German Is Getting Sexy Again. Again.

The controverse reaction to Edward’s use of a French block quote in a blog that claims to be the place for intelligent English language coverage of European affairs, made me remember my first blogging conversation. It was a discussion about Germans not publishing in English and the stipulation by the Norwegian blogger Bj?rn St?rk that ??nothing beautiful or sensible should ever be written in Norwegian, if it could be written in English.? So after speaking French all evening, and in light of the above mentioned comments as well as my imminent visit to the Frankfurt International Book Fair (link in English) I felt compelled to recycle my defence of linguistic diversity as a virtue of its own right, which was first published in a slightly different version in almost a diary on February 2nd, 2003.


Bj?rn St?rk had a look around the web and was astonished by the fact that he could find relatively few European, particularly German and French, (particularly political) blogs published in English. Contemplating the deeper issue at hand – the relation of national cultures and supra-national languages – in this case English – in an age of global interaction – Bj?rn made an interesting argument concerning cultural imperialism, linguistic protectionism, linguistic economies of scale and scope as well as the advantages of publishing in English instead of one?s native language.

No doubt about it – English has become some sort lingua franca in many respects.



Who doubts that an age of global interaction needs a way to communicate beyond hands, feet and other body parts’ interactions? Those are clearly sufficient to guarantee human procreation, but as soon as things become a bit more tricky – which is not entirely unlikely in a globalised knowledge economy – they won’t carry the communicative day. And it will still take years, if not decades, for automatic translation to become useful. As long as hands and feet are a more reliable means of communication than electronically created translations, we will actually need to sit down and learn foreign languages ? and one above all others.


There is hardly any language which could challenge the English dominance. Given India’s British colonial history as well as her linguistic fragmentation, there’s only one, in my opinion: Mandarin. Assuming a rapidly growing Chinese economy, Mandarin could become a lingua franca, too. But I am not too sure of that – it might simply be too late, as more than a billion Chinese, eager to contribute to the world economy, are equally eager to learn English, whereas the rest of the world is not too keen to learn Mandarin – ask *me* in seven years, as I bet a friend from Singapore that I will be able to speak at least a little Mandarin in 2010. Not least for this reason, Mandarin will become important. But it probably will not rival English in terms of global penetration.


Two weeks ago, in preparation of last week’s “Elys?e Treaty” celebrations, the German weekly “Die Zeit” printed an interview (in German and French) with the French education minister Luc Ferry. Mr Ferry interestingly, and rightly, remarked that


“English as a language has to be treated differently.”


It is no longer just a foreign language. It has become a cultural technique, just like using the phone or sending emails. Today, less than 25% of Germans ever attempt to learn French (let alone speak it), less than 20% of the French try to learn German. Most Franco-German cooperation is handled in bad English these days.


And for everyone but the native speakers English, as a cultural technique, is about to solve an important problem that usually arises the more the better one speaks a foreign language. The better your use of a foreign language in a conversation, the more will native speakers assume that you also know the correct social code transmitted by the words you use as well as the correct instance for their application. But in all likelihood you will not be too familiar with a significant amount of semiotic subtleties in any given culture and language. Cultural misunderstandings are much more likely in this case than if both parties speak in a foreign language.


While this is very helpful for non-native speakers, it also means that native English speakers lose some of the advantage they have. They no longer control the development of their own native language beyond its application in their own culture. English, as a cultural technique, is likely to come in different semantic and possibly even syntactic flavours, spiced up with local cultural ingredients – far beyond the subtle problems arising from the use of ?fit bird? in the US or ?hot fox? in Britain.


As more and more people speak English, it will probably become more and more difficult to imply. A great example illustrating this is a story I once heard about an British woman working for the UN in New York. One day, she went to see her gynaecologist only to realise he had sold his practice to an Italian who called himself “doctor for women and other diseases”. She tried to explain the error but the doctor insisted that it was perfect Italian-English.


Seriously, we will have to explain a lot more in the future. Just think about the current transatlantic communication problems. We might have a rough idea of what is being said ? but I can’t help but wonder – do we really understand it? The more we hear from each other in (roughly) the same words, the more our cultural differences will become a nuisance to real understanding – there are also disadvantages to publishing in English. Clearly more noise? But more signal?


Having said all this, I would like point out that I agree with much of what Bj?rn St?rk says regarding the value of publishing in English – particularly when he writes that

“[t]o practice linguistic protectionism in this age is cultural suicide.”


[ NOTE: But I don’t believe linguistic protectionism carries the day when it comes to explaining the absence of political blogs from, say, Germany or France, that are published in English. I don?t think there?s a simple explanation for their relative scarcity, apart from the obvious truism that English is not the native language of most European countries – as the discussion regarding Bjoern’s entry amply demonstrates. I think, the most important variables have been named by those commenting in his blog ? penetration of internet connection, especially flat-rate connections allowing to spend a significant amount online reading, awareness of blogging as a concept as well as a technology, motivation to put one?s opinion out there? someone mentioned a possible connection between 9/11 and a rise in blogging -, the main topics of the blog in question, one?s native language?s market size, the target audience, and evidently, the ability to write in English in a way allowing to express sometimes complicated issues and thoughts in a (hopefully) clear and mostly coherent manner. Just by looking at this range of factors (and there are probably a lot more), it becomes obvious to me that c.p. only a small fraction of blogs will be written in English instead of their author?s native language. ]


However, he also makes some points I have a hard time to swallow (which he actually expected)). Most importantly, his assumptions that


“[l]anguage isn’t culture??,


and that


“[m]ost of the _new_ contributions to Western culture are being made by the US and Great Britain?”,


which then lead him to the conclusion that


??nothing beautiful or sensible should ever be written in Norwegian, if it could be written in English.?


