Tuesday, February 3, 2009

English ascendant — long foreseen?

I suppose we all have a certain chauvinism for the language we learned to speak first — our “cradle-tongue”, as Tolkien has called it [1]. We may learn other languages, explore the aesthetics of speech, and perhaps (if we are fortunate) even find our native language — “our own personal linguistic potential”, embodying our “inherent linguistic predilections”. But for all that, we still fall often enough into the prejudices of our “language of custom” [2]. So please take the following with that caveat in mind and not as a personal endorsement of English as the best language in the world. (Far from it, I sometimes think.)

It has become pervasive, though, hasn’t it? One recent book on Tolkien, in which a number of international contributors were given a voice, bemoaned “the fact that English has, without a doubt, become the koiné in Tolkien studies – some sort of Middle-earth Common Speech” [3]. And of course, English has spread far beyond Middle-earth. It is spoken in almost every corner of the world, and learning it is frequently required in the educational systems of many countries. I am told that Indians begin learning English in school at the age of two years! (In the U.S., children don’t even begin school until age five or six!)

Why has English become so popular? I won’t rehearse the many arguments about the whilom successes of the British Empire, the emergence of the United States as a world-dominating political and economic force, etc., etc. You have heard these arguments many times. But other answers might be closer to the mark — or at least equally valid. Why, after all, didn’t Chinese or Hindi become the ascendant lingua franca? Both can boast more native speakers than English, almost as widely distributed around the globe.

Part of the answer might be the particular structural, phono-logical, morphological, and assimilative qualities of English. All the foregoing has been a perhaps too lengthy introduction to the following quotation. Here, Richard Carew (quoted in William Camden’s Remains Concerning Britain) extoled the virtues of English some 400 years ago. His description of the “excellency” of the English language seems to come near the mark (bracketed insertions are mine):
The Italian is pleasant, but without sinews, as a still fleeting water. The French, delicate, but even nice as a woman, scarce daring to open her lips for fear or marring her countenance. The Spanish, majestical, but fulsome, running too much on the O, and terrible like the devil in a play. The Dutch [i.e., modern German, not modern Dutch], manlike, but withal very harsh, as one ready at every word to pick a quarrel. Now we, in borrowing from them, give the strength of consonants to the Italian, the full sound of words to the French, the variety of terminations to the Spanish, and the mollifying of more vowels to the Dutch, and so (like Bees) gather the honey of their good properties and leave the dregs to themselves. And thus when substantialness combineth with delightful-ness, fulness with fineness, seemliness with portliness, and currantness [i.e., fluency] with stayedness, how can the language which consisteth of all these sound other than most full of sweetness?

Again, the long words that we borrow [e.g., from the Latin and Greek], being intermingled with the short of our own store, make up a perfect harmony; by culling from out which mixture (with judgment) you may frame your speech according to the matter you must work on, majestical, pleasant, delicate, or manly, more or less, in what sort you please. Adde hereunto, that whatsoever grace any other language carrieth in verse or prose, in Tropes or Metaphors, in Ecchoes [i.e., onomatopoeia] and Agnominations [i.e., alliteration], they may all be lively and exactly represented in ours. [4]
Carew goes on from here to provide a litany of Classical writers and the English writers who capture their styles in that language. I won’t repeat them all here. He’s clearly very partial to English (“if mine own eyes be not blinded by affection,” he admits), and he may go too far in some of his verdicts — but even so, I think he has hit on some important points. Most importantly: that even then, and moreso now, English owes much of her success (and, to Carew, aesthetic virtue) to her unique ability to assimilate the most successful or euphonic words and elements from other languages and to make them her own.

I welcome your thoughts on this — especially those of you whose “cradle-tongue” is not English. (And let me congratulate you for reading this blog in English and perhaps helping to prove the point. ;)



[1] Tolkien, J.R.R. “English and Welsh.” The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1983, p. 190.

[2] All quotations, loc.cit.

[3] Segura, Eduardo and Thomas Honegger, eds. Myth and Magic: Art according to the Inklings. Zurich: Walking Tree Publishers, 2007, p. ii.

[4] Camden, William. “The Excellency of the English Tongue, by R.C. [Richard Carew] of Anthony Esquire to W.C. [William Camden].” Remains Concerning Britain. London: John Russell Smith, 1870, pp. 50–1. The text quoted is the 1870 reprint of the 7th edition (1674). The last edition Camden himself revised was the 5th (1607); the first edition appeared in 1586.

