How English is taking Over

De Swaan divides languages into four categories. Lowest on the pyramid are the “peripheral languages”, which make up 98% of all languages, but are spoken by less than 10% of mankind. These are largely oral, and rarely have any kind of official status. Next are the “central languages”, though a more apt term might be “national languages”.

These are written, are taught in schools, and each has a territory to call its own: Lithuania for Lithuanian, North and South Korea for Korean, Paraguay for Guarani, and so on.

Following these are the 12 “supercentral languages”: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Hindi, Japanese, Malay, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Swahili – each of which (except for Swahili) boast 100 million speakers or more. These are languages you can travel with. They connect people across nations. They are commonly spoken as second languages, often (but not exclusively) as a result of their parent nation’s colonial past.

Then, finally, we come to the top of the pyramid, to the languages that connect the supercentral ones. There is only one: English, which De Swaan calls “the hypercentral language that holds the entire world language system together”. The Japanese novelist Minae Mizumura similarly describes English as a “universal language” . For Mizumura, what makes it universal is not that it has many native speakers – Mandarin and Spanish have more – but that it is “used by the greatest number of non-native speakers in the world”. She compares it to a currency used by more and more people until its utility hits a critical mass and it becomes a world currency. The literary critic Jonathan Arac is even more blunt, noting, in a critique of what he calls “Anglo-Globalism”, that “English in culture, like the dollar in economics, serves as the medium through which knowledge may be translated from the local to the global.”

Behemoth, bully, thief: how the English language is taking over the planet

This article seems a bit tired and the entire tone of the Guardian moaning the supremacy of the English language reminds me of the whole furore over white privilege, sometimes it’s simply an exultation that one has it.

Even though I’m writing this in English I don’t think English is taking over; it’s simply reflecting the Anglo-American supremacy from Queen Vic to QE (Trump represents the high water mark of this era).

As China grows in power; 1 point something billion Chinese aren’t going to magically shift to English. Furthermore beyond the Old Commonwealth (the White Dominions + US); English gains its prominence from its usage in the New Commonwealth (Africa & Asia).

One shouldn’t underestimate the importance of a Lingua Franca but neither extol or exaggerate its significance. Just as the Dollar can be easily replaced so can the English language.

As a final thought this is why my idea on Languages + Script = Civilisation is so important (if I say so myself).

19 thoughts on “How English is taking Over”

  1. I beg to disagree, I think English is well on its way to become THE global standard language in the next few decades. Anglo -saxons are the most successful ethnic group in human history, both in terms of geographic spread (North America, UK and Oceania) and spreading of thought and culture. It’s only fitting that their language attains this status.

    Us brown sahibs and macaulayputras are just the tip of the spear of English spread into the brownlands of the subcontinent. I’m saying this after having just attended a lavish Brit-gujju wedding in Buckinghamshire – it’s surprising how easily Asians have taken to using English as a day to day language while still maintaining our highly specific cultural practices.

    I think instead of fighting English imposition, India (and more specifically it’s Hindus) should fully embrace it and become what I strongly believe is it’s true destiny is for the future – the vanguard of the West in the East. Pakistan can take on guardianship of perso-arabic culture, India should fully embrace the Anglosphere. The Indian Constitution is the first step towards exactly that.

    Apologies for the ramble, just my two cents. Peace

    1. vanguard of the West in the East?

      That crown has been taken by others more convincingly . China went wholesale for Communism , a western philosophy followed by Vietnam

      Japan, for last 150 years with their modernisation and industrialisation are in that vanguard.

      Korea too.

      Actually , a real indication of westernisation is adoption of and expertise in Western Classical music. Korea is winning loads of international (western) classical competitions; so do China and Japan.

      As long as India is tied to Hindustani and Carnatic music , she has not “gone west” .

      1. you are certainly right. In adopting centralized powerful states, erasing tribal boundaries, adopting capitalist accumulation and investment and in many other ways, Japan, Korea, China are most westernized states of Asia. India may speak the language of the west but politically and culturally it still inhabits in a different sphere.

        1. “India may speak the language of the west”

          It is not India which speaks , about 15% of the population ‘know’ passable English ; reasonable speaking fluency about 8% , but mutual intelligibility with English English would be much less. Really mutually intelligible English (or American) English in accent and idioms , in written and spoken forms less than 2%.

    2. Many in the Indian elite are definitely pushing things in this direction. They certainly have no problem in turning India into a digital colony of the US, which in turn will only push for the penetration of English into the country.

  2. the vanguard of the West in the East

    Hear, hear! That is indeed India’s intended destiny, but we’re a long way off from realizing it.

    1. “the vanguard of the West in the East”

      This is literally not true; “West” is a concept, or a collection of ideas, not the language. Just because 1000 Indian Brahmins speak English in India, does not make them the vanguard of the west. The ideas have not diffused into them.