I again entirely agree with him that it is crucial for Europe, especially the larger linguistic markets in Europe, to

?? drop our linguistic pride, get out of the audience and get onto the stage.?


I?ve been saying for years that having a large linguistic market can create problematic incentives if a larger one is around the corner, especially in academia. A lot of German professors still do not publish in English because the German market is sufficiently big to scientifically survive without doing so. Being exempt from competition has never really benefited anyone in the long run. And it doesn?t in this case.


But there are things which can not ? and which should not ? be said in English. Abstracting from the brain-busting problem what contributions to Western culture actually are, I believe it is far from true that most of them are now being made by the US and Great Britain – certainly not in relative terms. If they are marketed in English, it is probably a sign of quality, as someone has deemed it useful to translate them and put them on the world stage. However, evolutionary variation is what made the Western model of social coordination a success story. Thus, in some respects, and I believe also in the linguistic one, diversity is a value in its own right.


Once again omitting impossible definitions, I would agree that ?culture? does not only consist of language. But language is a very important part of culture. Just think of slang, think of thirteen year-olds inventing their own words to represent their own worlds, think of the fit birds and the hot foxes mentioned above. Even British English and American English are quite different today. Differences in language reflect differences in culture and thinking. I very vividly remember a discussion of three Norwegian fellow students at the LSE in a seminar concerning ethnic conflict regulation about which language is the real ?Norwegian?. Their discussion was a clear sign to me that, also in Norway, language is an important part of culture.


Using English, the cultural technique, will keep us afloat on the ocean of global interaction. But it will not enable us to see the beautiful maritime vegetation underneath the ocean’s surface. Even in Amsterdam, where almost everybody speaks perfect English (see my entries from December 2002), no one will ever be able to really understand Dutch culture without speaking their language ? all the risks of misunderstanding included. Cultural deep diving is never easy, always an adventure, but fortunately, mostly a rewarding one.


English, the cultural technique, will not enable non-German-speakers to find out first hand just why this entry is titled “German is getting sexy again.” Although, luckily, this WIRED article offers some diving advice ;-).

29 thoughts on “German Is Getting Sexy Again. Again.

  1. Mandarin may overtake English as a world language… in 2030 or 2050 (if Chinese GDP overtakes America GDP). I wouldn’t mind learning the language myself. What deters me is the extreme number of charactes I would have to learn in the process. English has the advantage that it is an alphabetic language with a small number of characters to memorize. And when you are learning a new language, it is nice to be able to read it, even if you don’t understand what it says.

    English has an indirect effect as well; unlike most other European languages, it does not use diacritics. A lot of computer hardware and software were designed for the UK-USA market first, Europe next, and then belately adapted for internationalization. So putting those umlauts and acutes and breves are a little bit harder. Not so much if you have the right sort of keyboard (as was common in Finland).

    I’m living in Việt Nam at the moment. Vietnamese is a diacritic-infested language, with wierd and wonderful characters such as ư, ơ, ộ, ầ, đ and ẵ present. But many people seem not to know how to enter these into their messages, or don’t seem to care. So you end up with long messages shorn of the diacritics. It’s a shame, really.

  2. Peter, you’ve gotten to one of the reasons why Mandarin, despite the prophecies to the contrary, will NEVER be a world language. It is simply too hard to read and write! Functional literacy in China is a LOT lower than is perceived when one looks at Communist Party statistics, and in Japan, which uses a Chinese-derived orthography, it usually takes up to the end of high-school to learn the 1,945 kanji that are regarded as the bare minimum for reading a newspaper.

    Another factor people fail to take into account is that the various Chinese LANGUAGES (they are too different in practice to qualify as mere “dialects”) are tonal in nature, which makes them far more difficult to learn for speakers of atonal languages of the sort that are common in Europe. I know one tonal language myself – Yoruba – and I never cease to be amused when I encounter people who can’t see what the difference is between the way they say my name, and the way I tell them it OUGHT to be said; the usual response is “Huh? What’s the difference? I just said precisely that!”

    Finally, one reason why Chinese won’t ever displace English is that thanks to the British Empire, the English language is already the common language of discourse over several parts of the globe, including North America, most of Africa (by population, if not by land area), South Asia and Australasia. No other language has anything like the same geographic reach in combination with population.

    Now, speaking about German in particular, I have to say that by comparison with any other language I’ve ever studied, German has honestly been a breeze to learn, for the obvious reason that it is so very similar to English. There is a huge amount of shared vocabulary to begin with, and an acquaintance with the language of the King James Version of the Bible suffices to ensure that the syntactical structures of German aren’t all that strange to the ear. Even the German penchant for compound words is also present in the English language, though it isn’t carried to the same extremes. The real problem for the English-speaker wishing to learn German, or any of the other languages of Europe other than French, is finding opportunities to put one’s skills to use, short of travelling to Central Europe. This is a problem one doesn’t have learning English, as the world is saturated with English-language media.

