English as a Global Language

Why we need a global language and which language can be considered for this taking various factors into consideration?

As in species survival, dominance, proliferation and extinction, in language too there are many factors which contribute to similar situations.

If we get down to serious research on each and every one of these areas of survival and extinction of different languages and the dominance of certain languages in certain geographical locations/regions, in certain specific domains of life etc, probably we can simultaneously document many other areas of life on earth which has either influenced or impacted these developments and vice versa that is how certain languages have influenced and impacted many areas of life on earth.

This is a very vast area of research but in this article I plan to restrict to very limited area of language i.e. the prevalence, preponderance, preference for English.

I am neither a linguist nor a scientist nor a philosopher but I am going to view it as an ordinary observer. So that I escape from the traps of linguistic confirmation bias and prejudice; the necessity to float a hypothesis and work through theories and experiments to prove that hypothesis; create a logical premise and develop a philosophical vindication as a carapace of arguments to substantiate that premise.

This approach suits a person like me, who prefers to observe, perceive and share whatever I have observed and perceived rather than plunge too deep into subjects, and who is more like an inquisitive youth indulging in desultory hobbies till another interesting hobby interrupts or invites the attention. After all everything is a matter of attention.

Language basically is a tool which pays attention to ensure that, as a species with conscious awareness coupled with an ability to recall or recollect that conscious awareness, we can share with others verbally, i.e. communicate whatever we have observed and experienced and also bequeath to our future generations in verbal format.

Before the advent of structuring of sounds into proper language the communication and records were there in the form of many other tools like grand architectures, sculptures etc but imagine if the entire plays of Shakespeare were to be depicted in sculptures conveying completely everything as it is done in language.

So, in a way, the ability to develop proper language, propagate it and popularize it involved various players and various factors. That’s why fortunately no one is called the inventor or discoverer of any natural language.

In a way, it was part and parcel of our evolution and a very vital component of our evolution which enriched and enhanced our evolutionary advancement and preservation as we had documented verbal guidance which saved us the time, energy and other resources in not repeating the experiences of our predecessors either good or bad.

From this vague introduction to language, we shall see what the basic things that any language did:-

  • Named objects – things, persons, all other species etc and enabled us to connect mentally with the name to identify what they referred to. As Confucius said that “the beginning of wisdom is calling things by their right names.”
  • Named actions – what one was doing or what something was doing.
  • Named states or condition of things – how a person or thing was.
  • Named how an object was and how an activity was done – and so on and so forth.

I have intentionally refrained from using any grammatical terminology like noun, verb, adjective etc because we are talking about language in general in its initial stages and besides all these grammatical classifications get their appropriate labels and relevance mostly in terms of context.

For example I can say:

  • I bought a cage [noun].
  • I caged [verb] a bird.
  • People work in small cubicles 18 hours a day leading a life like caged [adjective] birds.

Then having made words for these fundamental aspects of life, as evolution of human species progressed, especially in terms of human beings’ neural developments, social systems, multiple activities involving various types of studies and skills to understand life as it was sauntering through evolutionary development or surging as a commander directing the course of evolution, sometimes constructively and sometimes destructively, language too popped out newer and greater number and of words and expressions to convey varieties of activities, including articulating many abstract concepts, imaginations, fantasies, dreams etc.

That’s why many thousands of words that dominate the discourse nowadays belong to latest trends and sciences that are pervading and propelling every domain of life to greater understating and connectivity belong to the cyber terminology which was a science unknown to human species a century ago.

Still all languages have their own limitations and the most irritating part of life is when we cannot find an exact word or expression to convey appropriately any particular phenomenon or feeling, all the more irritating if that phenomenon or feeling is irritating in a hitherto unknown way. It is like specialist doctors struggling to tackle a new virus.

While there are many scholarly linguistic studies about the influence of language in our thinking and culture and vice versa, the irony as indicated earlier is that languages have their inherent limitations too.

Added to this lot of damage is wrecked through translations which fail to exactly convey meaning from one language to another.

