- For Teachers
A word of comfort to those of you who are unhappy about an important and so far unique and unprecedented linguistic development underway in the world and the present shift in English identity to a world property or world identity.
The rise of global English doesn't mean the loss of a geographical identity. People in Britain remain British, those in the US stay American. A model is Switzerland. You can be German, French or Italian but you are ultimately Swiss. Even now the term Spanish is misleading because it doesn't consider the Catalans and others.
Although I still believe the loss of a linguistic identity has far more advantages than drawbacks, other languages in the world won't be spared. A much more disastrous fate is awaiting them. It will also free us from the shackles of nationalism and arrogance. We will save time and energy which we still put into translation. A global English might overrun and replace lots of languages (compare French and la grande nation). So everybody in the world will acquire a new linguistic identity. I wonder, what's wrong with that. After all languages come and go. This is a rule of nature. Just think of what happened to Latin. It gave birth before it died to a number of daughters Like: Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese....
On the other hand a lot of people are worried that the English invasion will bring with it American and English culture. They believe it's a kind of cultural colonialism. The whole world will be Anglo-Saxonized or Americanized. Even in China people have already started eating MacDonald's hamburgers (symbolic). There is no reason to worry that Chinese (Mandarin) one day will be a more powerful language than English. Chinese sounds are more difficult to the people of the world. In addition its writing system is cumbersome and not suitable for international communication. Human beings have always lamented the demise of the present. Shelly's "West Wind" makes way for a new life.
Language is the basis for all human interactions. No thinking is possible without language. It is indeed surprising why linguistics and language have not got the attention and focus they deserve till now. After all, human knowledge and science is only possible through the medium of language. Acquiring a new language opens new perspectives on life and broadens our minds. Our identity is still based on language. However, in case of English and because of its international role the idea of identity might get lost or is in deed on its way to be lost (it is becoming a world or a human identity). Yet, English culture and literature can only be seen in English. That's why although translation is a brilliant discipline it cannot overcome its deficiencies. Just imagine translating Shakespeare or Coleridge into Dutch.In short, language is superior to all other disciplines and is always first in sequence. It is knowledge, pleasure, emotions (mind and body or body and soul in one). After all we are not only heads but bodies too.
One question which doesn't leave my mind is: Can the human language we know cope with the information density and the speed we are experiencing. As you know, information is growing and coding or packing information into language is necessary. Informal language uses more verbs. It is verbal or verbose (i.e. information density is low). Academic language tries to avoid verbs as much as possible apart from some basic ones like: be, have and a couple of other high frequency ones. So nominalization is a feature of Academic English because of the problem of information density. You can do more operations on nouns than on verbs. For example you can count nouns; use adjectives with them (describe them) etc... But nominalization means using nouns and as you knows most of them, at least the academic ones, are of Romance origin i.e. very long words (multi-syllabic). What will be if this information density grows to such an extent that the present human language is no more capable of packing information. On the other hand human language is slow for communicating messages. You need more time to pronounce long Romance words. Will there be a new communication medium to cope with the problems of density and speed.
Now I would like to extend the ideas of density and speed which I touched upon to two additional important phenomena which are part and parcel of human language.
Some people complain about the imprecise use of language. If human language won't suffice to code information in the future due to information density and speed and of course due to misunderstandings (ambiguity) then the analogue language we have now might make way for a digital language Nowadays, everything is becoming digital. Why not human language? Once human language is digitized or replaced by a digital (computer) language (whether prescribed or agreed on), not only ambiguity ends but also beauty and mysticism and culture of human heritage. This means there will definitely be advantages of density, speed and clarity but a lot of disadvantages as I already mentioned will ensue foremost among those is reduction. Digital data is compressed or zipped. Compression means losing part of the information which is beyond human perception. Thus! , Digitalization means reducing human language to two modes, there is current or no current, a duality of yes and no like vending machines or computers. It is always a win/lose situation. This is an economic principle. We have to make a decision and set priorities.
Another problem of human language is identity. Identity doesn't only help us to belong to a nation and provide a profile but also create big human conflicts. Just take nationalism which is not only based on skin colour and facial features but also on language.