  3. An interesting aspect of the Chinese language:
    The pronounciation of a specific character might be completely different in Mandarin and in Cantonese – but it’s meaning ist the same.
    This means, that a native from Beijing might not be able to understand what a native from Hong Kongs _speaks_, but he will have no problem _reading_ and understanding a Hong Kong newspaper.

    This peculiarity of Chinese is actually an ASSET when it comes to being a lingua franca for global communication:
    People all over the world could write and read chinese without being able to actually SPEAK proper mandarin.

    In western languages it is of course exactly the opposite:
    I don’t speak Swedish for instance. But when I read a Swedish sentence I might be able to guess (more or less) what the right pronounciation is – without having a clue about the meaning.

  4. “This peculiarity of Chinese is actually an ASSET when it comes to being a lingua franca for global communication:
    People all over the world could write and read chinese without being able to actually SPEAK proper mandarin.”

    This is nothing unique to Chinese, and it isn’t much of an argument for Chinese as a lingua franca. An exactly analogous situation holds in Europe with German – Schwyzerd?tsch and Hochdeutsch are very different when spoken, but identical when written.

    The fact remains that to be truly literate in Chinese, one has to master several THOUSAND different ideograms, and only a small percentage of the Chinese population are truly able to accomplish this feat, even today. If those who must use Chinese on a daily basis find mastering their script so difficult, what hope is there for those who would only use it as a language of cultural interchange, especially when the “English language + Roman script” combo is already at hand?

    There is absolutely ZERO chance of Chinese ever becoming a global lingua franca.

  5. “one has to master several THOUSAND different ideograms”

    times two, because there are two different character sets: Traditional and Simplified. (Well, OK, they’re not *entirely* different, so maybe it’s really “times 1.7” or so.)

  6. Abiola,

    “you’ve gotten to one of the reasons why Mandarin, despite the prophecies to the contrary, will NEVER be a world language. It is simply too hard to read and write!”

    That reminded me of an engaging dinner conversation I had long ago with the correspondent of a Japanese newspaper who had been posted to London. With excellent English, he said that he had thought he would use the opportunity of his overseas posting to teach himself Chinese but gave up because Chinese in its syntax was too much like a European language despite characters used in Japanese as well.

    Another fascinating insight from that same conversation was him telling me about his personal name: Eichiro, which roughly translates into, “excellent first son”. He was born in Tokyo shortly after Pearl Harbor. When his father went to the police station to register his birth as required, he said the police questioned him as to why he was registering a name which started with the character of Japan’s enemy – the character for “Ei”, meaning “excellent”, being the same character in Japanese for England, an outcome of Japan’s close relations with Britain c. 1900.

    I came to have the dreadful thought that when Japan gave up its self-imposed isolation with the Meiji Revolution in 1868, the world it then learned about was where Britain had invaded China and fought a series of wars there for the right to sell opium to the Chinese, gaining Hong Kong as the result of one of the peace treaties.

    From a Japanese perspective, that was how a world superpower behaved. They modelled their navy accordingly and bought battleships from Britain, all of which lead in due course to the Russian-Japanese war of 1904-5 with the complete destruction at the Battle of Tsushima of a Russian battlefleet sent round the world from the Baltic to exact retribution for an attack on Port Arthur in 1904 by the Japanese fleet. In terms of the numbers of warships engaged, Tsushima was the largest sea battle fought in the 20th century; only two boats of the Russia fleet survived whereas the Japanese capital ships were hit many times, none sank, some testimony to the armour plating of the Japanese fleet.

    Russia’s catastrophic loss of its battlefleet lead its Black Sea fleet to mutiny, as celebrated in Eisenstein’s renowned movie Battleship Potemkin, and gave further impetus to revolutionary movements in Russia culminating in the 1917 revolution.

    You know who to blame now.

  7. Nice one Bob. This is way off topic, but fascinating on a grey Saturday afternoon. The Japanese were encouraged in their ambitions in the war you mention of 1905, by their relative success in an earlier Sino-Japanese war of 1895. On this occasion the Japanese saw their endeavors rewarded with a hefty dose of gold reparations from China. And here commences a very interesting story.

    Former BoJ governor Fukai Eigo recounts in his memoirs that the Japanese had a problem knowing what to do with all the gold, until that is, they read John Maynard Keynes.

    Under the influence of Keynes ‘Indian Currency and Finance’ the Japanese launched a policy of leaving its gold and sterling assets on deposit in London, thus allowing the British to manage their assets in much the same way they managed the assets of colonies such as India. One detail worthy of note is that Keynes singled out the fact that as long as the colonies maintained the profits of their trade with the mother country in the City, fears over the strain on the British economy produced by chronic deficits with the colonies were misplaced (does this remind anyone of anything?). In fact Mikuni and Murphy (in Japan’s Policy Trap) draw the following conclusions from all this:

    “The handling of the Chinese gold reparations marked the begining of a policy that continues to this day, and functions as one of Japans most critical tools in exchange rate management. Japan’s policy elite learned that when the country acquired external reserves , it needed to do so in a manner that did not antagonize powerful foreign countries.”

    OK that’s it, I hope this isn’t too lateral and obscure. I think Bob, in taking us towards the intellectual origins of modern Japan, is opening a fascinating can of worms. Funny thing history.

