boston.com your connection to The Boston Globe

As English's dominance continues, linguists see few threats to its rule

But new dialects and technology pose challenges

SINGAPORE -- Riding the crest of globalization and technology, English dominates the world as no language ever has, and some linguists now say it may never be dethroned as the king of languages.

Others see pitfalls, but the factors they cite only underscore the grip English has on the world: such cataclysms as nuclear war or climate change or the eventual perfection of a translation machine that would make a common language unnecessary.

Some insist that linguistic evolution will continue to take its course over the centuries and that English could eventually die as a common language as Latin did, or Phoenician or Sanskrit or Sogdian before it.

"If you stay in the mind-set of 15th-century Europe, the future of Latin is extremely bright," said Nicholas Ostler, the author of a language history called "Empires of the Word" who is writing a history of Latin. "If you stay in the mind-set of the 20th-century world, the future of English is extremely bright."

That skepticism seems to be a minority view. Such specialists on the English language as David Crystal, author of "English as a Global Language," say the world has changed so drastically that history is no longer a guide.

"This is the first time we actually have a language spoken genuinely globally by every country in the world," he said. "There are no precedents to help us see what will happen."

John McWhorter, a linguist at the Manhattan Institute, a research group in New York, and the author of a history of language called "The Power of Babel" was more unequivocal.

"English is dominant in a way that no language has ever been before," he said. "It is vastly unclear to me what actual mechanism could uproot English given conditions as they are."

As a new millennium begins, scholars say that about one-fourth of the world's population can communicate to some degree in English.

It is the common language in almost every endeavor, from science to air traffic control to the global jihad, where it is apparently the means of communication between speakers of Arabic and other languages.

It has consolidated its dominance as the language of the Internet, where 80 percent of the world's electronically stored information is in English, according to David Graddol, a linguist and researcher.

There may be more native speakers of Chinese, Spanish, or Hindi, but it is English they speak when they talk across cultures, and English they teach their children to help them become citizens of an increasingly intertwined world.

As English continues to spread, the linguists say, it is fragmenting, as Latin did, into a family of dialects, and perhaps eventually fully fledged languages, known as Englishes.

New vernaculars have emerged in such places as Singapore, Nigeria, and the Caribbean, although widespread literacy and mass communication may be slowing the natural process of diversification.

The pidgin of Papua New Guinea already has its own literature and translations of Shakespeare. One enterprising scholar has translated "Don Quixote" into Spanglish, the hybrid of English and Spanish that is spoken along the borders of Mexico and the United States.

But unlike Latin and other former common languages, most scholars say English seems to be too widespread and too deeply entrenched to die out. Instead, it will probably survive in some simplified international form -- sometimes called Globish or World Standard Spoken English -- side by side with its offspring.

As a simplified form of global English emerges, the diverging forms spoken in Britain and America could become no more than local dialects -- two more Englishes alongside the Singlish spoken in Singapore or the Taglish spoken in the Philippines. A native speaker of English might need to become bilingual in his own language to converse with other speakers of global English.

Although Chinese and other languages are rapidly increasing their share of Internet traffic, English is likely to remain the common language, specialists say.

The teaching of English has become a multibillion-dollar industry, and according to Graddol, nearly one-third of the world's population will soon be studying English.

By the most common estimates, 400 million people speak English as a first language, 300 million to 500 million others as a fluent second language, and perhaps 750 million as a foreign language.

The largest English-speaking nation in the world, the United States, has only about 20 percent of the world's English speakers.

In Asia alone, an estimated 350 million people speak English, about the same as the combined English-speaking populations of Britain, the United States, and Canada.

But in the end, Ostler said, the advance of technology that helped push English into its commanding position could pull it down again.

Though it still sounds like science fiction, it seems likely that some time, many decades from now, a machine will be perfected that can produce Urdu when it hears someone speaking German.

"With progress, the problem of machine translation and automatic interpreting is going to be solved," Ostler said. "And the need for a common language is going to be technically replaced."

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES