolved from the language of pure religious expression into a secular vehicle for any expression. Latin also changed from the language of the Roman Empire to the language of the Catholic Church, and even again into the language of elite schools and universities. Copernicus, Erasmus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton and Descartes all published their key works in Latin.

How do lingua francas come to an end? Lingua francas come to an end in different ways. Where the lingua franca’s purpose was motivated by trade and commerce and the resultant lingua franca was a pidgin, the end comes swiftly. Sabir in the Mediterranean, Russenorsk in the Norwegian Arctic, Yama in the U.S. Southeast, Chinook in the Pacific Northwest all went this way. Where the lingua franca was a true language like Portuguese but the purpose diminished, the language pulled back. Another way to end a lingua franca is by force. Punic, the Carthaginian offshoot of Phoenician, and rival to Rome, ended with the famous sack of 146 B.C. Similarly, the Arab conquest of N.Africa in the 7th and 8th centuries forcibly imposed a language change. Lingua francas, like Sanskrit and Latin can also end through abandonment. Vernacular languages grow and replace the key users of the old language with the new mother tongue speakers. The rise of French in the seventeenth century Europe coincides with the decline of Latin. English gradually replaced French only after the First World War.

Ostler’s history of the rise and fall of lingua francas shows that dynamics of language competition in unending. Ostler analyzes contemporary language users firstly as a proportional mix of mother tongue speakers and lingua franca speakers. Here are some of the languages:

Language         mother         lingua         percentage         total

English         331 m         812 m         71%         1143 m

Arabic         182 m         140 m         40%         302 m

Hindi         182 m         120 m         40%         302 m

Urdu         61 m         93 m         60%         154 m

Bengali         181 m         69 m         28%         250 m

Russian         144 m         110 m         43%         254 m

Persian         36 m         69 m         67%         109 m

Mandarin         873 m         178 m         17%         1051 m

Portuguese         178 m         15 m         8%         193


Compare English and Mandarin whose total number of speakers is equivalent but lingual franca numbers very unequal. Note also the large numbers for the Indian sub-continent, but in different mother tongues although with significant lingua franca groups.

Another revealing comparison is the number of immigrant speakers in the colonial mother countries. Countries like the U.K., France, Germany, Netherlands, Spain and Russia all have communities of former colonials living and speaking their native tongues. There is an evident flow of immigrants ‘back’ to the mother country. Although not one of the original colonizing countries the U.S. has significant Spanish speaking populations. These groups become mother tongue communities of foreign language speakers but the don’t tend to raise the profile of these languages as lingual francas in the host country. Little use is made of these groups as learning centers to train second languages in the host country. Sometimes they are seen as useful assets for export marketing but often governments see them as ‘minorities whose loyalty to the host nation may be in doubt’ (p. 234).

In the future if there are major shifts in the economic center of gravity, the diaspora of business folk could lead to new lingua francas such as Chinese, some of the Indian languages, Portugese from Brazil or Arabic).

Africa presents a different case where colonial languages sometimes stick around longer or even regenerate (French in the northern parts: Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Mauritania, Mali and Niger; English in the coastal countries and Southern African countries). In South Africa English is replacing Afrikaans, which is tainted by apartheid.

Official government-sponsored ‘cultural diplomacy’ by means of language arose in France with the creation of the Alliance francaise (1883). The British Council (1940), Goethe Institut (1951), Instituto Cervantes (1991), all European language institutions, followed. The Japan Foundatio (1972) and Confucius Institute (2004) are significant non-European institutions of cultural diplomacy through language. Real lingua franca spread however, eludes this form of insemination.

Another vehicle for possibly mediating language use comes through technologies. The printing press and the compass are often cited as two historically powerful change vehicles. Communications technologies today play a similar role. To display characters or letter on a screen a computer needs to know how to do it. A code  (ASCII, invented in 1968, and then Unicode in 1991) is involved, both emanating from the U.S., the world’s technology innovation leader.  This meant that translation was into and out of English and each other language separately, but not from other language to other language. Translation software (MT or machine translation) is another case of new technology. At present, only major languages are participants in this new technology and it still follows the lead of the innovator, but historically there is no guarantee that the innovator will continue to dominate and set the rules (railways and TV both dominated by Britain at first). Many anomalies of persistent technologies exist (the standard railroad gauge in the U.S. is based on the Roman chariot) but could easily be toppled if some hitherto disenfranchised population rises to influence a new standard (the QWERTY keyboard is at risk, for example).

What threatens any dominant lingua franca is a change in context that relegates it to the ‘unnecessary’ category. Could MT (machine language) do this? Is MT insufficient or inadequate? In the end, Ostler suggests MT is driven too much from a monolingual desire to overcome the handicap of being monolingual. It is too inaccurate to yield true translation but is still useful as an aid to inter lingual communication (Google Translate). Ostler has developed a table of language technology resources that would conceivably provide mutual accessibility among all mother tongues over time. The implication of the fulfillment of this is that no lingua franca would then be necessary.

Growth in users of the internet over the past decade points to greater diversity of users accessing the internet in their own language rather than in one dominant language (English). Google Language Tools, introduced in 2001, translated only into or out of English (from French, German, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese and Korean) until 2008 when true multilingual translation initiated. It is unlikely that English will retain its dominant position as lingua franca in this respect.

Future possibilities include two polar opposite places for English. It could become ‘Worldspeak’ as the single global lingua franca, or it could retreat to only those countries where it survives as a mother tongue. A third, intermediate position is possible too. The first result assumes English to be too well entrenched even in the face of a retreat from the pioneering glories of the past first based on colonial expansion and then commercial and military dominance. The main challengers (BRIC Brazil, Russia, India and China) all have strong mother tongues but are unlikely to have capacity to expand to become lingua francas themselves.

A more likely outcome is ‘Wimbledomization’ (coined in Japan and well-known in Chinese, German, Spanish and Google). It refers to the 1986 ‘liberalization’ of the U.K. City of London powers that resulted in attracting ‘all the best players and profited from their presence, although little or now ownership remained English’ (p.272). The result in the discussion of English is known as International English, which is English as a second language or third language, spoken by more world-wide than by native English speakers (Chinglish is an example). In practice, however, in the English teaching world deference is given to the native speaker to be the authentic teacher of the language. Moreover, non-native English speaking is still associated with elitism in many countries and as such is not broadly accepted and hence has a precarious future existence. Only by regenerating as a mother tongue can it really be guaranteed and nationalistic allegiance to native tongues stands firmly in the way to block this path.

In India English may not be relegated completely but rising use of native languages especially in higher educational institutions will gradually diminish the place of English. China is another case where English was seen as the necessary vehicle to get ahead. This attitude is already in decline although still significant. As China rises with its huge numbers of mother tongue speakers it will be less and less dependent on English for its Opening to the World. At the same time, however, Chinese (Mandarin, Cantonese or Shanghainese) won’t become the new lingua franca except possibly in parts of Africa.

Multilinguality and awareness of other languages will predominate in future international contacts. Global communication technology enhancements will even out the relative status of all languages. International English will wither and become less significant. Everyone will speak and write in whatever language they choose and the world will understand.

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