English has definitely become the lingua franca of the world. I was appalled at the ability of the participants at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest to speak not only very good English but current everyday, infomal, even colloquial English. (Unlike like my still formal and rather stilted French.)
Gone was the dual English/French repetition of every statement by the the hosts (although the scoring remains bilingual). Most countries sang in English and those who did not sang in their native lingo. The only real clanger was Latvia whose entry only served to prove that Google translator is not foolproof:
“What for how we live? Only Mr God knows why.”
However, there was a visible difference between those who spoke English comfortably and those for whom it is definitely a secondary – as opposed to a second – language. In general, the further west the competitor’s country, the greater their command of the language and consequently the further east the country the less comfortable the competitor appeared to be with the language.
I suspect that the degree of facility with English displayed by a country’s entrants reflects the amount of trade the country maintains with the anglophone world – by which I mean the United States. Perhaps it is the influence of NATO membership.
One feature of the colloquial English spoken was that it is very American. The expressions used, while common everywhere, have their origins in the US and, more to the point, on US television. As disturbing as this is in itself, it shows the degree to which that which passes for culture in the US has penetrated the continent of true western culture. I know from personal experience that I can always find topics of conversation with foreign language speakers in foreign languages by talking about ER, Supernatural and CSI.
To achieve this position of prominence, all it took was the gun-boat diplomacy of the British Empire in the nineteenth century, two world wars and 50 years if the threat of nuclear annihilation. So simple, anyone could do it.
I’m also not quite sure why I’m complaining about this. To my mind, as an overly educated yobbo, English is without doubt the greatest and best language in the universe and represents the highest of humanity’s achievement since the invention of fire. I guess I fear the loss of diversity. Learning other languages opens up whole new vistas on reality, different ways of looking at the world, and alternative point of view on both the common and the extraordinary. Living in a world of one language or even of a single predominant language is a terrifyingly shallow prospect.
Previous linguae francae include:
- French for diplomacy in the seventeenth century and in the realms of literature and culture off and on since the 1400s;
- Italian and German vied for dominance in the political sphere during the Holy Roman Empire (say AD 1200-1600);
- French, or more accurately Frankish (the original lingua franca) from about AD 700-1100;
- Medieval or Neo-Latin complicates this picture by remaining the language of the Church, science and education from the end of the Roman Empire until even Hungary dropped it as an official language in 1867;
- Greek and after it Latin from about the fifth century BC until the fifth century AD.
Alternative linguae francae of today include:
- Russian throughout much of Central Asia;
- Spanish in the Americas;
- Arabic is the common language of the Middle East;
- Portuguese, Italian and French in different parts of Africa;
- Italian is in the process of replacing Latin as the official language of the Vatican.
Only recently has Mandarin Chinese replaced Cantonese as the language of modern China and the Chinese ex-pat communities due to that country’s continued economic rise to power. Mandarin or Standard Chinese is my pick for the next lingua franca after the eventual demise from this position of English sometime in the far, far future.