14 comments:

  1. I don't want to belittle your point, but British and American imperial colonialization is definitely the main reason English is so prevalent.

    That being said, English does have a certain versatility - being so heavily influenced by Romance and Teutonic languages, and then, part and parcel of being such an expansive language, being able to take on so many forms. An African friend of mine once told me, "English was born in England, grew up in America, grew old in India, and died in Africa" (imagine said with a native Zimbabwean accent). As you noted in your post, it is hard to gauge how this compares with other languages, as we are not native speakers of those languages, and are thus quite limited in our cultural-linguistic framework.

    And I would add that English, in a great deal of the places it is spoken, is hardly English as we would recognize it. Still, another African friend of mine (this one from the Congo) said he could understand the logic of those a Haitian friend (who spoke French) better than two other African friends from Kenya and Zimbabwe who spoke English. This exemplifies a Wittgensteinian "logic of language" on a very base and banal level. If a language possesses a logic (which all do), then perhaps some are more inviting.

    It is a dizzying and impossible question - but fun to consider. Thanks Jason!

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  2. Alex, thanks for the great comment.

    I don't want to belittle your point, but British and American imperial colonialization is definitely the main reason English is so prevalent.

    I certainly do not discount the colonial explanation, but I’m not as certain as you are that it is the main reason. I think this is an oversimplification. Clearly, colonization gave English the opportunity, but I think it is something about English itself that made a success of that opportunity. Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese empires all had their day, but while those languages did spread, they couldn’t get quite the toe-hold that English has gotten.

    Imagine world-wide colonization with a much more “difficult” (admittedly, subjective) language, like Irish or Finnish. While the colonization could certainly occur, it’s hard to see the conquerors’ language supplanting native one(s) so well as English has done. It’s also possible that part of the colonial impulse itself is rooted in whatever it is that makes English itself so assimilative. I don’t know that, but it seems plausible. The emergence of English in England came about through “colonization” from the nothwest of the European mainland, after all.

    An African friend of mine once told me, “English was born in England, grew up in America, grew old in India, and died in Africa” (imagine said with a native Zimbabwean accent).

    That’s a wonderful image, especially with the accent. I’ve seen this adage before, in a slightly different form (“got sick in India”).

    And I would add that English, in a great deal of the places it is spoken, is hardly English as we would recognize it. Still, another African friend of mine (this one from the Congo) said he could understand the logic of those a Haitian friend (who spoke French) better than two other African friends from Kenya and Zimbabwe who spoke English. This exemplifies a Wittgensteinian "logic of language" on a very base and banal level. If a language possesses a logic (which all do), then perhaps some are more inviting.

    Which goes all the more to its flexibility. Would such a thing be possible with German? Or Hungarian?

    Eric Partridge (a native speaker) has said that “[a]lthough no language is wholly consistent, wholly logical, yet it is true to say that, with the exception of cultured Chinese, English is the most logical of the modern languages” (The World of Words, 3rd ed., 1948).

    The great linguist Otto Jespersen (a native Danish speaker) has said that “[t]he English language is a methodical, energetic, business-like and sober language, that does not care much for finery and elegance, but does care for logical consistency and is opposed to any attempt to narrow-in life by police regulations [i.e., one thinks of the Académie Française] and strict rules either of grammar or of lexicon. As the language is, so also is the nation” (Growth and Structure of the English Language, 9th ed., 1938).

    It is a dizzying and impossible question - but fun to consider. Thanks Jason!

    I agree. As I tried to hint in the post, there’s nothing conclusive here. But I do think that there are features of English which suit the language particularly well to growth and distribution — and these elements have been apparent in the language for centuries.

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  3. Just a small semantic point: I'm speaking definitely about colonialization, not colonization, which are different, if not related, things.

    I think you are right, at least to some extent, about the acceptability of English, but I can't think of any anthropologist or sociologist that would disagree that the main reason was not colonialization. And I have had non-English speakers tell me English was, for them, one of the hardest languages to learn. Two of my friends that know fluently more than 4 languages (and one of them does not count English in that category, although he speaks it better than some of my native friends :) told me that English is the hardest, except for Mandarin.

    Still, it is hard to imagine, as you pointed out, Finnish, or even Mandarin or Russian, becoming so prevalent, even with a similar opportunity. I love Firefly the TV show, but I always wonder how well two vastly different languages/cultures would integrate, and if one would not take obvious precedence over the other. Of course, anthropologically speaking, it would probably depend on the area. But...well, now, I'm chasin' rabbits.

