December 05, 2005

Not Your Grandfather's Anglosphere

There is something exciting in being surprised by a turn of events, and proved wrong. I spent a quarter of a century agitating for India to do like Japan, China and Korea, for the government to take the initiative in integrating the elite with the non-elite by having school education only in local languages. And restoring to Indian languages the top end of their functional range, now occupied by English. But it didnít happen. The elite simply wonít give up English.

So now, the non-elite has taken charge of the situation by laying claim to the language associated in India with a middle class existence. They are ready to turn India into a vast English-speaking country, where we, the elite will have to scramble to keep our footing. Where interesting things are going to happen.

Peggy Mohan, Is English the Language of India's Future?

Interesting things, indeed.

Fil-Anglosphere blogger Rizalist commented about Mohan's paper: If I were to replace the word Indian with Philippine and Hindi with Tagalog, and showed the result to people here, they would surely think it was a piece about them.

People have debated here about whether places like India and the Philippines belong to the Anglosphere. The real point is, what will the Anglosphere be like when all of India speaks English?

A hundred years ago, English-speaking union was on the table, but it was aimed primarily at Britain and the colonies of settlement. This time around, things are different. As Peggy Mohan says, "...interesting things are going to happen."

Posted by James C. Bennett at December 5, 2005 12:02 AM

One little concern is that the rush for other countries to adopt English, will discourage younger Anglophones from learning other languages. After all why bother learning if the world communicates in English?
Also Anglospherists should be concerned by the loss of local language in favour of major ones. It's like losing a flower in the garden of languages and a loss of diversity that Anglophone love so much.
It would ironic if the enthusisatic adoption of English and other major langauges causes world to adopt a hedgehog temperment.

Posted by: xavier at December 5, 2005 06:07 AM

Unlike the Philipinnoes, the Puerto Ricans in the Idslsnfdnare stubbornlyh hispanic in language and culture, with the elites bilingual, and the peons spanish language only. On the other hand, those who can freely emigrate to theMainland only then learn English. It' a puzzl;ement.

Posted by: Sid Ciochran at December 5, 2005 07:57 AM

I've thought for the past decade that the coming century will eventually be remembered for India's rise more than China's. Although China has done somewhat better than I expected, and India has been slower to modernize and develop its economy, I still think India has an edge for two reasons: It's not as bound by centralized economic control, and English (including British legal traditions) has a solid foothold.

Posted by: Shelby at December 5, 2005 10:40 AM

When Alexander the Great conquered the known world, Greek became the common language. That variety of Greek is called Koine' Greek. Koine' is the Greek word for "common."

Koine' became the language of commerce; in fact, the New Testament of the Bible is written in Koine' Greek. Everyone in the Alexandrian empire could speak Koine' and also their own local language. Could English become the Koine' of our time, with similar results?

Posted by: Impacted Wisdom Truth at December 5, 2005 10:46 AM

Information available to me indicates that the historic rate of language extinction is relatively low (Of Languages and Power Laws), but of course that does not predict future trends. I concur with Xavier that there is a risk of loss of diversity in this area, and how to manage that risk is an interesting question.

Posted by: Jay Manifold at December 5, 2005 10:50 AM

Xavier, the reluctance of English-speakers to tackle other languages is rather well-known; Shakespeare joked about it. However, I don't think we are going to see a monoglot world. Rather, what I think we will see is another shift in patterns of language usage. I think the big world languages (Spanish, French, Chinese national language, and Arabic) will hold their own in their core countries. They may see a continued shift in other countries' choice of Language of Wider Communication from those languages to English. This has already happened to German, which before WWII was the LWC in Scandinavia and much of Eastern Euope, and has mostly been replaced (or is being replaced) by English. Russian as a LWC is under pressure in much of the former Soviet Union, not only from English (as in the Baltics) but also Turkish and Arabic in the 'stans.

The next change is that the smaller developed-nation languages (Dutch, Danish, etc.) will have a harder time maintaining critical mass as a LWC for their own nations. Certainly anybody in business or professional life needs to speak English in those countries, and as they have excellent eductaional systems most people do.

At the same time, many languages with small or even tiny user bases have been holding their own or undergoing a revival, but not as the primary language of their countries (and many such have no national state at all). Rather, some facility in these langauges has become a marker of identity, a personal statement rather than an unconscious environmental fact as in the case of native speakers of the big LWCs. Obvious examples are Irish Gaelic and Welsh. To some extent Catalan is on the periphery of this category, although Xavier can give us his own judgement on this issue. If Catalonia were a fully independent state, it would be in the medium-small range as a European language, but years of mandatory Spanish-language education have made most Catalans at least bilingual. Internet media plays a huge part in this, as the costs of maintaining publications in small languages has plummeted dramatically; as podcasting and vlogging spread, production of sound and video media on small languages will follow suit.

