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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Tuesday October 26 2010

Just listened to an interview on Radio 3 with the author of The Last Lingua Franca.  Publisher spiel:

In this provocative and persuasive new book, Nicholas Ostler challenges our assumption that English will continue to dominate as the global lingua franca. Drawing on his encyclopaedic knowledge of world languages and their history, Ostler reveals that just as past great languages like Latin and Sanskrit have died out, so English will follow.

Sounds interesting.  Not because he is necessarily completely right, but because he sounds like he knows a lot about the rise and fall of languages generally.

This posting is just me reminding myself about this book, so that I buy it in paperback.  Which it definitely will be because it’s a Penguin.

I greatly enjoyed his previous book Empires Of The Word. This one sounds like it might be going over a lot of the same ground, though, so I probably won’t bother.

I find it hard to reconcile “Latin and Sanskrit have died out” with dialects of them still being spoken by around a billion people, at a rough guess ;-)

Posted by Alan Little on 27 October 2010

I know nothing of Sanskrit, and would like to learn.

Re Latin, that seems to me the likely future of English.  Maybe splitting up into various local versions.  But dying out?  Hardly.

And even if English is seriously replaced, its influence on vocabulary will surely last as long as humans.

English is not Latin the way Italian and Spanish are Latin, but English contains quite a lot of Latin.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 27 October 2010

but didn’t you just say, in the previous, that East is on the rise?
here you go

Posted by Tatyana on 27 October 2010

The place of Sanskrit in Indian culture is very much analogous to Latin in European culture.

Most of the major modern languages of northern and central India - Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi, Marathi etc. - are its direct descendants, with very obvious similarities to it and to each other and some degree of mutual intelligibility.

Sanskrit itself also survives as a frozen, “classical” language, with the same status Latin had in European culture until quite recently. It was the prestigious language of learning for centuries, and it is still to this day the main scriptural language of the biggest religion.

Posted by Alan Little on 27 October 2010

I’ve been wandering around the East for the last month or so. It is easier to get by in English in Vietnam or Thailand than it is in most of southern Europe. Tourists from one part of east Asia visiting another communicate with the locals in....English. There are a few large areas in the world (South America, China) where the local language is strong and has huge numbers of speakers, and there is little need for even most educated people to learn English. Everywhere else, though, English is making truly dramatic inroads. I have been traveling for 20 years. The increase in the amount of English spoken almost everywhere in that 20 years is dramatic.

Posted by Michael Jennings on 27 October 2010

L’Académie française vaincra! ;-p

Posted by Antoine Clarke on 29 October 2010

Antoine

You may be entertained to know that when I saw four emails telling me of four new comments, all at the one (roughly speaking) time in the small hours this morning when you posted them, I assumed that it just had to be some wanker selling knock-off handbags.

Imagine my amazement on learning that the comments were all real ones.  Thanks.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 29 October 2010

I’m very interested to read this book, because I’ve been fascinated by the global social and political implications of everyone being able to communicate with each other in the upcoming decades.  We’re already seeing major, disruptive effects of English dominance in the EU, Africa, and as mentioned above SE Asia.  If the book boils down to Ostler predicting that machine translation will get really good… that’s disappointing.  I probably know more about computer science than Ostler does.  I hope it won’t be a case of someone turning to Moore’s law to protect a strongly held belief (see: Ray Kurzweil).

I would hope interviewers ask Ostler what he thinks will happen if machine translation doesn’t come along as quickly as he hopes.  Google for example has all the horsepower in the world and the entire bilingual internet as a learning source, and it’s still dreadful, especially with more distant languages.  There are other thorny questions as well - for example, what is the benefit of language diversity if everyone becomes monoglot?  Won’t most languages below the 20 or 30 most spoken have too few sources for machines to learn to translate?  And so on.

Looking forward to the book, in any event.

Posted by John Morgan on 04 November 2010
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