    I have a quibble with Partridge - a language, I'm not sure, can be more "logical" than another, since logic does not transcend language, and indeed, logic COMES FROM language. So as there are languages in the world, so there are logics; logic as a singular principled form or force within the world does not, I would contend, exist. Therefore, a language has to be judged as coherent (so I do appreciate his use of the word "consistent," though in ultimate disagreement) according to its own logic, or incoherent. In fact, I appreciate Jespersen's comment much more, and I think it much more becoming of a philologist - that language is inextricably interwoven within the culture that speaks it. This goes with my comment that English, though spoken in Zimbabwe, is not the same as our English - it reflects and informs (all at once) the culture that is speaking it.

    I'm babbling. Again, I think you might be on to something. Even that one prevalent trade language (gosh, I can't come up with what it is called; it has very few native speakers, but interestingly enough, has a Bible translation) is mostly based on English.

    And come to think of it, though I've always lamented this fact, Latin is a versatile language as well, and I think has much incorporating power. Of course, English is a Teutonic language, not Romance, but still, this could explain why Rome was so able to spread their language so vastly. So strong a presence it was that it ruined English (via the Church and Old French). A rather boring language, really; I've never forgiven those damned Romans.

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  4. Thought-provoking stuff, Alex. Let me respond, in brief:

    Just a small semantic point: I’m speaking definitely about colonialization, not colonization, which are different, if not related, things.

    I’m not sure I see the semantic difference you’re angling for. The American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed., has only colonize, not colonialize. I’m not sure the latter is a widely accepted word. Encarta Online has both, but gives as their meanings:

    Colonialize (trans.): Make into colony: to enter a nation or other landmass and try to restructure it into a colony.

    Colonize (trans./intrans.): Establish colony: to establish a colony in another country or place.

    Pretty similar. What’s the difference in your view? Is it that colonialize carries a greater sense of “putting down” an established native population?

    I have a quibble with Partridge — a language, I’m not sure, can be more “logical” than another, since logic does not transcend language, and indeed, logic COMES FROM language. So as there are languages in the world, so there are logics; logic as a singular principled form or force within the world does not, I would contend, exist. Therefore, a language has to be judged as coherent (so I do appreciate his use of the word “consistent,” though in ultimate disagreement) according to its own logic, or incoherent.

    Now it’s my turn for a small semantic point. :) I’m inclined to disagree with how you define logic here. I’m of the opinion, and I think Partridge would agree, that there is, in fact, a “singular principled form or force” — i.e., logic. Moreover, languages are “logical” by the force of the etymology of that adjective! ;)

    And come to think of it, though I’ve always lamented this fact, Latin is a versatile language as well, and I think has much incorporating power. […] So strong a presence it was that it ruined English (via the Church and Old French). A rather boring language, really; I’ve never forgiven those damned Romans.

    Latin is versatile, but it tends to erode through dissemination. Subjugated populations don’t tend to master half a dozen declensional paradigms very well, hahae; hence, why the different cultures the Romans mastered developed their own distinct (but clearly related) dialects, then languages: French, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, Romanian, et al. Latin itself evolved into Italian. For similar reasons, the declensional forms of Old English wore away, gradually but inexorably. I chuckled (in some agreement) at your choice of words, that Latin ruined English. It reminded me of something Tolkien wrote, tongue in cheek, in 1943:

    “Col. Knox says 1/8 of the world’s population speaks ‘English’, and that is the biggest language group. If true, damn shame — say I. May the curse of Babel strike all their tongues till they can only say ‘baa baa’. It would mean much the same. I think I shall have to refuse to speak anything but Old Mercian.”

    (I think I failed in my aim for brevity. Oh well, maybe next time. :)

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  5. Yeah, definitely Jason, "putting down" would be what I'm referring to. It's how it's used in anthropology. Dictionary.com does a good job with the noun form, "colonialization": the act of bringing into subjection or subjugation by colonializing. But the Encarta catches it with "try to restructure." Colonizing isn't such a terrible thing, provided it's done certain ways respectful to the indigenous culture (assuming there is one), but colonialization is always bad.

