»  National Review

August 28, 2000

  The Future of English


We live in an age of Anglophone triumphalism. The melange of low-German dialects carried to Britain on the tongues of mercenary war-bands a millennium and a half ago has now become the first language of nearly 400 million people and the second language of at least a billion more. When an Indonesian businessman meets a customer from Finland, they converse in English. Airline pilots flying international routes communicate with their controllers in English. Seventy-six per cent of the content of the Internet is in English. (The runners-up are, in order: Japanese, French, German and Chinese.) English is the world language, and this will become more true as time goes on — these are assumptions most of us carry around in our heads without much examination. Are they true?

There are a number of reasons for thinking that English may be at, or perhaps even past, the high tide of its influence. To begin with, the proportion of humanity speaking English as its first language is declining. Samuel Huntington, in The Clash of Civilizations, gives the following numbers: 9.8 per cent in 1958, 7.6 per cent in 1992. If the rate of decline is linear we must now be hovering just over seven per cent. To be sure, this decline is relative, not absolute. The populations of the great English-speaking nations are not falling. Nor are the people of those nations switching to any other first language, even where there are strongly-felt linguistic issues in controversy. Irishmen show even less inclination to speak Irish than their grandfathers did; the enthusiasm of Francophone Canadians for their language has not infected their English-speaking compatriots; and Americans, despite all the blandishments of the "multicultural" hustlers, persist in looking down on Spanish as a language of busboys and drug traffickers. The decline in the proportion of the world's people who have English as their first language is simply a consequence of those people being first-worlders with low birthrates. The rest of the world is outbreeding them. Since no English-speaking nation is in the imperialism business any longer, our language is left with its home islands, the child colonies of the early-modern period, and a scattering of nations once ruled from London (or, like the Philippines, from Washington) but with indigenous cultures of their own into which English has been able to put down some shallow roots.

Granted that English as a first language is in relative decline, may we not still console ourselves with the thought that it has no challenger as the first-preference second language over a large part of the world? Russian imperialism turns out to have been a damp firecracker, and the post-Sputnik enthusiasm for learning Russian seems ludicrous now. In the 21st century you will learn Russian only if you want to read Pushkin in the original. The present fad for Chinese will go the same way unless that nation can shake off its addiction to despotic government, a development of which there is currently no sign at all. No other language is even a candidate for world-wide acceptance. Air traffic controllers will continue to speak to pilots in English for as long as they need to speak to them at all — perhaps for another generation, after which automation will take over completely. Even then, will not the world still need a lingua franca? And those nations once under English-speaking rule — won't they be glad to have got a head start from their former imperialist masters?

Not necessarily. In these latter cases English has been accepted against the grain of national, racial and anti-imperialist emotions because of its convenience and neutrality. A country with a multitude of quarreling tribes or sects needs some common tongue, and it is best that it should be one that is hors de combat. Nigeria, where anyone with any education at all above the elementary-school level can speak English, offers a good example. Yet even these common-sense considerations have not helped English to hold its own everywhere. During the years when Julius Nyerere ruled Tanzania (1964-85), he promoted Swahili as the only proper common language for his people, with the result that one now meets college-educated Tanzanians who can hardly speak English at all.

Even India, often cited as the one nation where English is an indispensable medium of exchange between a myriad sects and races, is slipping the leash. Samuel Huntington quotes two professors of English at New Delhi University: "[W]hen one travels from Kashmir down to the southernmost tip at Kanyakumari, the communication link is best maintained through a form of Hindi rather than through English." It is true that English is the common tongue of a small, well-educated elite of Indians. Democracy militates against established elites, though; as, of course, do more radical social changes. The Russian ruling classes of the Napoleonic age who populate War and Peace spoke French among themselves. A hundred years later, as Tsarist Russia began to modernize and the towering achievements of 19th-century Russian literature generated pride in the national language, that nation's elites were using French less and less — and after Lenin's Revolution, of course, not at all.


If the peace of the world can be maintained, and technological progress continued, there is a larger threat to the supremacy of English as a second language, and indeed to multilingualism in general: computer translation. Now, if you have actually tried to use any of the current translation software you are probably smiling at this point. These programs are awful. They cannot even distinguish between ordinary nouns and proper names. I recently went on the Internet to look for a biography of the poet Witter Bynner. My search engine, which trawls through sites in all languages and translates the material into English before presenting it, located a biography on Amazon's German web site, and listed the author's last name as "Strength." The author is, in fact, the American critic James Kraft.

These deficiences, however, are those of an immature technology, one that can be expected to develop rather rapidly over the next decade or two. Recent news from this field is very hopeful. The drop in the price of computer memory to near zero, and the rise in speed of retrieval from that memory to near infinity, has meant that the knotty analytical problems described by Steven Pinker in Chapter 7 of The Language Instinct can to some degree be bypassed by simply drawing on great masses of linguistic data. With a huge database of recorded utterances in different languages, indexed by comparative frequencies and contextual clues, translation can be done by brute force, without the machine needing to "understand" much. Twenty years from now we shall have hand-held language translators.

It will, of course, be rather easy to fox them. Every language offers an infinity of possible utterances. Without trying very hard you can say an English sentence that has probably never been said before. My own children constantly generate remarks like: "My Power Ranger fell in the sump pump." Such oddities will, however, present no obstacle to the swift acceptance of computer translation, once it passes a certain threshold of accuracy. New technology always offers trade-offs to its adopters. Machines only ever approximate the living world; we must always go half-way to meet them. When humanity switched from riding horses to driving cars, we easily resigned ourselves to the fact that this new aid to locomotion could not jump fences. Your $69.99 translation gadget will stumble over subtle allusions or constructions; but you will get accustomed to that and just stop using them in its presence. Nor will your Translate-O-Matic be any use in the classic science-fiction situation of a first encounter with alien civilization: their language would have to be "learned," added to the database. For the 4,000 tongues of Planet Earth, though, machine translation will work very nicely, once their few trillion most common utterances are logged on the database and properly cross-referenced.