  8. Modern Chinese uses about 4,000 characters, and 75% of them are the same between the traditional and simplified characters. Most of the rest are different in systematic ways that aren’t, by themselves, terribly complicated. Chinese characters are not indepedently meaningful and written Cantonese is distinguishable from written Mandarin. Chinese has a very different kind of morphology from English, but it does have morphology, and each charater can still have a variety of meanings, but usually represents only one sound (although there are exceptions.)

    However, the reason why Japanese uses Chinese characters in part, and why Korean and Vietnamese used to, is because once upon a time Chinese was a widespread interlingua, a fact which undermines the case for it never, ever, being able to have that position again.

    Literacy in Taiwan is around 95%, and difficult to recognise characters are often accompanied with rubies, just like they are in Japan. As much of a barrier as tones are to learning Chinese, phonological stress is just as hard to master for people used to fixed stress patterns. This is one of the reasons why English is relatively hard for romance language speakers and why francophones who speak English sound so different from Germans who speak English.

    There is nothing especially eternal about the current position of English in the world. Nothing. Rome was once a big deal too, as was China. It was less than two centuries ago when virtually anyone in Europe or the Americas with an education worthy of mention spoke French. And besides, two-thirds of Quebecois are not able to communicate in English. If such a large number of Canadians don’t speak English, how much less hold do you think English has in a place like Thailand?

    Besides, Mandarin is not the only competitor. The Spanish speaking world isn’t, on the whole, much poorer than China and the demographics are even more in their favour.

  9. Let’s face it, we are all much more comfortable with our native languages than with English. If I write in English, I have to limit my thoughts to what I can actually express in English. Instead of saying what I want to say in a short and direct fashion using the right words with the right connotations, I have to work around my lack of vocabulary by writing long descriptive sentences such as this one instead. Therefore I suspect that my English makes me look stupid to a native English speaker. With my native language, there is no such problem.

    Therefore (my lack of English vocabulary forces me to use this word again here and thus making the text seem repetitive and stupid) I feel that Bj?rn St?rks idea that nothing beautiful and sensitive should be written in Norwegian is a stupid idea. If people on Norway were to take that advice seriously, I believe that we would see a decline in beautiful and sensitive thoughts coming from Norway. Or at least the thoughts would seem less beautiful and sensible when they reach us than they would if they had been first expressed in Norwegian and then translated by a good translator.

    Or is everyone here really so proficient in English that this is no problem?

    (Writing this short text took me about twenty minutes and I had to look in the dictionary several times. I would no doubt have written it both better and quicker in Swedish. But then of course you would not have been able to understand it…)

  10. Tobias, I wrote some posts a while back on my personal blog in which I took a dim view of the idea of assigning diversity an intrinsic value, and offered instead another justification.

    English isn’t like other foreign languages – that’s true – and probably shouldn’t be treated like it is. But, that is a purely pragmatic situation, one sustained almost entirely by the size and wealth of the United States and not for any other reason. There is no magic about English that separates it from the political and economic structures that sustain it.

    However, the status of English does not necessarily mean that every other language in the world should be assigned a second class status. I note that in virtually every country in the world, no matter how much American media they’re exposed to, the number one movie and the most popular TV show is almost inevitably locally made. Even in Belgium, which has some of the worst locally made TV that I’ve ever seen.

    I think this idea of universal bilingualism with English is really a non-starter. Where it has more or less come to pass is in relatively small countries, most of which speak Germanic languages. The rest: Singapore, Malta, Finland, Cyprus – all very small, very well-to-do nations. Except for Finalnd, each has been ruled by the UK at one time. And even in those cases, English knowledge is far from perfect. Scandinavian engineers are notorious for thinking that they write better English than they do. In Flanders, fluent English is not a majority thing.

    Even in wealthy countries that have made no special effort towards language protection, places where English is tantamount to manditory in school – Italy, Japan and Greece for example – there is little chance of universal English taking root. And in relatively poor Anglophone nations, Jamaica for example, the variety of English in use on the street is nearly incomprehensible. Heck, even in some wealthier places – say Scotland or Hawaii – what gets spoken is often at the outer limit of what can be called English.

    A global single language isn’t an option, and to whatever degree the internationalisation of English shouldn’t be resisted, it doesn’t seem right to go out of one’s way to support it either. The trend is towards placing more value on local languages, not less. Even in Sweden, where English is extremely well established, there is debate about whether state policies on English are making it harder for immigrants to integrate into Swedish society. I think the tables have turned on universal English, and that in Europe and Asia at least, the trend is towards a broader and notion of multilingualism.

  11. Just to add another wrinkle in the mix:

    Arabic is another ‘world language’ that isn’t going to disappear anytime soon.

    Although, consider this:
    My wife has a Syrian co-worker who can mostly understand Iraqi Arabic; but since both Syria and Iraq have had infusions of word-concepts from their former colonizers (France and England respectively); the Arabic they speak doesn’t have quite the same vocabulary.

  12. Ok, I know it’s off topic.
    But after all, it was Bob who started it…

    > Tsushima was the largest sea battle fought in the 20th century.

    Not true.
    The largest battle-ship battle in history was the Battle of Jutland in World War I between Great-Britain and Germany, which – like the battle of Tsushima – had an interesting result:
    Germany had the upper hand in the battle – and yet the battle was one of the reasons, why Germany lost the war.

