The Last Lingua Franca

The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel, by Nicholas Ostler, Allen Lane RRP £20, 313 pages

People whose first language is English are apt to be complacent about its pre-eminence. English is seen as indomitable – ruling the worlds of business, science and entertainment. Yet in The Last Lingua Franca, Nicholas Ostler serves up a bold corrective to Anglocentrism and its familiar flag-waving myopia.

Ostler, a Briton who chairs the Foundation for Endangered Languages, opens with the provocative statement that “the decline of English, when it begins, will not seem of great moment”. The key word here is “when”; Ostler is advancing not some tentative hypothesis, but a grand polemic. He maintains that any lingua franca is by its very nature a language of convenience, and that pretty soon international English will cease to be convenient and “will be dropped, without ceremony, and with little emotion”.

Ostler gives an account of the fluctuating fortunes of other major world languages. In each case their majesty has proved fragile. For instance, the might of Persian, established over a period of almost a thousand years, was shaken to its foundations in just 16. If we imagine that the supremacy of English will endure forever, says Ostler, we are guilty of both “memory failure” and a “signal lack of imagination”.

Today, we’re told, English “offers an entry card to the world’s Executive Club”. But sceptics suggest that its prospects are tainted by its association with Britain’s exploitative past and America’s recent taste for political interventionism.

Worriers allege that the diffusion of English must lead to its break-up: it will develop in many directions, its various new forms in the end becoming mutually unintelligible.

Ostler contends that the future promises something quite different: a new linguistic world order, in which China, India, Russia and Brazil, increasingly dominant economically, will discover that they can secure their positions in the global marketplace without recourse to English. The international form of the language will evaporate, and English will revert to being spoken only in its native heartlands. Those heartlands will be less important politically and commercially.

Usually, anyone who argues that English’s position is insecure proposes that some other language – most likely Spanish or Mandarin Chinese – will supersede it. Yet Ostler takes the view that by around 2050 no global lingua franca will be needed. To a large extent, this will be thanks to technology, for example as improved machine translation will make more languages mutually accessible.

In articulating these arguments, Ostler demonstrates a formidable degree of erudition. There is scarcely a page of this book that does not contain some remarkable gobbet of information.

The way Ostler shuttles between different cultures and tongues, as in his brilliant macro-history Empires of the Word (2005), is frequently jaw-dropping and never less than convincing. Yet while he writes with engaging crispness, at times the text becomes forbiddingly technical, and one can lose oneself in a thicket of thorny names and bristling verbiage.

This serves as a kind of rebuke: the polyglot Ostler is palpably frustrated by his blithely monoglot compatriots. We ought to be more comfortable among other languages. The fundamental contention of The Last Lingua Franca is that civilisation is growing more multilingual. Native speakers of English need jolting out of their self-satisfaction.

Ostler’s arguments are cogent and alarming. Yet he leaves us with a salutary thought: while the world can today seem flat and homogenous, and while a language dies out every fortnight, many distinct tongues persist, and in them survives a rich miscellany of traditions, histories and nuances of human character.

Henry Hitchings is author of ‘The Secret Life of Words: How English became English’ (John Murray)

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