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BOOK REVIEW

English’s demise as the world’s dominant language

By Joseph Peschel
Globe Correspondent / December 23, 2010

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Using numerous examples from history and making observations of other widespread contemporary languages, British linguist Nicholas Ostler challenges the current popular view that English will remain the world’s lingua franca forever. Instead, he contends that the world, despite the preeminence of English, is headed toward a diverse, multilingual future.

In making his case, Ostler compares English to historical languages once used on a large scale: Greek, Latin, Persian, classical Arabic, and Sanskrit. He describes how these and other languages became lingua francas, and in careful, sometimes excruciating and repetitive detail, recounts their histories and the reasons for their rise and fall.

Many lingua francas started as mother tongues, vernaculars or “ ‘home-bred’ languages.’’ Latin, for example, which was once the mother tongue of central Italy, branched out all over Europe as a second language. It spread, as other lingua francas, due to military conquest, religious conversion, and commerce. Latin was the language of science during the Renaissance, and the scientists of the time wrote in Latin. If you wanted to partake of the wealth and advantages of the ruling class, you learned Latin. Spreading across Europe over several centuries, Latin spawned such romance languages as French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese, but never took root as a new mother tongue.

English, on the other hand, spanned across the world in only four centuries. It became not only a lingua franca, but also the mother tongue of the American colonies and the United States, as well as Australia and other parts of the former British Empire. Ostler looks at Persian, Sanskrit, and other languages, but some are so obscure that reading about the historical and linguistic examples gets tedious. We don’t just get a heavy dose of Arabic, Turkic, and Persian language history, but we’re forced to read far too much of the pronunciation details about bygone speakers, say, of Chagatay Turkish, and does the nonlinguist reader really need to know translations of Old and Middle Persian?

After showing examples of how a lingua franca spreads, Ostler explains how it meets its demise: What he calls the “Three Rs’’ — ruin, relegation, resignation. Ruin “refers to the downfall of an economic network.’’ Relegation, he writes, is a political act ending an official status of a lingua franca. Resignation he calls a “social trend that undermines and demeans the position of a previously respected elite.’’ Ostler contends that “each can unseat a ruling lingua-franca.’’ Pidgin languages are good examples of languages ruined by the loss of the commerce that created them. Ostler notes, however, that sometimes pidgin can become a creole language, a mother tongue formed from two or more languages.

Ostler predicts that English, as a lingua franca, is unlikely to split into a family of languages. But, as a mother tongue, the split seems more possible. He foresees English will cease to be a global lingua franca but will not be replaced by another language: Translation technology will become so advanced that by around 2050 a global second language will be unnecessary.

Although the writing at times is lucid, it’s often as stuffy as a textbook. Some of the presented history is interesting, but often Ostler goes into esoteric detail that may be nectar for linguists and language historians but tryptophan for the layman. And even though information technology seems to be undercutting the need for a global lingua franca, Ostler’s prediction is one few of us will witness.

Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at joe@josephpeschel.com or through his website at josephpeschel.com.

THE LAST LINGUA FRANCA: English Until the Return of Babel By Nicholas Ostler

Walker & Company, 330 pp., illustrated, $28