Chapter Four: English and Other Languages

Languages are continually in a process of transformation. A primary language or mother-tongue might become extinct, or turn into an auxiliary elsewhere. Equally, a second language might become a primary tongue through relexification. Thus Cornish borrowed so much vocabulary from English that it became thoroughly "Englished". This continued until the majority of speakers decided that they might as well be speaking English: so they abandoned Cornish.

In America the first wave of immigrant tongues, e.g. German, Italian and Japanese, disappeared in this way. The same is already happening to mostly second-wave languages such as Russian, Korean and Vietnamese, though the process may take longer given the greater dissimilarity between most of these languages and English. Even indigenous Amerindian tongues, before which English is an immigrant language, are gradually fading for the same reason. Decreolisation has occurred in a similar manner, as in Hawai'i, where the original indentured labourers from Japan, the Philippines, China etc. used Pidgin English, their children developed Hawaiian Creole, the next generation used Hawaiian English, and many of their descendants are now speaking General American English.

Most minority tongues, having found themselves isolated in the midst of a major language area, have eventually vanished likewise. The process has appeared to be impervious to both herculean effort and generous funding. The classic example within the British Isles is the Irish language. In spite of, or perhaps partly because of, seventy-five years of Irish Government endorsement, the primary language community of mother-tongue users of Irish has continued a long historical shrinkage to its present level of about 10,000 speakers. The obvious reason for this process has not changed over time: a knowledge of English gives access to an incomparably greater range of literature, television, radio programmes, domestic employment opportunities in an increasingly international market, foreign travel, and so on. Conversely, Irish is a difficult language for those outside of a mother-tongue family to learn to speak properly: largely due to a marked discrepancy between the spoken tongue with its 60 phonemes and the historic Irish spelling system.

Those who are concerned with the future of Irish recognise that the size of the primary language community is crucial because any tongue will only develop organically, or in a genuine rather than a prescribed manner, when it is used creatively as a primary language. From this point of view the large number of people who speak Irish even quite fluently, but as a second language, do not really count because the predominance of their thought, and hence of their linguistic innovation, tends to take place in English. Similarly, the fact that the number of native Welsh speakers may currently be increasing should not necessarily be seen as significant, so far as the future of this language is concerned. For Welsh is much easier to learn than Irish, and is also more important symbolically, in the absence of other tokens of statehood. The salient fact from the linguistic or long-term political viewpoint is that the increase is of those who continue to value and speak English for the access it gives to a wider international culture.

But English-speakers should not be complacent. The status of their language largely rests upon a past greatness, and currently favourable political conditions; whilst these minority tongues are being revived (or resurrected in the case of Manx and Cornish) more thoroughly and systematically than in the past, with Government assistance, and particular concentration upon pre-school children. The tide of opinion could turn, to leave English high and dry, if it was felt that these tongues were easier to learn than English, and offered more in the form of creative expression.

The use of English as a media language, including in recorded items such as audio and video tapes and discs, has been a central part of its success during this century. So much so that some promoters of minority tongues see media saturation, even to the extent of suppressing all other languages on local radio and T.V., as the only route to survival. The plethora of broadcasts in English across the expanses of the U.S.A. earlier this century was arguably one of the main factors in the decline of other languages. More generally, the electronic media have provided an incentive to learn one of the major languages - in order to be able to follow the maximum number of broadcasts.

 At any rate, the past few decades have witnessed a remarkable switch in primary allegiance from many minor tongues to fewer and fewer major languages, just five of which - Putonghua (the official language of China), Spanish, Hindi, English or Russian - are now spoken by over half of the people in the world. Nine tenths of the rest of humanity use no more than 95 languages, and only 77 of the thousands of remaining tongues have speech communities of more than 1 million people. From a logical standpoint the ultimate conclusion of this process would be a single language. The largest number of languages, and the highest concentration of those that are especially precise and hence "media unfriendly", is notably in areas only recently penetrated by the electronic media. An example is the Caucasus region, which is very mountainous, with consequent poor reception for land-based signals.

