English: the linguistic equivalent of rock'n'roll

by Toby Manhire / 13 February, 2013
The triumph of the English language may be down to its elasticity as much as historical accident, says British-German commentator.
More often than not, the domination of the English language in international discourse is put down to an accident of history. But for leading German commentator Alan Posener, that’s only part of it.

“There are many reasons for its dominance,” writes Posener, who was born and in part bred in Britain, in Die Welt (and translated at the terrific WorldCrunch site), “the heritage of the British Empire, and the post-world-war economic hegemony and cultural influence – ranging from Mickey Mouse and Marilyn Monroe to Elvis Presley and Snoop Dogg – of the United States.”

But it’s more than that.

The main reason is the elasticity of the language and the broad-mindedness it communicates. If English grammar is rudimentary, the linguistic equivalent of rock’ n’ roll, the English vocabulary is huge. There are very few things that can’t be expressed in English, and if it can’t be said in English then a word is lifted from another language – like "kindergarten," for example. If it doesn’t exist in English and a word isn’t lifted from another language it’s because what it represents doesn’t make sense to thinking shaped by the English language: a case in point, "Schicksalsgemeinschaft" (companions in fate).


Posener points to a new German novel which imagines a world in which the first world war had never happened, and German had become the universal tongue of science, academia, politics and so on.

It’s not an altogether implausible scenario, he says, but in respect of the language, at least, the world could count itself fortunate.

Posener “dares make the assertion that the world is lucky that it is English – that whore among languages –that has become the global lingua franca”, he writes.

For only English offers such “multicultural flexibility and openness”.

Originally a Scandinavian-Low German dialect, it was – after the invasion of England by the French-speaking Normans –enriched by a romance-language vocabulary to the extent that there are two words for virtually all objects.


What’s more, the Germanic endings and similar nonsense were dropped, so that – as every translator knows – English texts can convey the same thing as a German text that is one-third longer. End rhymes without inflectional endings are easier, something that is no less crucial to Shakespeare’s sonnets than it is to pop music lyrics.


So the triumph of the English language may not be so accidental after all. English-speaking financial guru and philosopher Nassim Taleb, who was born in Lebanon and lives in the United States, has said that the survival of institutions depends on a quality he calls the “antifragile.” Things are antifragile when they don’t fall apart under stress, but adapt instead. English is antifragile. It is opportunistic. Unlike French, for example, it doesn’t stand on rules and correct pronunciation. It can even accommodate a Henry Kissinger – and that says a lot.


***

Meanwhile the New Scientist reports on a fascinating new algorithm based approach to discovering lost languages:

 

Alexandre Bouchard-Côté at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and colleagues have developed a machine-learning algorithm that uses rules about how the sounds of words can vary to infer the most likely phonetic changes behind a language's divergence.


For example, in a recent change known as the Canadian Shift, many Canadians now say "aboot" instead of "about". "It happens in all words with a similar sound," says Bouchard-Côté.


The team applied the technique to thousands of word pairings used across 637 Austronesian languages – the family that includes Fijian, Hawaiian and Tongan.


 


 
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