I think Mohan may be wrong about the persistence of Indian languages. Their nature and use may shift as English spreads in India, but as the country modernizes, they may take off as media for Internet publication, and they will continue to be spoked quite widely by bilinguals. The main issue for India, if Mohan is correct about the spread of English, is where Hindi will be placed among non-home-speakers of Hindi (it liself has a very large critical mass among its home speakers and I doubt it will be in any danger.) How many people will maintain fluency in English, Hindi, and their local home language? That's a lot of language-learning. The Philippines may be an indication, as English is already very widespread there, and the minority languages such as Ilocano don't seem to be dying out. At the same time Pilipino has not pushed out english as the LWC for the nation, as some hoped it might.

In short, I don't think linguistic monocropping is a danger for the future. However, there may be quite a shift in patterns of usage.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at December 5, 2005 10:54 AM

"In short, I don't think linguistic monocropping is a danger for the future. However, there may be quite a shift in patterns of usage."

The key change for India will be that fewer non-native speakers will be interested in learning Hindi. A lot of them already hate the idea of Hindi as the national language.

The key change for the English language will be like the effect that so many European immigrants had on Englsih. It won't be a syntactic effect because English and Hindi are underlyingly fairly similar to each other in their basic categories - clear distinction between nouns and verbs, past participles having a passive sense, present participles having an active sense - lots of similarities. The main effect will be a reduction in the use of idiomatic speech, because the various communities will not share such a large common stock of idioms. This won't be due soloey to the Indians; there are millions and millions of educated African Anglophones too.

Xavier, people maintain minority langugaes for all sorts of reasons. It is simplistic to predict a situation where we all speak any same language. For one thing language is absolutely not just about passing information. Sometimes it is about communicating with people, and sometimes it is about communicating in front of people. People have alwasy used their dialects like this in China, even now when they are perfectly competent in Mandarin. It's not even considered particularly rude. People "gratuitously" introduce differentiation into the language mix, as a means to distinguish themselves as a group from everyone else. This is common in some parts of New Guinea and accounts for some of the dizzying variety you see there. The same drive is in effect with the rapid lexical turn-over in slangs. Just as soon as a term spreads beyond the slang, it is dropped.

There is a widespread movement among various Native American groups to revive moribund languages. Here in the Puget Sound Lushootseed seems to be coming back to life. Where you used to hear anthropologists and field liguists condemned for "stealing languages" people are even a little grateful to them now.

Posted by: Jim at December 5, 2005 11:39 AM

This post, and the entire web site for that matter, looks extremely interesting. Unfortunately, I can only decode the text by carefully scutinizing each word. There is a serious technical problem affecting legibility of the text, given your choice of font, font size, the use of Italics and the apparent use of grey scale instead of solid black type. (I'm sorry to clutter up the comments section, but I don't see an email address for the site administrator.)

I'm using Internet Exlorer 6.0 under XP Pro on a Dell D600 with standard LCD. I doubt that my setup is unusual, so there may be many others who can only read your blog with difficulty. Contact me if you want more technical details, or if you think the problem is at my end.

Posted by: Ira at December 5, 2005 12:18 PM

I would suggest that idiom will not be reduced, but rather expanded. If you type any idiom into google, you'll figure it out quickly enough. If it's entertaining enough, you add it to your own stock. The information age will not make us dull in our speach.

For example, I had no idea what Lushootseed meant. Hit #2 on Google sorted that out in under 15 seconds. As progress continues, I wouldn't be surprised to see that time drop to the 5 second range.

Posted by: TM Lutas at December 5, 2005 12:20 PM

I believe Urdu is the official governmental language of Pakistan, although only a small percentage of the population speaks it. Likewise one of the first acts of the Ayatollah Khomeni, upon taking power in Iran, was to cancel English instruction in the schools.
I think it should be a priority of our foriegn policy to try to encourage English as the world's language for science and international trade. It might be more diplomatic to allow countries like India and the Phillipines to take the lead in most instances, but our first step should be making this a condition of our further participation in trying to reform the UN. After the trouble France has caused us with their corrupt ankle biting, I think this would be an appropriate payback.

Posted by: wayne at December 5, 2005 12:26 PM

There is a disadvantage of everyone else knowing English, but also having their own languages. They can easily understand our secrets but keep theirs. I sometimes think it would be a good idea to have American's learn Navajo or some other obscure native American language, so that we can keep secrets. You know like what they did during WWII to protect military communications from the Japanese.