Here I would like to quote certain interesting aspects of these features from an interesting book by Guy Murchie titled The Seven Mysteries of Life:

Today there are only an estimated 130 significant languages (“significant” meaning spoken by at least a million people), which include many you may never have heard of like Wu in China, Tadzhik in the Soviet Union, Bagn in India, Xhosa in South Africa, Pashto in Afghanistan, Quechua in Peru.

The vast majority of people in the world speak one or more of the top 20 languages, which, in the order of the numbers (millions) using them as their native tongue, according to Nationalencyklopedin (2010), are:

In the same book, Guy Murchie says:

Even with the continuing reduction in the number of surviving languages, however, an immeasurable burden of confusion and disaster continues between people who do not have a common speech.

Hideki Tojo

An outstanding example was the reply of Japan’s Premier Tojo to President Truman’s ultimatum of July 26, 1945. When Tojo said Japan would “mokusatsu” the ultimatum, he meant that his government would “consider” it. But the translators at Domei quoted him in English as saying the Japanese would “take no notice of” it. So atomic bombs destroyed the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – perhaps for nothing! And the same sort of oriental misunderstanding continued through the Korean and Vietnam wars, where the much publicized “peace talks” bogged down for years over the occidentals’ assumption that “to negotiate” was “to compromise,” while the orientals interpreted it as “to get something by talking”.

Individual injustice through language of course must be even commoner than the more conspicuous bungles in international diplomacy, and I’ve read that before the Russian Revolution an Assyriologist named Netomeff was exiled to Siberia for life on a charge of blasphemy and treason because he wasn’t given a chance to explain that his book about Nebuchadnezzar did not mean “Ne boch ad ne tzar” (Russian for “no God and no tsar”). And such irrationality of language interpretation continues to plague world understanding in the United Nations Assembly, where a translator on one memorable occasion translated “out of sight, out of mind” into an expression the Russians understood as “invisible insanity”.

Count Leroy de Saint-Arnaud

Even when no translation is involved, most languages have ambiguities that can cause serious misunderstanding. And this made the history books in 1851 during Napoleon III’s coup d’etat when one of his officers, Count de Saint-Arnaud, on being informed that a mob was approaching the Imperial Guard, coughed and exclaimed, with his hand across his throat, “Ma sacree toux!” (“My damned cough!”) But his lieutenant, understanding him to say “Massacrez tous!” (“Massacre them all!”),” gave the order to fire, killing thousands – needlessly.

The English language, now beginning to be considered a leading candidate for a universal tongue, is still not only seriously unphonetic but full of illogical idioms. A London house on fire may not only “burn up” and “burn down” at the same time but it itself can “put out” the same flames and smoke that the firemen are simultaneously “putting out” with their hoses. And, speaking of smoke, a Chinese student of English rang a fire alarm at Fort Bragg, California, emptying a big building to which fire engines dashed with sirens screaming, all because he needed a light for his cigarette and had carefully followed the directions printed on a red box: PULL FOR FIRE.

Up to now the established languages have evolved naturally without conscious guidance or design or with anybody seeming to mind that the English phrase “I assume” translates into French “I deduce” and into Russian “I consider.” Yet there is an unobvious mystique about language associated with the fact that it grows by itself, both in individuals and throughout the world, like a sentient being. For, as linguist Noam Chomsky of Massachusetts Institute of Technology has pointed out, all normal children at birth possess an innate capacity and compulsion to acquire speech within their next three or four years, not just by imitating their elders but, more significantly, by comprehending and creating a constant flow of new combinations of words and phrases never expressed in exactly the same way before. Actually this is a very subtle two-way flow, with the young mind both shaping the language and being shaped by it in return, depending greatly on the characteristics of his particular language as well as on how it is used – on whether cautious noun thinking eventually “achieves success” or instead more aggressive verb thinking simply “succeeds.”

So it is inevitable to a certain extent that every language suffers from ambiguities syntactically and phonetically. In addition to these if there are situations wherein important negotiations are required to be made wherein the negotiators may get bogged down in the quagmire of too many languages and language interpreters. They can neither concentrate on the content nor can they be utterly confident about what they have negotiated.