There are different peoples (nations) in the world: In the Middle East there are Arabs, Turks, Kurds or Persians. In East Asia there are: Chinese, Koreans, and Vietnamese. In Germanic Europe there are: the English, the Germans, and the Dutch etc. In Romance Europe: the French, the Italians, the Spanish. All these People look alike in their own parts of the world and it is difficult to tell them a part like one cell twins but they have lots of conflicts mostly based on nationalism (language identity). Using a digital language might solve some national conflicts. Human relations will probably then be based on economy and not languages.
Perhaps one day we will cease to be bodies or at least some parts of our bodies will be left as remnants based on a different anatomy (giving way to big heads) in the process of human evolution. The problem is not one of technology as much as that of growth .The pace of information growth is scaring. This is in deed a gloomy picture (at least to us now). Our biggest problem and enemy is ultimately growth not only that of information. Every thing is growing: world population is growing, pollution is growing, and economy is growing. People usually think it is positive but any growth means more consumption and more damage. This means we have to set priorities. I personally find it difficult to cope with the information overload. Sometimes I develop interest in a variety of issues and I find myself lost. It has already become difficult to make a choice or a decision.
Maths or translating language into a digital or formal language can only substitute natural language by means of reduction. Reduction means parts of our analogue language (like intonation and other features) are lost because digital or mathematical language stops the language flow, creates boundaries and compresses data as I already mentioned. So because of information density, speed and the possible need for a language that doesn’t allow ambiguity. The language we know now might change or be replaced. I mean human beings have already thought of a language like Esperanto void of identity based on linguistic differences which has caused a lot of human suffering. I am not saying this is what I personally prefer. I know the price we have to pay but our present language has to cope with the big challenges it is going to face in the future.
Suppose extraterrestrials landed on our Earth I am sure they would be greatly surprised to find that people on a small planet like Earth can neither communicate freely and direct (without the help of an intermediary i.e. an interpreter or a translator) nor can get in touch easily. Their astonishment would grow further when they find out how much suffering this linguistic diversity has caused so far. People's nationalities have been defined foremost on linguistic grounds. Languages create different identities and cultures. This on the one hand makes the world more interesting but on the other hand prepares ground for tragic conflicts. The loss of a linguistic identity doesn't necessarily mean the loss of a geographic or ethnic identity but it will mean one obstacle being removed.
I would like to elaborate on this issue by drawing a comparison from economy. In Europe, we used to have different currencies and in a sense it was a nice feeling to see foreign currencies when we were on holiday but no one can deny that the introduction of a single currency has also solved a lot of problems. The advantages of a single currency certainly outweigh the disadvantages by far if any. The EURO has set an example and paved the way for a single, at least, official European language. People can go on using their languages but we need a common European or world language to make us strong in unity. People are afraid of the loss of cultures and languages. However, cultures and languages have never been static. They are destined to change. In the age of globalization, information and communication technology, satellite TV and fast travelling the gap has become narrower. In addition, we can save more time and energy when everybody can communicate without any linguistic barriers. I hope one day the present state becomes history and we can say: A long time ago people on our Earth used to have different languages and we wonder how they could cope without a single world language.
English has already become global and no more the property of a certain community. Nobody feels at a disadvantage when speaking English. It's no more Germanic in quality because it has at least incorporated vocabulary from nearly all languages in the world. This makes English indeed global. Every nation can find a bit of its linguistic heritage integrated into English. Moreover, its writing system has no diacritical points as in some languages which make them difficult to use, pronounce and communicate in writing. English has become a powerful tool and rich; it has become simple and complex at the same time. Gender is nearly non-existent because the article remains "the" whatever the gender and the position in a sentence. There are no difficult case endings and sounds as in lots of other languages which sometimes constitute insurmountable barriers. We can express any idea most powerfully and precisely. It has reached the level of maturity and deserves the label of a global language. In addition, it sounds beautiful and appealing to the ear or at least acceptable and learnable by the majority of people. Finally, global English is experiencing a simplification of its grammar and phonetics.
