Emergence of English as a world language

The need for a global link language

Prof. Anil Sarwal[1]

The primary means of communication among the peoples of the world is language.  According to a well known linguist, Frank Palmer[1], the difference between human beings and animals is poorly described by the label homo sapiens (man with wisdom).  He questions what do we mean by wisdom?  Anthropologists describe man as a tool maker, but even apes are known to be able to make primitive tools.  In fact, what sets us apart from animals is our ability to speak.  Man is a speaking animal—homo loquens—and this ability has greatly facilitated our advancement in all spheres.

At present, humanity uses 6,809 living languages and about 100 living scripts to facilitate its social interactions[2].  However, there is an urgent need for the adoption of a common link language in a world in which all its people are quickly becoming interdependent despite the many differences of their myriad cultures, races, religions and ideologies.  The ‘planetization of humankind’[3] is almost complete due to the effects of recent dramatic advances in transport and communication.  Communications have been greatly improved by the widespread adoption of mass media—especially radio and television—coupled with reduced costs and time that has been made possible by the use of satellites, computers and mobile telephones.  The Internet is quickly emerging as the preferred information highway to meet our daily communication needs as well as for conducting important business transactions.

It is now almost impossible for us to fully participate in the global village that we live in, without ‘knowing’ a common world language.[4]  However, the common link language that would be the universally accepted means of communication should not be allowed to undermine the importance of any other existing language or culture.  In fact, new linguistic insights have made us aware that no human language is superior to any other and that the development and growth of a language depend upon its use.

Meanwhile, English, for various reasons—primarily due to British rule in the many parts of the world—has emerged as the popular lingua franca[5].  In the process, it must be acknowledged, the role of English and its functions have vastly changed.  English is no more seen as the language of the rulers, or as an instrument of promoting British culture and values.  According to the famous linguist Tom McArthur, “In the closing years of the twentieth century the English language has become a global resource.  As such it does not owe its existence or the protection of its essence to any nation or group.”[6]

It is estimated that about a billion people in the world use English either as their native, second or foreign language.  English is used in over 70 countries as an official or semi-official language, and plays a very significant role in 20 others.  Over 1,400 million people live in countries where there is a tradition of using English.  Some 75% of the world’s mail and world’s information is stored in English.  Of the estimated 50 million users of the Internet, a majority use English.[7]

With the evolution of English to the status of a world language, we have become aware of some of the features that a world language must possess.  Irrespective of its origin, a world language must become a utility language that embraces the needs of everyone.  Though English originally was the language of the British, there are now many varieties of English, including American English, African English, Indian English and Australian English.  Moreover, English now encompasses the dreams and aspirations of many peoples and experiences of diverse nations.  It is used to transmit a mass of various information whether it be the latest advances in the fields of science and technology, the experiences of an ethnic group, negotiations in the field of commerce; documentation of cultural ethos; or individual experiences.  Its vocabulary has been vastly enriched with the inclusion of many new words from other languages of the world.  Some ten thousand words derived from Hindi and other Indian languages have become a part of Indian English.  These include:  guru, babu, chorpoy, curry, etc.  We are very familiar with the following widely used pidgin words:  lathi-charge, rickshaw-walla, double-roti, etc.[8]

Spoken English varies from region to region in accordance with cultural and native language differences.  Similarly, written English also differs greatly in vocabulary, form and structure since language is primarily a vehicle of one’s thought and ‘schema’.  Hence the English used by an African is not the same as that used by an Australian.  The impact of electronic messaging services and SMS is further affecting English spelling and grammar.  The question of the ‘intelligibility’ and ‘acceptability’[9] of the different varieties of English has still not been fully addressed.  The bigger issue, of overcoming the love-hate relationship that is associated with a foreign tongue because of excessive love for a mother tongue, is still unresolved.  There are also many reasons, including economic, for which hegemony is very threatening to those who are speakers of English.[10]  Further, there are strong reservations by particular linguistic communities such as the French, the Arab, the German and the Dutch.  The many non-linguistic reasons that often come into play when thinking of a world language include:  nationalism, ethnicity, ideology, religion, politics and culture, often in a complex and at some times explosive mixes.

English tends to be a default world language for the present.  However, we cannot know what a world language of the long term future would be like or what it might be called.  It is not possible at this time to determine what script it might use, what media and technologies might be available or indeed where it might be used—either on or beyond the earth.

