Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Is English Unstoppable?

English is fast becoming the world's language. While some Frenchmen are perturbed, and call the language penetrating even their universities 'American' rather than English, the Tower of Babel seems to be reaching a final solution. 

Why does this matter? The apologists of English do not see this as an imperial project but a triumph of pragmatism, a natural corollary of globalisation and rise of an uniform consumer ethics. And, indeed, there is one view that it is the 'democratic' nature of English - the language can be molded and adapted to its host cultures infinitesimally - that makes it so popular. They claim this is not about English or American, but the story of many Englishes.

So, you can speak any language as long as it is called English, which means an expansion of what some observers will call an Anglosphere. This is a sphere of influence of a certain kind of rhetoric, enabled by the unity of media and thinking. In one way, this is a function of technology, and if we accept the view, there is no going back from here. The rise of television, and the rise of Internet, lead to mass culture, and massification of language spheres. Living with English means being inside a language bubble, and being subject to certain assumptions and ideas, being subject to certain values propagated from the top, and being subject to a certain kind of mind control - being inescapably a part of the global consumer society that the ascendant Anglo-American civilisation.
Can this ever be reversed? There is some enthusiastic talk about China's rise and the need to learn Mandarin, but there are more children learning English in China than the US, UK, Canada and Australia combined. China may indeed soon have the largest English speaking population in the world, with India in the second place. So, however much we think history's pendulum would swing, should swing, China may be one example of the rise of the Anglosphere rather than its possible challenge.

In a world like this,  at best, the Chinese can hope to secure a Sinosphere, leaving out a space for the Francosphere, the traditional Spanish territories, and a part of the world resurgent with Arabic, at best four or five world languages competing with English. However, this is the precise system, a world divided into language blocks, as it always was, under assault from English: This is not the coming shape of the world, but the world that was. 

However, one would think that the seeds of reversal of a world language system remains within the greatest triumph of a language system. English will remain preeminent as long as the current consumer civilisation continues to spread. One way to see a language system spreading certain values all over the world - the consumer culture, the particular type of rhetoric ('freedom', 'liberty', 'democracy', 'choice' have all come to mean new things), a way of thinking - and the other is to think that the way of thinking facilitates buying into a certain language ethic. This view will mean that the fortunes of the language may be tied with the idea it carried, which is possibly the lesson of history.

So, if the current consumer ethic is challenged, that will also mean challenging the language sphere of English. And, despite the apparent implausibility of the proposition at the current time, it seems that some of the ideas are being challenged. Crimea 2014 may be Georgia 2008, but may be not: May be this defiance of the American view of the world, and the assertion of a Slavosphere is indeed the kind of return of history Obama administration is warning themselves about. May be the Chinese silence is actually the Chinese defiance. May be the fearful rise of Modi in India (the man may not become the PM, but his odious ideas may now come to stay), his flagrant majoritarianism and chauvinism, is a sign of times to come. All these may snowball into a rollback of the consuming world that we have come to know about, and with it - the English! Once the language has been abused and extended to pimp for the schemes of the tinpot emperors and armchair imperialists, it is time for closet Nazis to come out and use a different language to counter its influence.

We may be heading to a breaking of the civilisation, but does this mean rise of one or the other language sphere at the expense of English? It may not be: This may be a point of diffusion, a time of ending the imperial schemes and a return to the tower of Babel, notwithstanding what the technology-determinists will have us believe. With the use and abuse of English, one may perhaps know that the world speaking one language may be as much as a bad thing: It allows imperialism by ideas, and an eventual hollowing out of values that sustain a civilisation, which is what we may be experiencing now.

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