Information is increasing on a daily basis. Our human knowledge has grown, is still growing and will continue to grow due to advances in nearly all disciplines. We are already experiencing information overload. The question is what will be in 50or so years? Even computers are facing difficulty with memory challenges and new search engines like Google are adapted to more effective ways of information storage and retrieval. Academic language takes refuge in nominalization. Our present languages are not prepared to keep pace with such density and speed not experienced before and it is not clear whether our memories and brains can accommodate and cope with these developments.
English is experiencing a development unprecedented in human history. Every day there are new speakers of English. Again what will be in 50 years or so? The impact of this new situation will be three-fold:
Of course, in every change and development lie advantages and disadvantages but perhaps the advantages outweigh the advantages. In addition to what is mentioned, we will save a lot of time and energy spent on translations and thus communications barriers are removed. This doesn't mean that a Global English in turn won't change or split but it is a fact that people in our global village and a 24-hour society are not kept apart as they used to by geographical barriers. We can communicate freely and quickly through the medium of Global English. We have already reached the age of more direct and instant contact. Future linguistic changes consequently will be of a different nature.
This is not plea for an artificial replacement of the present world languages. On the contrary natural languages are a means of social cuddling and cannot be changed by the dictatorship of minorities. It's always the dictatorship of the majority. There will be no revolution but changes are already underway. It's a fact that a Global English is already underway to overrun many a language.
Natural (analogue) languages are certainly superior to artificial or digital languages because they accommodate nearly all of our present needs and can be used for all disciplines. However, we have already developed mathematical and computer languages to satisfy specific needs. In addition, natural languages leave room for ambiguity which still might be very useful to satisfy certain human needs (like literature, playing on words, implications, jokes ....) but can also be a source of misunderstanding. On the other hand digitization is simple, boring and poor cannot satisfy our present social needs although it is precise, mathematical, can be reduced, stored and manipulated.
As already mentioned these are only predictions made due to a variety of changes and developments in the last 20 years or so. Perhaps the most threatening force is growth. This word might sound positive but is in fact behind a lot of evil. Just imagine everything is growing, Earth population, economy (which means more consumption and Pollution and more...). Human knowledge has grown exponentially. This is the reality and not fiction even though a lot of trash is being produced daily but you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. In order to cope with this growth we need resources. For example we need food for the growing population, but producing and consuming food means in turn more pollution, more damage...
As far as human knowledge is concerned we also need resources to store and retrieve information. There are big advances in science and technology and our knowledge is growing on a daily basis. Just take the number of books, websites published everyday in comparison what was some years ago.
The computer networks worldwide, the phone, TV (satellite, cable, terrestrial), internet (email and the web), modern airlines have made it possible to contact each other just in-time, interact with each other, discuss issues online, share work, brainstorm ideas, pool resources and so on much faster and more productively. There are practically no boundaries left. All sciences are linked and have become inter-disciplinary. In Europe the EU and the single currency have also removed borders. Thus growth or density of information necessitates a tool to communicate and interact faster. Human language might not be capable of keeping pace with this growth and speed. Academic language is compact uses more nouns than verbs (nominalization: independent of tense, aspect and mood) because you can pack more information into nouns than verbs, use many of them (cram your text but still not wordy). They are quieter, more objective and do a lot of other operations on them. For example, you can count them, modify them.... Verbs in comparison are verbal or verbose (more talk than matter). They i.e. verbs are more subjective, dynamic (the majority of verbs are dynamic not stative and even among the limited number of stative verbs which exist some behave dynamically. Verbs of high frequency belong to informal register, show change and are conjugated which you don't have in nouns. Nouns are static (almost lifeless), neutral to change and emotions and more objective. Counting the number of nouns and verbs in a page of an academic paper will show this tendency. In addition, verbs are subordinate to nouns because they relate nouns to each other like prepositions and we can do only with a few of them. Some are transitive with one object or some have two open connections. So we need something beyond English either as an adapted natural language or an artificial functioning next to our natural one. It can be any tool.
However, human language is beautiful, encodes more than linguistic information, and allows room for ambiguity. There are a lot of implications and layers in human language next to the basic linguistic layer. It is analogue, has no boundaries and is far much superior to mathematical or digital languages.
Copyright © 2005 Jamshid Ibrahim
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