«THE TRIUMPH OF ENGLISH»

«THE TRIUMPH OF ENGLISH»
Le triomphe de l’anglais – Un article en anglais du The Economist.

«On ne pourra empêcher la disparition de la plupart des langues. La
télévision et la radio, facteurs avérés d’homogénéisation, pourraient
étrangement prolonger la vie de certaines, en raison d’une diffusion
restreinte et protégée en langues minoritaires. Plusieurs langues
pourraient bien mourir, mais en même temps de plus en plus de gens
pourraient maîtriser plusieurs langues: le multilinguisme, déjà bien
implanté parmi l’élite éduquée d’Afrique, paraît maintenant normal chez les
Hollandais, les Scandinaves et, de manière accrue, un peu partout. Les
anglophones de naissance, toutefois, perdent constamment leur capacité
d’expression en d’autres langues, comme en témoigne le nombre limité, soit
neuf, d’étudiants ayant obtenu un diplôme d’études linguistiques
arabes,l’année dernière aux états-Unis. Les Britanniques, de leur côté,
demeurent les plus uniglottes de l’Union européenne. Ironiquement, le
triomphe de l’anglais ne signifie pas seulement la mort de langues
extérieures, mais il contribue à couper les anglophones de naissance de la
littérature, de l’histoire et de la pensée des autres peuples.» (Traduction
libre en français du dernier paragraphe de l’article suivant du magazine
britannique The Economist du 20 décembre dernier accessible à l’adresse :
http://www.economist.com/world/europe/displayStory.cfm?Story_ID=883997 )

THE TRIUMPH OF ENGLISH
A world empire by other means

The Economist, Dec 20th 2001

The new world language seems to be good for everyone-except the speakers of
minority tongues, and native English-speakers too perhaps

IT IS everywhere. Some 380m people speak it as their first language and
perhaps two-thirds as many again as their second. A billion are learning it,
about a third of the world’s population are in some sense exposed to it and
by 2050, it is predicted, half the world will be more or less proficient in
it. It is the language of globalisation-of international business, politics
and diplomacy. It is the language of computers and the Internet. You’ll see
it on posters in Côte d’Ivoire, you’ll hear it in pop songs in Tokyo, you’ll
read it in official documents in Phnom Penh. Deutsche Welle broadcasts in
it. Bjork, an Icelander, sings in it. French business schools teach in it.
It is the medium of expression in cabinet meetings in Bolivia. Truly, the
tongue spoken back in the 1300s only by the "low people" of England, as
Robert of Gloucester put it at the time, has come a long way. It is now the
global language.

How come? Not because English is easy. True, genders are simple, since
English relies on "it" as the pronoun for all inanimate nouns, reserving
masculine for bona fide males and feminine for females (and countries and
ships). But the verbs tend to be irregular, the grammar bizarre and the
match between spelling and pronunciation a nightmare. English is now so
widely spoken in so many places that umpteen versions have evolved, some so
peculiar that even "native" speakers may have trouble understanding each
other. But if only one version existed, that would present difficulties
enough. Even everyday English is a language of subtlety, nuance and
complexity. John Simmons, a language consultant for Interbrand, likes to
cite the word "set", an apparently simple word that takes on different
meanings in a sporting, cooking, social or mathematical context-and that is
before any little words are combined with it. Then, as a verb, it becomes
"set aside", "set up", "set down", "set in", "set on", "set about", "set
against" and so on, terms that "leave even native speakers bewildered about
[its] core meaning."

English has few barriers to entry. Terms from "downloading" to "phat" are
readily received
As a language with many origins-Romance, Germanic, Norse, Celtic and so
on-English was bound to be a mess. But its elasticity makes it messier, as
well as stronger. When it comes to new words, English puts up few barriers
to entry. Every year publishers bring out new dictionaries listing
neologisms galore. The past decade, for instance, has produced not just a
host of Internettery, computerese and phonebabble ("browsers",
"downloading", "texting" and so on) but quantities of teenspeak ("fave",
"fit", "pants", "phat", "sad"). All are readily received by English, however
much some fogies may resist them. Those who stand guard over the French
language, by contrast, agonise for years over whether to allow CD-Rom (no,
it must be cédérom), frotte-manche, a Belgian word for a sycophant
(sanctioned), or euroland (no, the term is la zone euro). Oddly, shampooing
(unknown as a noun in English) seemed to pass the French Academy nem con,
perhaps because the British had originally taken "shampoo" from Hindi.