Although the expansion of English has been phenomenal, it has never been the sole widely used language.  Three other languages are used on a scale similar to English:  Spanish (350 million), Chinese (1.1 billion) and Hindi-Urdu (250 million).  Other prominent languages are:  Arabic (200 million), Bengali (185 million), Russian (160 million), Japanese (125 million) and German (100 million).  However, none of these can match the distribution of English users.  While there are other languages with a wide distribution of users, the number of users are far smaller.  French (75 million) is widely distributed worldwide, and Arabic, Russian and Malay are used by powerful economies and populous communities, but they are not in wide use.[11]

Although English has become a de facto world language, the nations of the world have not accepted it as the official world language.  The subject of a universally accepted world language requires urgent attention by the governments of the world.  Many complications have arisen due to lack of an accepted world language, especially in framing the national language policies of the world’s nations.  Undoubtedly, in the fast emerging global civilization, all the children of the world would greatly benefit from learning an auxiliary international language along with their mother tongue. This would enable them to readily communicate and undertake financial transactions with their fellow human beings in all parts of the world.

In any decision regarding the adoption of a world language, consideration should given to:

·      The possibilities of teaching it at a universal scale.

·      Its relationship to the mother tongue of each language group.

·      The relationships between the various mother tongues and national languages within each nation, and the global link language vis-à-vis each other.

·      The question of its adaptability to the world media.

·      The collection and translation of available scientific and technical knowledge into the selected world language, along with how to handle the ongoing updates in the various fields of human endeavour.

·      Its capacity to reflect the experiences of the diverse cultures and peoples of the world without imposing a “culture” of the world language.

·      The language should be governed by simple rules, have few exceptions, be free from gender, and silent letters should be eliminated from words.[12]

There is no doubt that many more questions will be asked when this matter is discussed at the world level.  However, this exercise will have to be undertaken sooner than later.  Either the leaders of world should meet in a world summit and agree upon a universal script and language, or they should entrust linguists to consider the matter[13] and then to report back to them.

It is well said that the human “heart is like a box and language is the key.”[14]  The only way that all the people of the world can co-exist peacefully together is through the adoption of a universal auxiliary language.  This is a subject that merits immediate consideration.

[1] The author teaches English to graduate and postgraduate students at DAV College, Chandigarh, India.

[1] Palmer, Frank (1979), Grammar, The English Language Book Society and Penguin Books, Great Britain: 1

[2] As per information available on the internet.

[3] Teilhard de Chardin, The Future of Man, quoted in Keys, op. cit.:  69.

[4] Maurais, Jacques and Morris, Micheal A (2003), Languages in a Globalising World, Cambridge University Press, UK. P330 (‘… as ihabitants of a world that technology is making smaller and population growth is making more crowded, we must acknowledge the need for direct communication.  Linguistic unity is essential if global integration is to continue under circumstances in which its participants control the outcomes.  So, we need a common language.  That language, for the foreseeable future, is likely to be English, unless we are willing to search for some other more equitable alternative, such as Esperanto, and deal with the short term upheaval that such a decision would cause.’)

[5] McArthur, Tom (2002), The Oxford Guide to World English, Oxford University Press, New York: 2. (‘ a language common to , or shared by, many cultures and communities at any or all social and educational levels, and used as an international tool.’)

[6] ibid. p x.

[7] McArthur, Tom (2002),, The Oxford Guide to World English, Oxford University Press, New York: 3.

[8] Crowther, Jonathan (ed.) and Sengupta, Indira Chowdhury (compiler, Indian English Suplement) (1997), Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary, Oxford University Press, New Delhi: 1429-75.

[9] Haiiiday, M.A.K., Mcintosh, A. & Strevens, P (1964), The Linguistic Sciences and Language Teaching Longman, London: 296

[10] Tsuda, Yukio (2000), ‘Envisioning a democratic Linguistic Order’, TESL Reporter,33, 1, Brigham Young University, Hawaii.

[11] As per information available on the internet.

[12] ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (published 1982 from a record of lectures given in 1911) , ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in London,   UK Bahá’í Publishing Trust,  UK: 94.

[13] Maurais, Jacques and Morris, Micheal A (2003), Languages in a Globalising World, Cambridge University Press, UK.: 331.

[14] Abdu’l-Bahá (1982) , Promulgation of Universal Peace,   UK Bahá’í Publishing Trust,  Wilmette, USA: 60.