Posted by: ATM at December 5, 2005 12:28 PM

The Philippines is a weird case where the elites agitated to make Tagalog/Pilipino the national language while continuing to train their kids in English. The result was a degrading of the middle class's ability to process English in the period from the 70s to the 90s. Non-Tagalog speaking Filipinos (such as the Cebuanos) hated Tagalog being the "national" language. All still used English to deal with technical issues, especially math, science, management, etc.

My guess is that this enhanced those who were tightly wedded to the "national identity" issues while also serving as a barrier to preserve the power of the elites.

As a result the Philippines p*ssed away a major economic advantage -- of being one of the few large English speaking Asian nations -- at a time when such an edge would have really helped with economic development. I maintain that it would have been a huge trading edge if as many as 5-10 million more Filipinos spoke decent English in the 70s and 80s.

Posted by: jn at December 5, 2005 12:36 PM

If you are really worried about a monoglot world, just go to Autralia for a while, where they purportedly speak English.

Well, I'm off to blodge the arvo.

Posted by: moptop at December 5, 2005 12:37 PM

Pardon me for paraphrasing Bismark, but perhaps the course of the next century will be most marked by the fact that Indian is a [semi] Anglophone country.

For more on this convergence in more martial affairs see here:

An essay entitled "The Big Four Alliance"
[i.e. the U.S., Britain, India, Japan]
(What do the first three have in common?),filter.all/pub_detail.asp

Posted by: ElamBend at December 5, 2005 12:44 PM

I might add that Viscount Slim, the WWII general would see no problem at India being part of the Anglosphere; indeed he'd likely be surprised if it weren't.

In fact, couldn't the recent events be seen as India returning to the Anglo mean after temporarily striking away from it in a fit of independance?

Couldn't the same be said of the Phillipines?

Posted by: ElamBend at December 5, 2005 12:47 PM

It is interesting the different ways this article can be read. I read it less as a discussion of language per se than of language as a representation of cultural identity. As lower class Indians seek to raise themselves up from poverty they use English as a tool for their rise. But the change is not just economic. It is also a "transition to a mass middle class society". Where it becomes "harder for the elite to discriminate against the non-elite by citing their inadequate command of English".

In particular, the discussion of Indian children acquiring English reminded me of the way non-English speakers are assimilated into American culture. Are the Indians being assimilated without immigration? Are they choosing to join the Anglosphere by individually choosing English as their first language? Could they choose to make English their primary language without joining the Anglosphere?

Posted by: Richard Heddleson at December 5, 2005 03:37 PM

Your questions are very good ones.

I especially enjoy the question about assimilation without immigration. I believe that this could be possible. Their modernizing society shows many similarities to a modernizing US. Our economies and culture (not as much yet) are increasingly intertwined. I have many Indian friends; the only way I can tell many of them haven't been born in the US is the accent. The way a Chinese person acts, not even hearing their voice, can easily give away where they were raised.

Your last question about them using English but not joining the Anglosphere seems remote to me. If English eventually dominates their other languages, there is a good chance India will become more cordial with other English speaking nations. The level of trust is already there for the most part.

I inherently trust India, wanting to be a partner in the world, more than I do France. To me, India doesn't have aspirations of being a sole superpower just like the US never really did either :). They seem to be happy improving their lives without having to be an authority.

It is a situation of, what is good for them is good for us. A good situation to build on.

Posted by: jgeee at December 5, 2005 04:06 PM


Thanks for the citation and as usual, the opportunity for a stimulating conversation...

The thing that really struck me about Peggy Mohan's essay is her theory about why the persistence of English in India:

It also appears that it is a control of the discourse of science and technology that gives a language a hold over the future, not great literature and poetry.

I think that just as history starts as news, "great literature and poetry" actually start in history as the small faltering steps in the ascent of man, which are primarily acts of science and know-how. Grand literature and poetry are merely the distilled recollection of a vast numbers of steps and missteps along the way -- the lessons of progress. But just as "history" is often not directly applicable to the day's concrete challenges, so too grand literature and poetry require a certain philosophical stance to fully appreciate their relevance.

She notes that translations of scientific treatises are instinctively known even by non English speakers to be not quite the real McCoy:

Reading science textbooks in Hindi gives a strange sense of unreality, since we know that the real scientists never use these words as they work, even if they do speak to each other in Hindi.

A similar phenomenon occurs in the Philippines, where at the main state-run University of the Philippines, wholly futile exercises have been going on for generations to translate ALGEBRA and TRIGONOMETRY, PHYSICS and CHEMISTRY into the official Pilipino national language. This has resulted in a ludicrous, Esperanto-like amalgam of traditional Tagalog (80% of the mixture) and clever but risible neoogisms no one seriously uses.

So what exactly happens at the interface between two LINGOSPHERE'S, say English and Hindi or English and Pilipino?