Albion’s tongue unsullied
English-speakers have not always been so Angst-free about this laisser-faire
attitude to their language, so ready to present a façade of insouciance at
the de facto acceptance of foreign words among their clichés, bons mots and
other dicta. In the 18th century three writers-Joseph Addison (who founded
the Spectator), Daniel Defoe (who wrote "Robinson Crusoe") and Jonathan
Swift ("Gulliver’s Travels")-wanted to see a committee set up to regulate
the language. Like a good protectionist, Addison wrote:

I have often wished that…certain Men might be set apart, as
Superintendents of our Language, to hinder any Words of Foreign Coin from
passing among us; and in particular to prohibit any French Phrases from
becoming current in this Kingdom, when those of our own stamp are altogether
as valuable.

Fortunately, the principles of free trade triumphed, as Samuel Johnson, the
compiler of the first great English dictionary, rather reluctantly came to
admit. "May the lexicographer be derided," he declared, "who shall imagine
that his dictionary can embalm his language…With this hope, however,
academies have been instituted to guard the avenues of their languages…but
their vigilance and activity have hitherto been vain…to enchain syllables,
and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride."

Pride, however, is seldom absent when language is under discussion, and no
wonder, for the success or failure of a language has little to do with its
inherent qualities "and everything to do with the power of the people who
speak it." And that, as Professor Jean Aitchison of Oxford University points
out, is particularly true of English.

It was not always so. In the eastern half of the Roman empire, Greek
remained the language of commerce, and of Christians such as St Paul and the
Jews of the diaspora, long after Greek political supremacy had come to an
end. Latin continued to be the language of the church, and therefore of any
West European of learning, long after Rome had declined and fallen. But
Greek and Latin (despite being twisted in the Middle Ages to describe many
non-Roman concepts and things) were fixed languages with rigid rules that
failed to adapt naturally. As Edmund Waller wrote in the 17th century,

Poets that lasting marble seek,
Must carve in Latin or in Greek.
We write in sand, our language grows,
And like the tide, our work o’erflows.

English, in other words, moved with the times, and by the 19th century the
times were such that it had spread across an empire on which the sun never
set (that word again). It thus began its rise as a global language.

The real reason for the triumph of English is the triumph of the United
States. Therein lies a huge source of friction
That could be seen not just by the use of English in Britain’s colonies, but
also by its usefulness much farther afield. When, for instance, Germany and
Japan were negotiating their alliance against America and Britain in 1940,
their two foreign ministers, Joachim von Ribbentrop and Yosuke Matsuoka,
held their discussions in English. But however accommodating English might
be, and however much of the map was once painted red, the real reason for
the latterday triumph of English is the triumph of the English-speaking
United States as a world power. Therein lies a huge source of friction.

Damn Yanks, defensive Frogs
The merit of English as a global language is that it enables people of
different countries to converse and do business with each other. But
languages are not only a medium of communication, which enable nation to
speak unto nation. They are also repositories of culture and identity. And
in many countries the all-engulfing advance of English threatens to damage
or destroy much local culture. This is sometimes lamented even in England
itself, for though the language that now sweeps the world is called English,
the culture carried with it is American.

Some may regret the passing of the "bullet-proof waistcoat". But they may
welcome the "parking lot" instead of the "car park"

On the whole the Brits do not complain. Some may regret the passing of the
"bullet-proof waistcoat" (in favour of the "bullet-proof vest"), the arrival
of "hopefully" at the start of every sentence, the wholesale disappearance
of the perfect tense, and the mutation of the meaning of "presently" from
"soon" to "now". But few mind or even notice that their old "railway
station" has become a "train station", the "car park" is turning into a
"parking lot" and people now live "on", not "in", a street.

Others, however, are not so relaxed. Perhaps it is hardest for the French.
Ever since the revolution in 1789, they have aspired to see their language
achieve a sort of universal status, and by the end of the 19th century, with
France established as a colonial power second only to Britain and its
language accepted as the lingua franca of diplomacy, they seemed to be on
their way to reaching their goal. As the 20th century drew on, however, and
English continued to encroach, French was driven on to the defensive.