There is a necessity to evolve a global language for various reasons.

One can come up with thousands of reasons but the predominant factors which necessitate the emergence of such a language is to facilitate further and enhance more number of people to know, understand and share with many more leading to greater interaction, improvement and to a certain extent facilitate the process of unity.

Hence there arises a necessity to bring down further, the number of languages; and if necessary evolve a global language, and this has to emerge from among the existing languages, as we know the experiments with artificially created languages such as Esperanto, IDO etc have failed for want of literature. A global language needs a pride of ancestry, must be in popular use at present, and possess worthy credentials to survive in the future.

A language, which qualifies to become a global language, must be primarily a significant one as per the criteria mentioned earlier. But mere number of users cannot be a sufficient or justifiable parameter to classify a language as significant, because if that were the case we may have in that list such unheard of languages as Wu in China, Xhosa in South Africa, Pashto in Afghanistan, Quechua in Peru.

A more justifiable classification would be, in addition to the number of users of a language, its geographical spread, the wide range and variegated vocabulary to communicate and express as many ideas or events as possible in as many fields of human activity, it must have the syntactic plasticity, flamboyant flexibility suited to both simple and complex modes of expression, and an enormously evolved derivational morphology along with preferably people involved in various domains of activities using that language.

If there is a language that fits into all these criteria adequately, that is English. It stands as the unrivalled champion as a global language. It does not mean that it is superior to all other languages or it is without any weakness. Definitely it does not sound as sweet as French. In fact it does not have a word for ‘Punya’, the exact opposite of ‘sin’. It has not a single word expression to counter many social and psychological aspects of life, which many other languages even very insignificant ones have as has been wonderfully brought out be Howard Rheingold in the book titled They Have a Word for It. Here are a few of them:

  • Tjotjog (Japanese) – harmonious congruence in human affairs
  • Mokita (Kirinina-New Guinea) – truth everybody knows but nobody speaks
  • Yufen (Japanese)- an awareness of the universe that triggers feelings too deep and mysterious for words
  • Fucha (Polish) – using company time and money and other resources for your own ends

English does not have the grammatical subtleties of such insignificant languages as Chichewa, a language spoken by the unlettered tribes of East Africa which as per the studies of Benjamin Lee Whorf, has an extraordinary perspective on time through its two past tenses, one for the real or objective past and another for the subjective or mental past. The primitive tongues of Algonquin languages have four persons in their pronouns; the metaphysically marvelous language of Hopi Indians of Arizona reflects their excellent view of creation; instead of a noun for ‘wave’ they have only the participle ‘walalata’ (waving).

While every nation and its leaders talk more and more about global trade, global thinking, global concern etc. But when it comes to agreeing on a global language in addition to many reasonable impediments, there are also factors linguistic chauvinism, ethnocentric pride, unwillingness or inability to learn a foreign language, national and/or religious affinity to a particular language etc prevent people from opting to / bothering to horn their skills in a foreign tongue / global language which rules the global arena as a medium of discourse. It is an aspect of evolution, no one wished or worked for the extinction of dinosaurs nor the near extinction of many species/creatures in the animal kingdom as well as in flora and fauna nor does anyone wish new virus to emerge and hurt everyone. Some things happen by our design others beyond our decisions and designs but delves deeper in terms of their influence in our life like many useful technologies towards which initially many may have had some reservation out of fear that they may upset the status quo.

It is not suggesting that definitely a United Nationhood can be brought about by either unity of religion or race or language. The Arab world and Latin America are classical examples were despite all those unity, there are so many nations, some with great animosity against the other.

It is out of sheer wish and optimism that we need to remember one thing, while all of us feel the need for unity, what unity needs is feeling for all by all. Let us remember what the great seer Bahaullah has said:

If language can help create a sense of nationalism, it can equally well help create a sense of internationalism.

So various aspects of language several languages continue to evolve and the language debates continue to occupy human thought process because human beings ability to use language has been a very great advancement over other species.

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