No language in history has dominated the world quite like English does today. Is there any point in resisting? By Jacob Mikanowski
“Behemoth, bully, loudmouth, thief: English is everywhere, and everywhere, English dominates. From inauspicious beginnings on the edge of a minor European archipelago, it has grown to vast size and astonishing influence. Almost 400m people speak it as their first language; a billion more know it as a secondary tongue. It is an official language in at least 59 countries, the unofficial lingua franca of dozens more. No language in history has been used by so many people or spanned a greater portion of the globe. It is aspirational: the golden ticket to the worlds of education and international commerce, a parent’s dream and a student’s misery, winnower of the haves from the have-nots. It is inescapable: the language of global business, the internet, science, diplomacy, stellar navigation, avian pathology. And everywhere it goes, it leaves behind a trail of dead: dialects crushed, languages forgotten, literatures mangled.”
“For a millennium or more, English was a great importer of words, absorbing vocabulary from Latin, Greek, French, Hindi, Nahuatl and many others. During the 20th century, though, as the US became the dominant superpower and the world grew more connected, English became a net exporter of words. In 2001, Manfred Görlach, a German scholar who studies the dizzying number of regional variants of English – he is the author of the collections Englishes, More Englishes, Still More Englishes, and Even More Englishes – published the Dictionary of European Anglicisms, which gathers together English terms found in 16 European languages. A few of the most prevalent include “last-minute”, “fitness”, “group sex”, and a number of terms related to seagoing and train travel.”
…Looking again at Sapir-Whorf…
“The German explorer Alexander von Humboldt was among the first to articulate it in a complex form. After studying Amerindian languages in the New World, he came to the conclusion that every language “draws a circle” around its speakers, creating a distinct worldview through its grammar as well as in its vocabulary. In the 20th century, the American linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf elaborated this idea into a broader vision of how language structures thought. Both drew inspiration for their work from their study of North American languages such as Nootka, Shawnee and Hopi.This idea – now usually known as the linguistic relativity hypothesis, or Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – has had a checkered history in academia. At different times, it has been hailed by it proponents as foundational insight for modern anthropology and literary theory, and blamed by its detractors as the source of the worst excesses of postmodern philosophy. In recent decades, sociolinguists have arrived at a few startlingly suggestive findings concerning the influence of language on colour perception, orientation and verbs of motion – but in general, the more expansive notion that different languages inculcate fundamentally different ways of thinking has not been proven.
“Nonetheless, some version of this idea continues to find supporters, not least among writers familiar with shifting between languages. Here is the memoirist Eva Hoffman on the experience of learning English in Vancouver while simultaneously feeling cut off from the Polish she had grown up speaking as a teenager in Kraków: “This radical disjointing between word and thing is a desiccating alchemy, draining the world not only of significance but of its colours, striations, nuances – its very existence. It is the loss of a living connection.” The Chinese writer Xiaolu Guo described something similar in her recent memoir, writing about how uncomfortable she felt, at first, with the way the English language encouraged speakers to use the first-person singular, rather than plural. “After all, how could someone who had grown up in a collective society get used to using the first-person singular all the time? … But here, in this foreign country, I had to build a world as a first-person singular – urgently.”
Imprisoned in English
“In the 1970s, Anna Wierzbicka, a linguist who found herself marooned in Australia after a long career in Polish academia, stood the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis on its head. Instead of trying to describe the worldviews of distant hunter-gatherers, she turned her sociolinguistic lens on the surrounding anglophones. For Wierzbicka, English shapes its speakers as powerfully as any other language. It’s just that in an anglophone world, that invisible baggage is harder to discern. In a series of books culminating in 2013’s evocatively named Imprisoned in English, she has attempted to analyse various assumptions – social, spatial, emotional and otherwise – latent in English spoken by the middle and upper classes in the US and UK.
“Reading Wierzbicka’s work is like peeking through a magic mirror that inverts the old “how natives think” school of anthropology and turns it back on ourselves. Her English-speakers are a pragmatic people, cautious in their pronouncements and prone to downplaying their emotions. They endlessly qualify their remarks according to their stance towards what is being said. Hence their endless use of expressions such as “I think”, “I believe”, “I suppose”, “I understand”, “I suspect”. They prefer fact over theories, savour “control” and “space”, and cherish autonomy over intimacy. Their moral lives are governed by a tightly interwoven knot of culture-specific concepts called “right” and “wrong”, which they mysteriously believe to be universal.