Friday 17 August 2012

The Last Lingua Franca

The Rise and Fall of World Languages
Nicholas Ostler, 2010
(July 2012)

Language – languages – are messy things. There are no really clear-cut boundaries between the various levels of slang, pidgin, creole, dialect and full blown language. The distinction is often more political than linguistic. The relatively small differences between Scandinavian and Iberian languages are primarily due to specifically identifiable historical decisions; whereas in their ongoing quest to freak out the rest of the world by being as terrifyingly monolithic as possible China insists that there is only one Chinese language, despite spoken Mandarin and Cantonese being mutually unintelligible.
The old saw is that the best definition of a language is ‘a dialect with an army and a navy,’ and it’s no coincidence that the most widespread languages at any given time have been those utilized by the preeminent military powers of their day. Nicholas Ostler gives us an absorbing account (if slightly too list based, as is often the way) of the rise and fall of historical lingua francas. This means spending a lot of time in central Asia, and if nothing else it means I finally know what’s up with all the ‘-stans.’ He also posits a couple of other reasons for the spread of a common tongue, namely trade and religion, but basically it comes down to who has the best artillery.

Which brings us back to the dragon in the room that is China. You can see why everyone thinks this will be China’s century (always remembering that people thought the same about Japan 30 years ago), but despite its neocolonial adventures in Africa, it’s hard to see Chinese taking off as a viable common language given that a significant proportion of native speakers can’t make themselves understood in it.

As the title suggests, the theory here is that English will eventually, and perhaps in the not too distant future, decline as the world’s default mode of communication. I’d agree with that assessment to a point, but the second part of the theory is that nothing will replace it. Because magic.

Sorry, because the inevitable advances in machine translation (MT) will make it possible for everyone to communicate in their mother tongues and let the machines do the rest of the work. It’s hard to see how MT couldn’t improve, given how poor it is right now, but I’m always very, very skeptical of predictions based on ‘inevitable’ advances in specific technological fields. A lot of the most paradigm shifting technologies, especially in communications, have kind of emerged by accident, and pinning all your hopes on a very specific – and hard to realize – technological advance seems like just throwing your hands up and saying, “Well, it's got to come good eventually, right? Right?”

Past performance is, famously, no guarantee of future results, and expertise when looking back doesn’t equal the same looking forward. A very absorbing book from the historical perspective, but I wouldn’t place too much faith in the crystal ball just yet.


  1. Not to mention the question of what happens to a 'world language' in a 'dark age'? It is not pessimistic to expect one anywhere between tomorrow and the next millennium: that just accounts for human idiocy. The next one will not be confined to the European peninsula, thanks to 'internationalization'.

    Which language survives? Which survived the last? One that had the strongest international institution behind it: Latin. 'A Canticle for Leibowitz' posits a close repeat, which is no certain thing. On the other hand, I do not see the replacement.

    1. Yeah, that's just it. No obvious replacement on the horizon. Clearly it'll decline and fall (ahem) eventually, but I suspect it'll be long after we're all safely retired.

    2. In the mid-eighties I thought I'd never live to finish university. Who could predict 1989? (Anyone who then understood the 'Cold War' and wasn't limited to American propaganda, but I was a teen). My retirement is two decades off. That's a lot of idiots, narcissists and psychopaths between now and then in charge of forces they do not understand...

  2. I'm a bit cynical about all these predictions in machine translation too. I use google translate a bit for work and it can be great sometimes, but anything over a few words turns into a right mess. I imagine they might be able to achieve something close to a human being in say English/French in the foreseeable future, however I am very cynical about English/Japanese and I assume Chinese and so forth too. I mean how can a computer translate something like 検討する or 考えられる and their myriad English translations when it's got most translators scratching their heads. Anyway looks like an interesting book.

    1. In 'The Sparrow's Fall', an interesting, flawed novel, Mary Doria Russell takes up the topic of human versus machine translation (my head is in sci-fi presently, it seems). The novel agrees with you, and me. The novel takes it further to make the point that communication with extra-terrestrials is fraught with error, and horrible consequences. Don't get your hopes up, the ETs are not much more alien than Star Trek ETs. This is no 'Solaris' (novel).

      When I speak my middling Japanese I need to unthink English, of course. Even my poor French benefits from this, as similar as the languages really are.

      A side note. Went to the Idemitsu Gallery today with the J-wife today. A small exhibit was by a painter called 'Rouault'. Although my Parisien accent leaves much, I do surpass 'ロア'. Good god is Japanese phonetically limited.

    2. Momotaro - Yeah, it is an interesting book. But as I'd value it more as a history of language(s) than for its predictive power. It does feel as though the history bit got written first, then the publisher decided they needed a better angle to sell the book so the 'End of English' bit got tagged on afterwards. That's doing the author a massive disservice as an academic, but it still feels that way.

      Ant - Have you read Embassaytown by China Mieville? Another flawed but interesting SF book about language and translation. And in this case the aliens are genuinely so. You might like it.