The implications of this are wonderful. Until well within living memory the making of mathematical tables, ephemerides and the like was done by human beings using mechanical calculating machines to perform millions of repetitive arithmetic operations — mental drudgery on a staggering scale, the equivalent of coal-mining with pick and shovel. Nowadays any child can churn out those tables in minutes on a home computer. Before long, language learning may seem as antique and unnecessary a skill as the computation of ten-figure logarithms by hand — a great relief to those of us that are hopeless linguists. (A category that includes disproportionately many English-speakers. In the old French Foreign Legion it used to be said that the English recruits were the last to get promoted because they were slowest to master the giving of orders in French.)

If this does come to pass, there will be very little need for a universal language, and foreign-language learning will be practiced only by eccentrics, immigrants and ardent lovers. I can't see why anybody should mind this. From the point of view of conservative patriots, it may even prove a boon. Our language will be ours, our own private family joke; there will be no reason for anyone else to take an interest in it. The horrid chore of learning a foreign language, and the humiliating awareness that, after years of gruelling study, we speak it no better than a native eight-year-old, will be banished from our lives. Good riddance!

Supposing all the above to be true, we can form a rough picture of English in the world later this century. Those peoples that speak English as their first language will still do so, but their numbers will be slipping below five per cent of the human race. In many of the places where English was left behind by a retreating imperialist power, it will have withered and died. (In Hong Kong today, this process is almost visible.) With the advent of reasonably reliable translation gadgets, the need for a world language, and for the learning of foreign languages in general, will have slackened off. Fewer people will learn English; fewer people will learn any second language.


Given all of this, can we say anything about the future state of English in its base countries — in particular, of American English? Here it becomes really difficult to keep a sensible perspective. Any educated person over the age of forty has moments of curmudgeonly doubt about whether the great richness of our language can be maintained. Usages and allusions that we take for granted are being lost daily. Doing contract work for a Wall Street firm recently, I was teamed up with a bright young woman just two or three years out of an extremely expensive liberal education. Apropos some impossible project we had been assigned, I said I thought we were being asked to make bricks without straw. My colleague squinted at me in bafflement. "Bricks? Straw? What on earth are you talking about, John?"

Similar misgivings are aroused by the state of our public speech. Reading Paul Johnson's biography of Elizabeth the First, I was struck by the grace and vigor of the English language four hundred years ago. Even bureaucrats wrote exquisite prose. Here is a routine departmental memo on the price of corn in 1595:

Her Highness doth verily think the fault thereof, in part, to be the covetous disposition of such as be farmers and corn-masters, that not acknowledging God's goodness, do seek immoderate gain by enhancing the prices of corn and grain, to the great oppression of the poorer sort.

Whatever e-mails are flying back and forth in Washington about the current price of gas, I doubt that any of them is couched in such elegance. Elizabeth's speech to her army at Tilbury might have been written by Shakespeare, though in fact the words were her own.

I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too; and I think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm …

Compare the dreary state of own own public rhetoric, lamented at length in this magazine recently by Michael Knox Beran (NR, 7/3/00). Unless something happens in the next six months, Bill Clinton will step down after eight years in office leaving behind not a single memorable utterance, other than those that are risible or shameful — a remarkable negative achievement. The condition of our literature is even worse. Poetry is in a desperate state — recite four lines by any living poet. Prose is somewhat healthier, though it is difficult to imagine that anyone living in the year 2400 would wish to read any of our productions.

Does this mean our language is at the end of its tether? Is it, and our civilization, exhausted at last? I doubt it. Languages flourish and then quiesce in ways that are very mysterious. If English in 1600 was at a peak of strength and beauty, in 1700 it was comparatively dull, and in 1800 just girding itself for the glories of the 19th century. So with other tongues: the wonderful efflorescence of poetry in 8th and 9th-century China has never been equalled in that nation, and the majestic verse and rhetoric that characterized the few decades of late-republican and early-imperial Rome had few peers in the subsequent half-millennium of empire. Let us preserve what we can, and hope for better days.

Conservatives instinctively resist change, of course; yet language change will happen, whether we resist or not. The greatest of all conservatives, Samuel Johnson, remarked in the preface to his mighty dictionary that: "To enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strength." More recently, the English writer J.B. Priestley had this to say in his 1933 English Journey:

If we are a nation of shopkeepers, then what a shop! There is Shakespeare in the window, to begin with … We stagger beneath our inheritance. But let us burn every book, tear down every memorial, turn every cathedral and college into an engineering shop, rather than grow cold and petrify, rather than forget that inner glowing tradition of the English spirit.

The colossal superiority of Anglo-Saxon civilization, that has spread our beautiful language across the globe, is fueled by a restlessness, an endless pushing forward, that carries that language with it, discarding what it does not need. Conservatism is not a devotion to stasis but a determination to bring the best of the past with us into the unknowable future. It is a worthy fight, to preserve old allusions, old books, old words; but the fight will often be lost. Who now reads Carlyle for pleasure, or The Faerie Queene? The King James Bible and Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Keats, Mark Twain and Longfellow may recede from everyday consciousness, but the language they enriched will not have forgotten them.