One response was to rally French-speakers outside France. Habib Bourguiba,
the first president of independent Tunisia, obligingly said in 1966 that
"the French-language community" was not "colonialism in a new guise" and
that to join its ranks was simply to use the colonial past for the benefit
of the new, formerly French states. His counterpart in Senegal, Léopold
Senghor, who wrote elegantly in the language of Molière, Racine and
Baudelaire, was happy to join La Francophonie, an outfit modelled on the
(ex-British) Commonwealth and designed to promote French language and
culture. But though such improbable countries as Bulgaria and Moldova have
since been drawn in-France spends about $1 billion a year on various aid and
other programmes designed to promote its civilisation abroad-French now
ranks only ninth among the world’s languages.

The decline is everywhere to be seen. Before Britain joined the European
common market (now the European Union) in 1973, French was the club’s sole
official language. Now that its members also include Denmark, Finland and
Sweden, whose people often speak better English than the British, English is
the EU’s dominant tongue. Indeed, over 85% of all international
organisations use English as one of their official languages.

Even in France itself, the march of English is remorseless
In France itself, the march of English is remorseless. Alcatel, the formerly
state-owned telecoms giant, uses English as its internal language.
Scientists know that they must either "publish in English or perish in
French". And though one minister of "culture and the French language",
Jacques Toubon, did his utmost to banish foreign expressions from French in
the mid-1990s, a subsequent minister of education, Claude Allègre, declared
in 1998 that "English should no longer be considered a foreign language…
In future it will be as basic [in France] as reading, writing and
arithmetic."

That does not mean that France has abandoned its efforts to stop the
corruption of its beautiful tongue. Rearguard actions are fought by Air
France pilots in protest at air-traffic instructions given in English. Laws
try to hold back the tide of insidious Albion on the airwaves. And the
members of the French Academy, the guardians of le bon usage, still meet in
their silver-and-gold-embroidered uniforms to lay down the linguistic law.

Those who feel pity for the French, however, should feel much sorrier for
the Quebeckers, a minority of about 6m among the 300m English-speakers of
North America. It is easy to mock their efforts to defend their beleaguered
version of French: all those absurd language police, fighting franglais,
ensuring that all contracts are written in French and patrolling shops and
offices to make sure that any English signs are of regulation size. But it
is also easy to understand their concern. After all, the publishing
onslaught from the United States is enough to make English-speaking
Canadians try to put up barriers to protect their magazines in apparent
defiance of the World Trade Organisation: Canada’s cultural industries are
at stake, they say. No wonder the French-speakers of Quebec feel even more
threatened by the ubiquity of English.

Germans, Poles and Chinese unite
French-speakers are far from alone. A law went into effect in Poland last
year obliging all companies selling or advertising foreign products to use
Polish in their advertisements, labelling and instructions. Latvia has tried
to keep Russian (and, to be more precise, Russians) at bay by insisting on
the use of the Latvian language in business. Even Germany, now the
pre-eminent economic and political power in Europe, feels it necessary to
resist the spread of Denglisch. Three years ago the Institute for the German
Language wrote to Deutsche Telekom to protest at its adoption of "grotesque"
terms like CityCall, HolidayPlusTarif and GermanCall. A year earlier, an
article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in which a designer had been
quoted using expressions like "giving story", "co-ordinated concepts" and
"effortless magic" so infuriated Professor Wolfgang Kramer that he founded
the Society for the Protection of the German Language, which now awards a
prize for the Sprachpanscher (language debaser) of the year.

For some countries, the problem with English is not that it is spoken, but
that it is not spoken well enough. The widespread use of Singlish, a local
version of Shakepeare’s tongue, is a perpetual worry to the authorities in
Singapore, who fear lest their people lose their command of the "proper"
kind and with it a big commercial advantage over their rivals.

In Hong Kong, by contrast, the new, Chinese masters are promoting Cantonese,
to the concern of local business. And in India some people see English as an
oppressive legacy of colonialism that should be exterminated. As long ago as
1908 Mohandas Gandhi was arguing that "to give millions a knowledge of
English is to enslave them." Ninety years later the struggle was still being
fought, with India’s defence minister of the day, Mulayam Singh Yadav,
vowing that he would not rest "until English is driven out of the country".
Others, however, believe that it binds a nation of 800 tongues and dialects
together, and connects it to the outside world to boot.

Some countries try, like France, to fix their language by fiat. A set of
reforms were produced in Germany a few years ago by a group of philologists
and officials with the aim of simplifying some spellings-Spagetti instead of
Spaghetti, for example, Saxifon instead of Saxophon-reducing the number of
rules governing the use of commas (from 52 to nine), and so on. Dutifully,
the country’s state culture ministers endorsed them, and they started to go
into effect in schoolrooms and newspaper offices across the country. But old
habits die hard, unless they are making way for English: in
Schleswig-Holstein the voters revolted, and in due course even such
newspapers as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung abandoned the new practice.

