Should we still call the global lingua franca English?

World slang
Saturday, 19th December 2015

In more innocent times we associated a language with its national community. For much of history nations and languages had a symbiotic relationship. Language is the ultimate propagator of the cultural traits that hold together communities and enable the development of hierarchical command structures. A multilingual country is effectively an empire, for it has to unite peoples unable to communicate easily except through the medium of a common higher-register language that is not their own. In a simplified multipolar world, each country would have its own language and a set of shared customs, e.g. In Denmark one speaks Danish and in France one speaks French, both languages inextricably bound to their motherland. Admittedly French serves as a lingua franca in much of Northwestern and Central Africa and even Danish acts as a colonial language in Greenland. French is also spoken in Quebec, Walloon Belgium, Western Switzerland and a few French overseas territories dotted around the globe, but most native speakers live in metropolitan France. By contrast, only 8-9% of native English speakers live in England. The ethnic English proportion may be a little higher if we include the greater diaspora in Canada, Australia and South Africa who still identify as English, but most native English speakers are North American and many more live in Australasia, Southern Africa and elsewhere.

It’s hard to measure just how many people speak English worldwide as a second language. It could be as many as 3 billion if we include everyone who has learned some basic English at school or at work to as few as 500 million if we restrict the total to those who speak the language with a high degree of proficiency and, most important, retain full mutual intelligibility with native English speakers. Other estimates relate to varying degrees of fluency and may apply different criteria, e.g. the number of school leavers with a basic English language qualification or a random sample representative of the general population in which participants have to engage in long conversations on challenging topics. As a rule, English as a lingua franca is much more widely spoken in cosmopolitan cities and by members of the better educated professional classes. Whichever way, recent technological and cultural changes have vastly expanded our need to communicate with people from other language communities. Global English, for all its defects, not least its inconsistent pronunciation and orthography, has succeeded where Esperanto and a handful of other neutral artificial lingua francas failed. As the pace of globalisation and cultural change accelerates, the core of native and near-native English speakers will find themselves outnumbered by those who speak the language in wildly divergent and creative ways with little reference to the original variant of English that first migrated from the British Isles in the 17th century. Indeed it was not until the mid 19th century that English gained the upper hand over French, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Russian or Chinese. Although France lost the Seven Year War in 1764, having to cede Quebec and most of its Indian territories to Great Britain, and its hopes of European supremacy were dashed at the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, French remained the preferred language of diplomacy and of greatest prestige in Europe way into the early 20th century.

English means different things to different people. To the English, it may still be a symbol of ethnic identity if spoken in its insular form with its idiosyncratic colloquialisms and regional pronunciations. Today you will seldom hear the clever melange of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French that characterised Shakespeare’s works, but rather a mishmash of vernacular British English, Americanisms and branded neologisms interspersed with politically correct NewSpeak and catch phrases popularised by TV personalities. The Scottish and Irish tend to have a more pragmatic view of the language, but take pride in their local dialects. To Nigerians or Indians, English is the high register of their commercial lingua franca. The subtleties of regional English dialects or latest suburban slang from Merseyside or Hampshire are of little interest to your average African or Asian business-person, for whom English is a vehicle of communication and expression, but not a badge of tribal identity. To continental Europeans, English was, until recently, just another foreign language, but has now become a gateway to participation in the globally integrated business world, academia and youth culture, especially of the kind that global entertainment businesses most heavily promote. At times it seems everywhere global English trumps native languages, even where regional languages remain strong. Yet to view this as a triumph of English culture over the rest of the world is in my humble judgement to misunderstand the far-reaching consequences of rapid global cultural convergence. Indeed traditional British English may well be a victim of its own apparent success, submerged by a rapidly morphing global lingua franca that owes as much as to Bangalore, Berlin and Beijing as it does to Birmingham, Brisbane and Boston. If a Briton from the 1950s could, through the magic of a time machine, experience the linguistic reality of modern Britain, she would be very confused. While superficially many common words would be much the same, many old terms and phrases have acquired new meanings or been superseded by more politically correct neologisms. Much discourse would be unintelligible without detailed knowledge of the last 50 years of technologically driven culture replete with brand names, acronyms and adapted foreign recipes. Back in the 1950s most Britons did not even have a phone or a television set, let alone an iPhone.

Opinions on the role of global English vary. Robert Phillipson has put forward the theory of linguistic imperialism, a must-read for anyone interested in cultural change. While I find many aspects of this perspective persuasive, especially in the context of cultural imperialism, in my experience abroad the key drivers behind linguistic homogenisation are not native English speakers at all, but international business. British imperialism and later US economic supremacy merely set the stage for English to expand way beyond its core of native speakers (still only 6.5% of the world’s population). I find Jean-Paul Nerriere’s concept of Globish, as popularised in 2009 book of the same name, much closer to the emerging linguistic reality, although I do not share his optimism that American and British English will retain their privileged status, which will wane with their relative economic and cultural decline. While I found much of the historical research in Nicholas Ostler’s The Last Lingua Franca of great interest, I cannot support his conclusion that automated simultaneous translation technology will supplant the need for global English and let everyone cultivate their own vernacular. I've no doubt natural language processing will sooner or later let us translate human speech into a machine language intelligible to computers, but it will be some time before computers will be able to interpret the full range of nuances of colloquial human speech. Like it or not, cultural convergence is the order of the day, so now the French have to learn Globish while Brits have had to discard feet, pounds and pints in favour of metric units.