    Jason said (sorry, I can't figure out how to do cool italics :) :I’m inclined to disagree with how you define logic here. I’m of the opinion, and I think Partridge would agree, that there is, in fact, a “singular principled form or force” — i.e., logic. Moreover, languages are “logical” by the force of the etymology of that adjective! ;)

    Yeah, I'm a more postmodern thinker (I would prefer "post-postmodern, but whatev), and I think you have a bit more modern flavor. So it's a framework disagreement. But I think your statement about adjectives does not follow from your statement about logic as a universal framework. Perhaps you were being ironic? If not, I would say you're making my point for me :).

    Great stuff on the Latin. Tolkien was so cool.

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  6. So it’s a framework disagreement.

    I dig that! Instant argument-stopper! :)
    —“No, no, no! You have it all wrong!”
    —“Wrong? No, we’re both right; it’s just a framework disagreement.”

    But I think your statement about adjectives does not follow from your statement about logic as a universal framework. Perhaps you were being ironic?

    Yeah, notice my winky-face? I was being droll — or trying to be. The etymology of logical is Greek λογοσ “word, reasoning”; hence, languages, made up as they are of words, must be “logical”. You see? No intellectual contortion is too extreme when I’m trying, lamely, to be clever. ;)

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  7. It had not occurred to me to consider the etymology of "logical," no, though I probably should have - I've been a Greek student for a long time, haha.

    But I would not worry about being cheesy - I think it was a pun Tolkien would've liked. I often wonder how he would respond, as a philologist of a thoroughly modern school, to recent philosophy of language. As much as I would like to say otherwise, I think he would consider (as, probably our dear Mr. Partridge) a bit of hoo-hash.

    Though, I might add, I will always maintain that both he and Lewis, though quite modernist thinkers, had very dep and radical strands of what we might call postmodern thought. Indeed, the line of reasoning that lore says he used to convert Lewis to Christianity has deep linguistic-postmodern undertones.

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  8. Though, I might add, I will always maintain that both he and Lewis, though quite modernist thinkers, had very dep and radical strands of what we might call postmodern thought.

    I think you’re right about that. Walking Tree has a collection in preparation that deals with this subject extensively, so you can look forward to this.

    Brevity? Nailed it. ;)

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  9. Some comments from a non-native speaker of English...

    English is certainly not very logical in its spelling - or, perhaps you can turn that around and say that it's not very logical in its pronunciation, given its spelling. I believe there are other languages that have an edge over English in this respect. Of the languages I have knowledge about, Finnish is the language that comes closest to having a perfect spelling-pronunciation relationship. Swedish (my native language) is also better in this regard than English, and I don't see how English would be more logical in its consistency and structure than its Germanic sister language. Like German, Swedish has articles, though - two.

    If English would ever be made some sort of world language, there will probably be many people who would want to make its spelling more logical. However, this example illustrates how "improvement" of English spelling might go too far: http://www.greaterthings.com/Humor/English_as_the_official_language_of_Europe.htm ;)

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  10. Haha, that's brilliant. Personally, I think we should go back to Anglo-Saxon.

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  11. Alex:

    Great stuff on the Latin.

    While I’m on this subject, you might also like this, from the turn of the 20th century: “My impression has been that the Genius of the English language is widely different from that of Latin; and that the worst and most debased kinds of English style are those which ape Latinity. I know of no purer English prose than that of John Bunyan and [... more examples ...]. Yet Latin literature and these masters of English had little to do with one another.” — Thomas Henry Huxley

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  12. Hello, Ardamir; thanks for the input. Your indictment of English spelling (or pronunciation) is a point well-taken. I mean, what can one make of an orthography where nearly every single last one of our twenty-six letters may be silent in a word?! Much of the problem there, however, is with words absorbed from other languages (e.g., letters silent in French will usually be silent when those words are adopted into English).

    There are many explanations for the innumerable oddities of English pronunciation, but they are of little help to people trying to learn the language, I admit. Old English, I might point out, was pronounced with great regularity.

    I might also point out that languages with artificially perfect regularity (e.g., Esperanto) feel emotionless to most people. Deader than the so-called ‘dead languages’, to paraphrase Tolkien.

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  13. Gary Schmidt2/05/2009 9:46 AM

    For me, one of the definitive articles on this subject is the Stanford linguist Geoffrey Nunberg's "The Persistence of English," which traces the geographical and temporal spread of English while also considering whether there's something intrinsic to the language itself that could account for that ascendancy.

    It's a long essay, but chock-full of worthwhile information. Like your post was! :)

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  14. Thanks, Gary. I’ll definitely read it. :)

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