    The story:
    Great Britain had twice as many ships in the battle plus tactical advantage – and yet lost twice as many ships and sailors in the encounter.
    The German losses were severe enough though, to force the remaining German fleet to stay in port until the end of the war. Germany instead took up the unrestricted u-boat campaign, which brouhgt the USA into the war – and shortly before the end of the war, the bored German sailors, who had to stay in harbour for years, began a rebellion which led to revolution in Germany.

  13. English has, IMO, some advantages to any other language, including german, my mothertongue.
    It’s easy. I mean, I learned Latin first, then started English and I was so happy about it being so easy. No grammar to drive you mad, no Ablative, no confusing endings, just plain language. Great! I had my journeys into Russian, Turkish and (of course) Italian and French, but I always found them way harder to learn than english (so I stopped learning the others at a low level).
    Adding to the easy grammar comes that wherever you are, you hear and see english.
    I learned english and flamish both when I was watching american TV series on flamish TV with subitles. The first LP’s I bought (yes I’m really that old, my first music were LP’s not this CD’s ;-)) had english booklest and I was figuring out each word. I’ll never forget the first english song I could completely understand (Mr. Roboto from Styx) and this “practical” angle made it so much easier for me to learn english.
    Today, in central Europe, everything you do with the Computer leads you, more or less, to english speaking stuff. Be it SPAM Mail or whatever so people who want to be Computer-literate have to be at least brave in english.
    And the last – english speaking people are way more tolerant against foreigners stumbling around in their language than germans (and I guess many others) ever would be. They are used that everyone has his go wioth their language so mostly they don’t mind, while improper german use will always tempt someone to stand up and correct you.

  14. Hi Edward,

    You are right. It was a dull Saturday afternoon but the stories are true and connect with the thread. We can learn something of the different conceptions and consequences of the ideographic scripts of Chinese and Japanese compared with our alphabetic scripts in European languages. Ideographic characters usually each embody a meaning, whereas individual alphabetic characters do not.

    The Japanese are famously highly literate by all the surveys I’ve seen – and regularly come at or near the top of most international league tables of achievement standards of school students. However, a British Japanese studies academic I knew had a (somewhat unfriendly) party trick of asking Japanese visitors to write certain (infrequently used) characters which they often couldn’t, so he would, which only goes to show that even the Japanese can’t recall all the 1,000 something Chinese characters officially incorporated in Japanese script out of the several thousand characters used at sometime in Chinese. Computers and word processors are a real boon in these languages – a Japanese typewriter is a complicated piece of machinery that is difficult and ponderous to use, which helps to explain the powerful incentive to develop dot-matrix printers for computers.

    When the Japanese had awakened to the rest of the world after the Meiji Revolution it sent out official missions, the Iwa Kura missions of the 1870s, to discover what was going on and report back. Comparisons with Britain were inevitable. Japan is a set of islands to the east of the Euro-Asian land mass just as Britain is an island off the west coast of Europe, yet the respective histories are hugely different, including how English came to be a world language. One half serious theory proposed to account for that is prevailing winds are westerlies, which gives particular advantage to sailing warships travelling with the wind and handicaps ships that have to tack against the wind in sea battles.

    Even so, another curious piece of relating history is about Will Adams, a ship’s navigator from Gillingham, Kent, who was shipwrecked off Japan’s coast c. 1600 and somehow came to be taken up as an adviser to a feudal lord who went on to become the first of the dynasty of Tokugawa shoguns which effectively ruled Japan through to the Meiji Revolution that restored the emperor’s pre-eminent position. The Tokugawa shoguns later imposed the isolation rule making it a capital offence to travel abroad without official sanction and Japan bacame locked in a time warp as a result. There are a couple of shrines to Will Adams in Japan and a street in Tokyo is named after him – Anjin cho, literally, pilot man street. He never made it back to Britain. The TV movie Shogun was losely based on him.

    I mention all this to remind ourselves that historical events can have distant consequences which we often can’t foresee. Of course we know that from the butterly effect in chaos theory but then we often tend to forget it.

    Hi Johan – You are doing well and raise the interesting philosophical issue of whether concepts and our comprehension of reality are constrained by language – but I guess that is why Newton came to develop calculus.

    Hi Florian – I’ll take your word for it about the Battle of Jutland although that is not what I’ve read about Tsushima in sources I can’t now retrieve. Btw it was said of Britain’s navy at the time of sailing ships that most of the best designed and built ships in it had been captures in sea battles.

  15. “However, the reason why Japanese uses Chinese characters in part, and why Korean and Vietnamese used to, is because once upon a time Chinese was a widespread interlingua, a fact which undermines the case for it never, ever, being able to have that position again.”

    This is simply not true, not in the modern sense. Chinese was at best understood by a handful of scholars in Heian when Chinese orthography was originally adopted for use in the Japanese language. Even then, this tiny elite found writing with Chinese characters so unsuited to their language that the majority of worthwhile literature from 700 to 1100 AD was written by women like Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikibu, who were free to write in hiragana, and thus unencumbered by the difficulties their male counterparts faced.

