Later this month the new Les Misérables film will be released into cinemas across the world. However, although the film is adapted from Victor Hugo’s classic French novel of the same name, it will – of course – be in English. I’m sure this will come as no great surprise to you; why would Hollywood make a film in any other language when the majority of people in the world can enjoy watching it in English? What is the need for other languages if we can all get by with one?
A backlash to this attitude has resulted in English being dubbed a ‘killer language’ by many linguists. But just how substantial is their claim?
Many centuries ago, the elite of the population of Britain spoke French, as did many other countries. But that phase passed – English is currently the most widely spoken language in the world and is regarded as a ‘global language’. In the realms of education, politics and business – many indigenous languages are used less and less in favour of English and other ‘lingua franca’. According to Crystal (2000: 14) ‘96% of the world’s languages are spoken by 4% of the population’ and linguists estimate that over the next century, around two languages will die every month (Jenkins 2009: 160). These figures are indeed worrying ones. But whilst languages are dying, they are also being born.
Threatened languages often begin to incorporate features from the language which is threatening them but change in language isn’t always a negative thing (Crystal 2000: 22). ‘English is not replacing indigenous languages but being added on to persistent local language habits’ (Schneider 2011: 222) – in some cases the adoption of inflections, function words and even slang, can evolve a language and even result in the formation of pidgins and creoles which go on to be regarded as languages in their own right.
Never has it been so easy for a language to ‘go global’, and popular culture plays a huge part in the spread (and development) of English; people can make video calls to relatives in foreign countries using Skype or communicate via Twitter; pop songs can be uploaded onto Soundcloud within minutes and downloaded by someone half the world away in seconds; and teenagers in Eastern countries such as Singapore hear slang words in popular Hollywood films and adopt them, creating New Englishes. For instance: the Singlish (Singapore English) phrase ‘tok cok’ means to ‘talk nonsense’ and derives from the English phrase ‘cock and bull story’.
Linguists hope these new languages will be studied and codified, and this positive attitude towards local Englishes marks an important step toward their ultimate acceptance. So, whilst at times it might seem like English is a globally-dominant bully, I think we have to see the positive side to what many of us consider a bad situation. Think of language death as inevitable evidence of Darwin’s theory; think of language change as evolution which results in exciting new variations; and think of Global English as a killer, maybe, but also as a positive thing; a communicative tool to be used as we wish; to be used to progress. As Victor Hugo, in his classic French novel, wrote: ‘would you realise what revolution is, call it progress; and would you realise what progress is, call it tomorrow.’
Gregory Cartwright, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK
Crystal, D. (2000) Language Death. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hugo, V. (2012) Les Misérables. London: Penguin Books.
Jenkins, J. (2012) World Englishes. 2nd edition. Oxon: Routledge.
Schneider, E. W. (2011) “Issues and Attitudes” from: Schneider, E. W. (2011) English Around the World: an Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 210-228.