    2. Haha yeah I know, thanks for entertaining my notion! I spoke in jest and hyperbole, but I reckon there’s a kernel of truth in there. There’s scope for a genuine liberal culture to develop based on an accommodation with certain western values. Like Rajiv Malhotra I’m a bit suspicious of wholesale adoption of Judeo-Christian values, but Hinduism is quite adaptible as a religion and India has always been at the cross-roads of cultures. Much baggage will have to be dropped for this to happen, however.

      Since the post was about English, I think India’s history and affinity to the English language is an enabler for this.

      1. I was just chatting to Vidhi about this; I feel India & Indians are far too quick to trade in their souls for prosperity.

        I am reading the new Indira book by Sagraika Ghose (Indira II has ordered it for her reading pleasure) and I read a section about where in the Punjab after a British women had been assaulted in the road, Indians could only crawl on that road for some period after.

        I’m surprised India hasn’t made a seriously claim of reparations from Britain; would be worth around 2/3trn USD.

        Also remember Indian immigrants are huge net plus for the West; hyper educated workaholic.

        I feel India/Indians attitudes towards Pakistan and Islam is one of the saddest remnants of colonialism; it’s diverted them from the real looters and Colonisers..

        1. “I feel India & Indians are far too quick to trade in their souls for prosperity.”

          why is this a bad thing? What does the above line even mean?

          There are a billion souls. I am willing to trade for just a living wage.

        2. Claiming reparations will lead to a slippery slope that world is not prepared for. Plus victimhood isn’t attractive. And how will it be split between India, Pak and Bangladesh?

          The question of the attitude of Indians (by which I guess you mean Hindus) towards Islam is one that predates Pakistan, and in most cases isn’t really influenced by Pakistan. Indian Muslims exist independent of Pakistan and the latter doesn’t really feature in most day to day concerns for most Indians. It’s true that the discord was cynically exploited but we need to move beyond that.

          As an aside it’s interesting how many of the flashpoints of the recent past all have the hand of British colonialism – India/Pak, Turkey/Cyprus, Israel/Palestine, Iraq/Kurdistan, etc. The list is long!

          1. “And how will it be split between India, Pak and Bangladesh?”

            That is least of the problems. If one can get a case going in some international forum to get reparations from the British, we can figure out a formula to share between the three former colonies in south Asia. 😮

            PS: U.S. did pay reparations to African Americans by carving out the nation of Liberia for those who wanted to go back.

          2. Those were hardly reparations; it was simple land.

            People forget the time value of money and benefits of accumulation; having a million dollars a century ago leads to almost incalculable benefits.

            We often hear stories of lost and squandered family wealth but instead take a look at the heritages of the 0.1-1% and they virtually all stem from the same consolidated background. We simply know the stories of the outliers (like Zuck) because it’s fascinating..

  3. I think English will stick around because Chinese will have a hard time replacing it. It’s a bitch to learn (and will continue to be unless the government decides to propagate a pinyin-only version as an international standard), and has a reputation as such. More importantly, China doesn’t seem too interested in mass cultural export, and may never have the kind of free society that enables an internationally-attractive culture to flourish like in the West, or Japan and Korea.

  4. Nice article.

    Note that Bengali is a supercentral languages.

    Why is Malay called Malay rather than Indonesian? Not that it matters since they are the same language much the way Urdu and Hindi are.

    What are Pharsi and Sanskrit? These two languages might have had a larger effect on today’s languages than any other language.

    1. Farsi is a living language though so it’s influence is still very much there.

      Iranian studies in Albania although not academically pursued, have always enjoyed Albanian people interest. The diffusion of Persian literature and culture in Albania is closely linked with the presence of Ottoman Empire in Albania and with the heavy influence Persian culture exerted on the Ottoman administration and Turkish culture of the era. Another key factor in the popularisation of Persian culture among Albanians is the expansion of Islam in the territories lived in by Albanians during the 16th and 17th centuries. Meanwhile, during the 19th century, the Persian language was widely used among Albanian intellectuals.

      Naim and Sami Frashëri were among the most prominent scholars of oriental and Iranian studies in Albania. Naim Frashëri published two books in Persian: the first, Grammar of the Persian Language was published in 1871, while the second one, a compilation of poems in Persian, Tehajjulat” was published in 1885. These represented the cornerstone of Persian literature and culture in Albania.

      Other personalities of Iranology in Albania include: Vexhi Buharaja, translator into Albanian language of many Persian books (such as “Gjylistani dhe Bostani” “3500 verses from Shahname”, etc.), Tahir Dizdari, author of “Persian words in Albanian language”, Hafiz Ali Korca and Fan Noli, with his translation of Omar Khajam’s famous “quatrains”, Dalan Shapllo, scholar, writer and translator of Hafiz Shirazi’s mystical poems and many more contemporaneous Albanian linguists, scholars and writers.

      Malay is the name of the original language family/race whereas Indonesia means the Islands of India in Greek..

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