    Speaking from hard experience, I can tell you that it takes even gifted learners working in an immersive environment on the order of four years just to master the 1945 characters of the Joyo Kanji character set that are the very minimum required by Japan’s ministry of education for those seeking university entrance; in practice, real literacy requires recognition of at least twice as many characters. There is simply no way that any language like Chinese that utilizes such a clumsy writing system will ever displace one as easy to read and write as English is.

    “And in relatively poor Anglophone nations, Jamaica for example, the variety of English in use on the street is nearly incomprehensible.”

    To statements like the above, that suggest that the varieties of English in existence are so different as to be mutually incomprehensible, I say “poppycock!” Britons, South Africans, Aussies, Americans and Canadians understand each other perfectly well, regardless of the (very) minor differences in spelling and vocabulary that occur amongst their various national standards.

    Educated Nigerians and Ghanaians can understand all these other types of English with absolutely no problems whatsoever, while it only takes a few weeks of “acclimatization” for your average English or American speaker to get used to the sound of the African variants. The same is true of the varieties of English spoken in South Asia – I’ve had plenty of experience dealing with Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, and their English is as clear to me as it is possible to get. In fact, I find the average Indian easier to understand than someone from northern England or Scotland!

    In sum, the divergence between the various forms of English is wildly overstated, especially in comparison to a language like German that shows so much variation over such a small area that Frankfurters and Austrians suffer from mutual incomprehension when they switch to their local dialects. To try to use Jamaican Patois (which is a language in its’ own right, and NOT a variety of English, even if it sounds like it – no more than is West African Pidgin) as an example of linguistic divergence is simply to indulge in an illegitimate comparison. Educated Jamaicans switch into standard English usage easily enough whenever the need arises.

  16. “This is simply not true, not in the modern sense. Chinese was at best understood by a handful of scholars in Heian when Chinese orthography was originally adopted for use in the Japanese language.”

    That doesn’t sound any different from the modern state of English in most of the world. If being spoken by large groups of people from all social classes is what it takes to make something a global language, English is a local language spoken in part of North America and a bit of northern Europe. As you pointed out, even in Jamaica, it’s generally only the educated people who have no difficulty handling standard English, and that in a nominally anglophone country.

    “To statements like the above, that suggest that the varieties of English in existence are so different as to be mutually incomprehensible, I say “poppycock!” Britons, South Africans, Aussies, Americans and Canadians understand each other perfectly well, regardless of the (very) minor differences in spelling and vocabulary that occur amongst their various national standards. ”

    Neatly excluding any of the places I named. Abiola, you seriously underestimate the degree of divergence that exists in English. When I moved from New Jersey to Indiana as a teenager, I couldn’t always get people to understand me unless I talked slowly. Passive knowledge of newscaster English is pretty widespread. Active verbal and written skills in standard English – whatever that is – is far less widespread outside of the educated elite, even in the US and the UK.

    You could, of course, simply define English as the variant languages that you – or some representative monolingual person – can understand, in which case there is of course not terribly much diversity in the English language. But then, there is about the same amount of diversity in German, since the inability of some German speaker to understand Lower Saxon or Schwytzerduutsch makes those into other languages. It’s a tautological argument.

    I stand by my point. French in the 18th and 19th centuries was the language of the elite all over Europe. Chinese in the Song and Ming dynasties was the language of the elite in a large part of Asia, certainly in all the areas that were at least nominally Confucian. Latin was the language of the European elite before French was. Hindi/Urdu was largely the language of the elite in pre-British India (and didn’t change that much when the British arrived.) The current status of English is not very different. It is not the language of German bricklayers, or even of Flemish ones. It is the language of the elite, if even that, in all of the non-anglophone parts of the world except Scandianvia and perhaps the Low Countries, and I’m not sure about the Low Countries.

  17. Increasingly, if casual observation in Munich is a guide, the language of bricklayers in Germany is not German, but Polish.

  18. Strange that all of you focus on the “lingua franca” aspect (in english!). My attention goes to the “few European, particularly German and French, (particularly political) blogs published in English” part.
    Although I found out that the sitemeter-figures are too low (the actual numbers can be doubled or something like that) a steady 500 visitors every day is nice but a very small number compared with some US-blogs. Is it just a matter of time to catch up with the US in this respect or will the language barrier keep us from reaching the goals of a really useful (effective) exchange of ideas?

  19. “As you pointed out, even in Jamaica, it’s generally only the educated people who have no difficulty handling standard English,”

    You insist on misunderstanding a point I’ve already tried to make clear – Jamaican Patois is a creole which draws heavily on English as well as other languages, but it is NOT English. It is a totally different LANGUAGE, in the LINGUIST’s sense of the word, with very different grammatical structures from English, and NOT just a part of a single dialect-chain, as is the case with Dutch/Flemish, Low Saxon, and the different variants of High German. You both fool yourself and belittle the Jamaican language by insisting on pretending that the situations are at all comparable.

    “Chinese in the Song and Ming dynasties was the language of the elite in a large part of Asia, certainly in all the areas that were at least nominally Confucian.”

    Chinese was NEVER the language of the elite in Japan, which did adopt the values of Confucianism, so your argument is refuted right there. That a few scholars understood Chinese does NOT imply that the Japanese elite used Chinese in the same sort of manner that Russian aristocrats once spoke French.

    “English is the language of the elite, if even that, in all of the non-anglophone parts of the world except Scandianvia and perhaps the Low Countries, and I’m not sure about the Low Countries.”