I think it is like this. English, being the bearer of "real news" controls the most powerful "verbs" -- "the idiom" -- the "action" -- while it absorbs the vocabulary, the "nouns" of the vernacular. It is as if Instapundit showed up in a comment thread among the Top 3000-4000. He would instantly become the new "hub" or "strange attractor". like Jupiter entering the Asteroid belt, the language with the more powerful gravity exerts the greatest pull.

This linguistic "gravity" is due to not only its own grand literature and poetry (of which English may have less than India, but for Shakespeare), but more importantly to its relevance to the real world of every day: the science and technology it bears untranslated from its original sources.

But what this means is that populations cannot consciously CHOOSE their language (as witness the failure of the Tagalog lingual imperialists!). The language chooses them in a completely natural way: survival of the fittest by natural selection.

The idioms of English, and the powerful memes it bears of democracy and freedom, free markets and capitalist enterprise, and the science and technology that are its vibrant leading edge, these memes are the gravitational centre of all thought on the planet.

But there can be no complacency, for as in the world of astrophysics, a whole new phenomenon in the Universe has been detected and stands as a great challenge to our understanding of it: DARK ENERGY.

Thus Globalism, a meme that drives modern English, also has its own anti gravity, its own nemesis -- a thing that uses the centripetal reactions of hatred and resentment to fling the world apart -- that is the strange attractor I call Nihiism.

Perhaps these are strange thoughts, but thank you for indulging them here. Best regards to all from the other archipelago on the shoulder of a fearsome Continent.

Posted by: Rizalist at December 5, 2005 04:38 PM

PS..Jim, just some responses to other Commentary on your most excellent site:

SHELBY: The chagrin you express over India, mirrors what I feel for the Philippines.

ATM: Interesting note on "secrets" that multilinguals have over unilinguals. But I think there is a kind of barter trade that occurs between the lingospheres at their interface.In India, the Anglomeme has UTILITARIAN ideas it can exchange for "Grand literature" -- computers for Vedic wisdom, genetic engineering for Hindi poetry. Which is why the concept of FREE TRADE, and its supernal importance, means more to me than the exchange of mere material goods among nations.

JN: At 87 million Filipinos "thinking" in the English idiom even as they keep dialect vocabularies, there was once this characterization of the Archipelago as representing the third largest English speaking country in the world. But when India IS captured [by the Language Meme that the Anglosphere only thinks it controls], a billion strong Hinduspheric planet will fall into its gravitational influence that will be far bigger than the current "diameter" or "radius" of the Anglosphere Meme. Still, I think the process of aggregation is not necessarily a merging of the Spheres, but a concert of the planets. By the way, I do think that though it will be smaller than that future planet in India, the present Anglosphere will always be older and battle-tested in the evolutionary sense. It will in fact be the adoptive parent of that planet of new dreams and hopes by which Hindi and other languages there with its vast and ancient poetry becomes a part of the Anglosphere Narrative. (though it might "sound" more Dravidian or Brahminic than Anglican or 'Stryan).

Now where did I get THAT idea Jim? Thanks again.

Posted by: Rizalist at December 5, 2005 06:33 PM

Rizalist, you (and Peggy Mohan) make an important point: English is where the action is, whether that action is scientific, technical, legal, or commercial. That won't always be the case (Greek yielded to Latin, Latin to French, French to English), but it is now -- and it does seem that for many people the expression of scientific, technical, legal, and commercial concepts in English is closely tied to the Anglospheric memes of free inquiry, relentless innovation, common law, and entrepreneurialism.

Posted by: Peter Saint-Andre at December 5, 2005 08:39 PM

When I was studying chemistry in the U, I had the interesting experience of trying to learn chemistry's chinese equivalents.

When I got to organic chemistry, the chinese methodology for naming compounds was so convoluted that I gave up in favor of the english IUPAC system. Science and technology are simply too dominated by the english language for anybody to try doing it in any other language.

It is a huge edge.

Posted by: The Wobbly Guy at December 6, 2005 04:22 AM

The Old Core Anglosphere is about 400 million going on 450. India is around a billion, but I think it may take two generations to get to 80% English fluency there. So maybe 800 million Indo-English speakers by 2050 or 2070, thereabouts. The core Anglosphere would not go away or be reduced to insignificance, in such a world, but it would definitely be highly influenced by whatever that anglophone India would have become. It will surely be as strange and unimaginable to us as today's Japan would be to some old Meiji-era relic.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at December 6, 2005 06:59 AM

I spent a semester in Sri Lanka and have dealt with many Indians in the business world. English is already the language of business and education in both countries. I saw no evidence of the native languages dying any more than Spanish is disappearing from Puerto Rico.

The language and business ties to English speaking nations are, I believe, accelerating their integration into the Angloshepere.

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