I taught English as a foreign language for three years and soon learned English syntax had more exceptions than rules. As soon as I explained a rule, some wise spark would cite an exception, often from William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens or whichever pre-20th century English authors happened to be on their reading list. However, the biggest stumbling block for my German and later Italian students were pronunciation, especially understanding ill-educated native speakers, and literal translations from their own language. In the pre-Internet era my best advice was to acquire English-medium movies with the original sound track, but subtitled in English. Most could read the language much better than they could speak it. If you attempt to read subtitles in your own language, you will miss the subtleties and flavour of the source tongue. At the time the received wisdom was that English is on the whole much easier than the other main European languages. The English-is-easy meme has become a self-reinforcing mantra, which in my experience as both a language learner and teacher is more attributable to its cultural ubiquity and prestige than to any inner qualities. On the surface English grammar is very simple with no confusing grammatical genders (yes, the Sun is masculine in Italian and French but feminine in German), a limited range of verb conjugations (I do, he does, I did etc.. as opposed to faccio, fai, fa, facciamo, fate, fanno, ho fatto, feci, facevo, farò etc..), only a few dozen common irregular verbs, very uniform plurals with a few exceptions of course, undeclined adjectives and just a barebones case system. One wonders how Czech children can cope with seven grammatical cases and three grammatical genders, but they do. Indeed even old English had five cases and three genders, very similar to modern Icelandic or German. However, by this metric the easiest language in the world must be Chinese, in which verbs, nouns and adjectives are never suffixed and relationships between words are either implied by word order and context or emphasised with helper words. Native English syntax is not as simple as many continental learners of the language would like to believe. Word order plays a  much more important role in English than it does in languages with a more clearly defined case system like German or Polish. English has a special interrogative auxiliary verbs to maintain its default Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) word order (e.g. When did you live in Italy? but How many people live in Venice?) and has a vast array of verbal tenses with auxiliary words (such as I do, am doing, will do, am going to do, have done, have been doing, did, was doing, used to do, had done, had been doing etc). While English's verbal moods serve useful semantic functions for native users, their utility is lost on speakers of other languages. In Germany, the Low Countries, France and Northern Italy, past actions are typically expressed with a tense we confusingly call the present perfect, e.g. I have done.. (j'ai fait.., ich habe .. gemacht, ho fatto .. etc.) while English always uses the simple past for terminated actions (e.g. I ate an apple five minutes ago, but I've never eaten a horse ). English distinguishes continuous from simple verbal forms, e.g. I drink tea (i.e. I'm a tea drinker), but I'm drinking orange juice (at the moment). In many other languages the same verbal form would be used in both cases.

While English syntax may be a tad idiosyncratic, the biggest challenge for most learners is pronunciation. I once suggested the best international language would be written more or less like English, but pronounced as if it were Italian or Spanish. Naturally some sounds are easier for speakers of some languages than others. Castillian Spanish, Greek and Arabic have the dental fricatives /θ/ and /ð/ as in theft or then, often a source of ridicule for French, German and Italian speakers of English. However, consonants only form the outer shell of syllables. Vowels and stress add colour to our speech and help us distinguish thousands of short words that would otherwise be homophones. Moreover, English vowels are notorious for their indistinctness. Most languages use variants of the 5 cardinal vowels /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/ and /u/, with a few diphthongs and possibly a few extra vowels. English, by contrast, has a complex system of short, long and gliding vowels that sit midway between cardinal vowels. The cardinal /a/ may be confused with North American rendition of the short o in hot, or Southern English version of the short u or /ʌ/ in hut or the long /a:/ in heart (r is usually suppressed in modern Southern English) or the Northern and Midlands English pronunciation of hat. In unstressed positions most vowels become either schwa /ə/ or a short i /ı/, e.g. comfortable may be phonetically transcribed as /'kʌmfəɾtəbəɭ/ . Indeed if English adopted phonetically accurate spelling, many would confuse it for a quaint Scandinavian dialect with a few extra letters and diacritical symbols.

Speech patterns are learned in early childhood. Each dialect has a repertoire of sounds it must distinguish to facilitate communication. Our ears are fine-tuned to differentiate the phonemes particular to our linguistic environment. Exposure to other dialects enables us to remap these phonemes to other variants. As the pronunciation of English differs quite markedly from its spelling native speakers will often associate different sounds with the same written form. Over time common terms tend to be shortened, while ambiguous short words may need a companion word to emphasise their meaning or may give way to less ambiguous alternatives. E.g. the old English term wifeman became woman,  Nonetheless, some languages tend towards abbreviation much more than others. In Italy the term scontrino fiscale amused me, why would shopkeepers have to keep reminding me that the small paper receipt that had just given me was for tax purposes? Many linguistic communities prefer more complete and semantically correct terminology for cultural reasons. If we had retained the Victorian attitude to word formation, many common English-medium neologisms would be much longer. The first high-capacity horse-drawn coaches were commonly known as omnibuses, Latin for all, and only later shortened to bus. Terseness is not always an advantage as I find in my day job as a programmer, longer descriptive names are easier to interpret than concise but ambiguous names. The term iPad is the patented creation of a marketing department. It owes its success to its extreme simplicity. Yet pad has many other meanings, anything from a soft wad of material, a booklet of writing paper as in notepad, a flat-topped structure such as launchpad or heli(copter)-pad, the flat area of circuit board or a small city apartment. The correct term for a device like an iPad or a Kindle Fire, both ephemeral devices, is electronic tablet, but tablet alone has plenty of other meanings. Smartphone may be more neutral than iPhone, a trademark, but is itself a neologism that fails to adequately describe its true nature. Indeed the forerunner to modern smartphones was a personal digital assistant or PDA, which is admittedly not quite as catchy. These new coinages rely heavily on their neurolinguistic impact. They must be short, relatively easy to pronounce and distinguishable from their technical predecessors. If you want to sell a new kind of coffee, a descriptive Anglo-Saxon concoction like concentrated coffee with frothy milk would be bad marketing, cappuccino sounds much better to your average English speaker.