    How strange it is, then, that EU statistics indicate that 50% of Europe’s young people claim to be comfortable speaking English. Some “elite” you have when you’re talking about half of the entire under-30 generation! The statistics flatly contradict your thesis, amigo.

  20. “Although I found out that the sitemeter-figures are too low (the actual numbers can be doubled or something like that) a steady 500 visitors every day is nice but a very small number compared with some US-blogs. Is it just a matter of time to catch up with the US in this respect or will the language barrier keep us from reaching the goals of a really useful (effective) exchange of ideas?”

    I don’t think language barriers have much to do with it. The real problem is the Zipfian distribution of weblog traffic, and the difficulty newcomers have in getting linked to by the most widely read bloggers, particularly given the America-centric focus of most such individuals.

    The truth is that most Americans, even the relatively well-informed ones, don’t care too much what goes on in Europe, as long as it has no immediate bearing on America’s domestic affairs. If you were willing to subcontract as loyal partisans of the GOP or the Democratic Party, I’m sure your traffic would soon skyrocket, as the likes of Calpundit, Atrios and Instapundit sought you out for ammunition for the cause, but I wonder if that’s the sort of niche you’re really seeking to occupy.

  21. Abiola,

    Thinking about your comment it strikes me that
    there are a large number of americans who are
    well-informed about what people think in Britain
    and Australia compared to, say, ten years ago. More
    astonishing, the political discourse in these
    three countries is now merging. Or perhaps I should
    say the tendency toward common argument is stronger
    than ever before.

    On the other hand the number of americans who have
    any understanding of the different tides of thought
    in, say, Germany, has barely changed.

    The reason for that, I believe, has everything to do
    with the situation that if you are an english speaker
    and do not speak german it’s so difficult to find
    authentic voicings of germans in english.

  22. “I found out that the sitemeter-figures are too low” – this makes my day, but any information on where you found out Frans?

    “the Zipfian distribution of weblog traffic” – this is true Abiola, but it begs the question as to whether European blogging can become a separate domain, or will always be part of the US blogsphere (this is not anti-US BTW, it’s simply saying that we may have other interests than Davis/Bustamante, Rush Limbaugh or the Plame affair). Put it this way, London doesn’t have to be small because New York is big, but Liverpool does get to be small because London is big.

    “Is it just a matter of time to catch up with the US in this respect or will the language barrier keep us from reaching the goals of a really useful (effective) exchange of ideas?”

    This is a very big and important question, important not only vis-a-vis blogging, but for the whole EU project. My own feeling is an optimistic one. I think we Europeans are ‘late adopters’, but we will come. The big issue is to get blogs to a wider audience. Following up on Abiola’s structural point, we have too many closed nets. We need to have more ‘connectors’ in Granovetter’s parlance. Obviously having one or two blogs that break into the ‘old media’ like Tacitus, Calpundit and Talking Points Memo have would help.

    Meantime I am sure that group blogs like fistful and crooked timber are one way forward. Incidentally if you are out there reading this and want to be blogrolled, contact one of us.

  23. Be careful what you wish for. With more site traffic you will get more dumb comments, which are thankfully absent on this site now. (Incidentally, casual surfing has led me to suspect that Brazil is a blogging hotbed).

    Classical Chinese was written by many Japanese who could not speak it, and had great importance as an elite written language. Early Japanese-language literature was by women because the men were writing Chinese. During the XIX c. Japanese and Chinese diplomats communicated in writing when they couldn’t speak to one another — there’s a book about this which I can’t dig up.

    Japanese and Korean have their own readings of the Chinese, distantly related to the Chinese readings — Roshi = Laozi.

    A bicultural Japanese / American told me that in Japan the use of Chinese characters is a prestige / class / style trait. Everything can be written in the syllabaries, but its tacky and ignorant to do so. (I would bet that some of Japan’s best scientists use many fewer Chinese characters than other educated people).

    The idea of learning English by listening to Styx is very funny.

  24. I’m not a language expert myself but having learned two foreign languages so far and being in the process of learning a third, I thought I’d add my two cents to the discussion. For the record, I am a German native and business major graduate from a U.S. University. Based on my personal experience, it is not so much the language itself, which causes misunderstandings but rather the differences in cultural perceptions of the speakers. In international business, everyone faces the potential pitfalls of differing local customs.

    In my opinion, the advent of the Internet and electronic communication in general has greatly augmented the necessity of proper English skills. If you want to stay current with your knowledge, be it in business, IT, or science, you’re out of luck without English. Nevertheless, I consider it more than just courtesy to learn the local language of the country I live in ASAP. In five months, I intend to relocate to the Netherlands and find a new job. Sure, almost everyone there speaks English but it’s me who is foreign so I better adjust to the local culture. Language skills are an integral part here.

    When in Rome…

  25. @Sitemeter: searching interesting (dutch) weblogs I found a lot that have part of their attention towards all kind of “technical” question concerning weblogging. Quite a few make commparisons and Site meter always comes up with the lowest score.
    Comparing my own pmachine counter with sitemeter yesterday: my counter on refreshing went up with 20 while sitemeter reported only 4 new visits.

  26. Chris,

    “When in Rome . . .”