In America, and much of the rest of the world, the dominant media language is of course English. But one language which English will not necessarily be able to displace from the U.S.A. by this means is Spanish: which is very widely used as a media language in its own right. In the U.S.A. as a whole there are over 200 radio and 300 television stations broadcasting in Spanish, as well as 200 Spanish-language newspapers. Moreover, English might lose an audiovisual war with Spanish because the orthographic relationship between the spoken and written language is much closer in Spanish. Consequently, since the acquisition of literacy in Spanish does not depend so much upon the visual impression of the written word, the electronic media are more profitably used for educational purposes in Spanish than in English.

Another modern development of linguistic significance is the growing power of the Spanish-speaking bloc beyond the U.S. southern border. The North American Free Trade Agreement, inexorably leading to the formation of a political union throughout the Americas, will not necessarily operate to the immediate economic advantage of the North. Not only has a great deal of U.S. industry been copied or transferred to low-wage parts of Central or South America (or elsewhere in the world) but a lot of once exclusive knowledge and expertise has gone with it.

At present, linguistic integration is following the standard pattern: most second-generation Spanish-speaking immigrants speak English, and about half speak only English. However, the situation could change: in Los Angeles, Miami, and many towns near the Mexican border more than half the population speaks Spanish and there are large areas where community facilities and essential services operate in that language. Moreover, illegal immigration continues apace, and there seems to be a new mood of militancy: commentators have observed that, compared with a generation ago, immigrant New York taxi-drivers are often reluctant to speak English. English is still the nominal language of American education, but practice very often dictates otherwise. (The fact that English is now the "official language" in a number of states is hardly significant, considering the number of countries where English is the official language but relatively few people actually speak it.)

In a similar way, Quebec has been buttressed by considerable moral support from France over the centuries, but for which French would have disappeared from this part of Canada in the same manner as other minority tongues in North America. Moreover, the relatively high birthrate both here and in the Spanish-speaking countries has helped to move the linguistic balance away from English. This is a worldwide phenomenon. Not so many years ago the global native English-speaking community was second only to that of Putonghua in size; but now, by some estimates, it is overtaken by native populations speaking Spanish and Hindi. These demographic changes obviously concern mother-tongue speakers only, so they affect the primary rather than the auxiliary status of English. However, since creative renewal mostly proceeds through first rather than second languages, an actual or potential reduction in the strength of English as a primary tongue eventually weakens its role as an auxiliary language too. A predominantly second language role is eventually fatal to a language, because the incorporation of "ethnic" words and expressions effectively ceases; rather is the second language plundered to strengthen the "mother tongue".

This process is the norm because the latter remains the primary vehicle of thought and feeling: the language most people hear within their own heads. Conversely the second language tends to be used for second-hand thoughts, the stuff of business transactions and formal conversation, rather than for the creative imagination that gives the impetus to transliteration and neologism. Any second language gives more to the primary tongue than it receives back. Here is an obvious danger to a second language which is not being recreated as a primary tongue elsewhere. Hence, the continuing pre-eminence of English as a second language should be regarded as a temporary reform opportunity towards the international auxiliary language, rather than as a reason for optimism.

The relationship between first and second languages is crucially dependent upon the relative prestige of the associated communities as economic entities. Often it is difficult to tell whether a language is first or second, and even speakers themselves may be unsure, until they have decided which language is going to bring most practical benefit. Statistics showing the worldwide distribution of English reflect this confusion with widely varying estimates of mother-tongue speakers - e.g. two recent reference books, "The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Language" (second edition, 1997) and "The Encyclopaedia Britannica Yearbook for 1997", give very different figures, 70,600 and 8,000 respectively, for the number of mother-tongue English speakers in Malta out of a total population of about 373,000.

Ultimately there is only one solution to the dilemma of first and second languages: a single universal auxiliary language which can act as both. It might be asserted that this language already exists embryonically: a still rather nebulous and obscure entity which is growing and forming through the internationalisation of vocabulary, phonology and script. One tremendous impetus in this direction is the transliteration of supranational scientific and religious neologisms into different languages - mainly through the pervasive media culture which is replicating famous names and replaying slogans and soundbites around the planet.

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