Spain strives for conformity too, through a Spanish Royal Academy similar to
the French Academy. The job of the 46 Spanish academicians is to "cleanse,
fix and give splendour" to a language that is very much alive, although nine
out of ten of its speakers live outside Spain. The academy professes a
readiness to absorb new words and expressions, but its director admits that
"changes have become very rare now." No wonder Spanish-speaking countries in
Latin America-as well as the Philippines and the United States-have set up
their own academies.

Keeping tiny tongues alive
Rules alone may be unable to withstand the tide of English, but that does
not mean it is impossible to keep endangered languages in being. Mohawk, for
instance, spoken by some indigenous people in Quebec, was in retreat until
the 1970s, when efforts were made first to codify it and then to teach it to
children at school. Welsh and Maori have both made a comeback with the help
of television and government interference, and Navajo, Hawaiian and several
languages spoken in Botswana have been reinvigorated artificially.

Of the world’s 6,000 or 7,000 languages, a couple go out of business each
week. Most are in the jungles of Papua New Guinea or in Indonesia

Iceland has been extraordinarily successful at keeping the language of the
sagas alive, even though it is the tongue of barely 275,000 people.
Moreover, it has done so more by invention than by absorption. Whereas the
Germans never took to the term Fernsprechapparat when Telefon was already
available, and the French have long preferred le shopping and le weekend to
their native equivalents, the Icelanders have readily adopted alnaemi for
"AIDS", skjar for "video monitor" and toelva for "computer". Why? Partly
because the new words are in fact mostly old ones: alnaemi means
"vulnerable", skjar is the translucent membrane of amniotic sac that used to
be stretched to "glaze" windows, and toelva is formed from the words for
"digit" and "prophetess". Familiarity means these words are readily
intelligible. But it also helps that Icelanders are intensely proud of both
their language and their literature, and the urge to keep them going is
strong.

Perhaps the most effective way of keeping a language alive, however, is to
give it a political purpose. The association of Irish with Irish nationalism
has helped bring this language back from its increasing desuetude in the
19th century, just as Israeli nation-building has converted Hebrew from
being a merely written language into a national tongue.

For some nations, such as the Indians, the pain felt at the encroachments of
English may be tempered by the pleasure of seeing their own words enriching
the invading tongue: Sir Henry Yule’s 1886 dictionary, "Hobson-Jobson",
lists thousands of Anglo-Indian words and phrases. But for many peoples the
triumph of English is the defeat, if not outright destruction, of their own
language. Of the world’s 6,000 or 7,000 languages, a couple go out of
business each week. Some recent victims from the rich world have included
Catawba (Massachusetts), Eyak (Alaska) and Livonian (Latvia). But most are
in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, which still has more languages than any
other country, or Indonesia, or Nigeria (India, Mexico, Cameroon, Australia
and Brazil follow).

Pundits disagree about the rate at which languages are disappearing: some
say that by the end of the century half will have gone, some say 90%. But
whenever a language dies, a bit of the world’s culture, history and
diversity dies with it. This is slowly coming to be appreciated. The EU
declared 2001 to be "European year of languages", and it is striking that
even France-whose hostility to linguistic competition is betrayed by the
constitution’s bald statement that "the language of the Republic is
French"-now smiles more benignly on its seven regional tongues (Alsatian,
Basque, Breton, Catalan, Corsican, Flemish and Provençal).

Yet the extinction of most languages is probably unstoppable. Television and
radio, both blamed for homogenisation, may, paradoxically, prolong the life
of some by narrow-casting in minority tongues. And though many languages may
die, more people may also be able to speak several languages:
multilingualism, a commonplace among the least educated peoples of Africa,
is now the norm among Dutch, Scandinavians and, increasingly, almost
everyone else. Native English-speakers, however, are becoming less competent
at other languages: only nine students graduated in Arabic from universities
in the United States last year, and the British are the most monoglot of all
the peoples of the EU. Thus the triumph of English not only destroys the
tongues of others; it also isolates native English-speakers from the
literature, history and ideas of other peoples. It is, in short, a
thoroughly dubious triumph. But then who’s for Esperanto? Not the staff of
The Economist, that’s for sure.

(Ce texte nous a été expédié par Mme Anna-Maria Campogrande,
Anna-Maria.Campogrande@cec.eu.int)

(Le 2 janvier 2002)