    Your commitment to learning the languages of countries in which you live and work is thoroughly commendable, not to say a testimony both to your abilities and sensitivity, but regretfully or otherwise it is not a successful prescription for a world language to facilitate international communication.

    Neither the Romans nor we British had the courtesy to adopt the customs, practices and languages of the territories occupied in the process of creating empires, which is why we have Roman roads and laws on which to build, why English is a world language and why so many countries had railways and Parliamentary government thrust upon them. In the last quarter of the 19th century, in a typical year Britain was investing 40% of its savings overseas – Paul Krugman: Peddling Prosperity (1994), p. 259.

    Unfortunately, Karl Marx was allowed settlement rights in Britain and free use of the reading room in the British Museum Library after he was hounded out of mainland Europe in 1848. There is something hugely ironic about the soothsayer of the inevitable doom of capitalism writing his turgid tomes of prediction in what was the foremost capitalist power of his time.

  27. Bob,

    Not learning the native language of the country you reside in may not necessarily hinder your professional career, but it will be fatal for your social life in that country.

    Please do not make the mistake of assuming that pidgin, patois, or “international” tourist and business English with its hundred-word vocabulary, simplified tenses, and situational stock phrases, can replace a primary language as a means of social discourse.

    And in response to the comment about 50% of all young Europeans professing to being fluent in English: I have just returned from a series of trips through a number of European countries (the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and Italy) and I can assure you their confidence is badly misplaced.
    I live in the Netherlands, which is somewhat exceptional in the sense that a large minority of young people, possibly as high as one in four, can carry out a conversation in English of some sophistication, enough to converse fluently at the high-school level with a native English speaker. This is not the case in Germany or Switzerland, where tourist English is the most that can be expected, and certainly not in Italy: in Sicily I met exactly one native capable of carrying out a conversation in tourist English, and most people spoke absolutely no English whatsoever, not one single word of it (much to my discomfiture, because my Italian is very rudimentary).

    English is the defacto lingua franca, the most widely spoken second language, and its spread is, in my opinion, a Very Good Thing Indeed, but English as global patois is not the same thing as a replacement for various mother tongues. And the suggestion that anything beautiful should be written in English, not Norwegian or whatever, is impractical, as it assumes that non-native English speakers will have a command of English at the same level as their native tongue. This will not happen until two functions are fulfilled: (1) All primary and secondary education takes place in English (2) English is primarily spoken at home. (Ask any English teacher in the US or UK in a district dominated by recent immigrants). The chances of both occuring on a global scale are nonexistent.

    English as a global lingua franca? Yes. As the global mother tongue? Impossible.

  28. Elliot,

    I know what you mean about the Dutch speaking English. It’s been decades since I was last there but one retained memory among many was a conversation with a taxi driver in Amsterdam. Now I recognise taxi drivers in international cities have an incentive to speak foreign languages but his capability was well above and beyond the call of duty.

    Because the Netherlands is not one of the big three or four or even five countries in the EU in population terms, it often tends to get overlooked in international comparisons. However, I recall from trawls through economic data several distinctive features about it – high productivity in industry even by American standards and the highest percentage of graduates among adults for a country in western Europe. Yet another was that it rivals Britain for being the least religious country in Europe as measured by attendance at worship. Quite whether there is some connection I can’t say but the tradition of liberalism and a spirit of open minded inquiry in the Netherlands goes back a long way. Descartes, one of the most historically esteemed of the French philosophers and mathematicians seems to have spent most of his adult life living there to escape the attentions of the church authorities in France.

    What economists here will know is that the Netherlands has a highly distinguished tradition of economics, with Tinbergen, and Frisch of Norway, being the first Nobel laureates in economics and Tinbergen having a genuine if under-recognised claim to be among the cofounders of the Keynesian revolution in the 1930s.

    Of course, there are historic ethnic links between the territory of what became the Netherlands and Britain from what is called the English invasions in the 5th and 6th centuries, somewhat before the Vikings and Danes arrived here in numbers. By invitation of Britain’s Parliament, William of Orange became William III, joint sovereign with his wife Mary of England, Scotland and Ireland (1689-1702), a time of special importance in the evolution of Britain’s unique constitutional arrangements.

    The significance of the invitation by Parliament is that it established the principle that sovereigns reign by Act of Parliament and not by the Divine Right of Kings. There was a backlash with some here complaining about a foreigner becoming king, which lead on to that marvellous satirical poem, The True-Born Englishman (1700), by Daniel Defoe, a native Londoner perhaps better known internationally as the author of Robinson Crusoe: http://www.blackmask.com/books63c/trueborneng.htm

    The legacy of this episode in Britain’s history established England, in the words of Voltaire living here in exile 1726-9, as the “land of liberty” which “has succeeded in controlling the power of kings by resisting them” and had established “a wise system of government in which the prince . . has his hands tied for doing evil, in which the aristocrats are great without arrogance and vassals, and in which the people share in government without confusion.” – quoted from Julian Poppit: A Land of Liberty? (OUP 2000)

    Curiously perhaps, historic links have continued with the huge Anglo-Dutch transnational companies, Shell and Unilever.

  29. I think the point is being bilingual or trilingual is obligatory. As a native English speaker who is fluent in French, I vote for Italian as the lingua franca. There are relatively few irregular verbs, the sentence structure is simple, it’s easy to spell and pronounciation is straightforward.

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