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10.a Crystal Eng as a global lang

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Internet has been its
role in relation to minority and endangered languages. These lan-
guages are finding that the Net gives them a louder and cheaper
voice than is available through such traditional media as radio, and
Websites and chatgroups (‘virtual speech communities’) are now
common in, for example Galician, Basque, Irish Gaelic, Breton
and Welsh. Well over 1000 languages can be found on the In-
ternet in 2002, notwithstanding the technical difficulties referred
to above.37 This is good news for those worried by the global
trend in language loss (p. 20), but it is also good news for those
concerned that global intelligibility should not lose out to local
identity. On the Net, all languages are as equal as their users wish
to make them, and English emerges as an alternative rather than
a threat.
The right place at the right time
What are we to conclude, after this wide-ranging review of the way
English has come to be used in the modern world? Is there a com-
mon theme which can help us explain the remarkable growth of
this language? The evidence of this chapter, and that of chapter 3,
is that it is a language which has repeatedly found itself in the right
place at the right time (p. 78).
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries English was the
language of the leading colonial nation – Britain. In the eigh-
teenth and nineteenth centuries it was the language of the leader
of the industrial revolution – also Britain. In the late nineteenth
century and the early twentieth it was the language of the leading
economic power – the USA. As a result, when new technologies
brought new linguistic opportunities, English emerged as a first-
rank language in industries which affected all aspects of society –
the press, advertising, broadcasting, motion pictures, sound
recording, transport and communications. At the same time, the
37 See the review in Crystal (2000: chapter 7).
Why English? The cultural legacy
world was forging fresh networks of international alliances, and
there emerged an unprecedented need for a lingua franca. Here
too, there was a clear first choice. During the first half of the
twentieth century English gradually became a leading language
of international political, academic, and community meetings.
By the 1960s, the pre-eminence of the language was estab-
lished, but it could not at that time have been described as a gen-
uine world language, in the sense described in chapter 1. Since
then, however, two events have together ensured its global status.
The first was the movement towards political independence, out
of which English emerged as a language with special status in
several new countries. In most of these, the role of English had
come to be so fundamental that no other language could com-
pete, when the moment of independence arrived. The other event
was the electronic revolution, where here too English was in the
right place (the USA) at the right time (the 1970s).
The development of twentieth-century computers has been al-
most entirely an American affair. As Michael Specter puts it, in his
NewYork Times article: ‘The Internet started in theUnited States,
and the computer hackers whose reality has always been virtual
are almost all Americans. By the time the net spread, its linguistic
patterns – like its principal architecture and best software – were
all Made in the USA.’ Although computer languages are not like
natural languages, being very restricted, they have inevitably been
greatly influenced by the mother tongue of the programmers –
and this has largely been English. The first computer operating
systems automatically used English vocabulary and syntax, as can
be seen in such instructions as ‘Press any key when ready’ and
‘Volume in Drive B has no label’. These are examples from MS
(Microsoft) DOS, the system developed in 1977 by US computer
entrepreneur Bill Gates, and which was adopted by IBM in 1981
for its range of computers. The more recent operating systems,
replacing DOS, have displayed English influence too, though al-
ternatives in a few other languages are now available (where the
commercial advantages have justified the development costs, as
in French and German). And it seems likely that the influence of
English will remain, as programs become increasingly sophisti-
cated and allow users to make more natural-sounding commands.
It is difficult to predict the future, with something so dynamic
as the Internet. In a few generations’ time, the Net will not be like
anything we know today. Automatic speech synthesis and recog-
nition will be routine, and (notwithstanding the difficulties de-
scribed on p. 27) more use will be made of automatic translation.
The arrival of high-quality immediate translation facilities will have
a major impact on the use of English (or any lingua franca) on
the Net; but these are a long way off. For the near future, it is
difficult to foresee any developments which could eliminate the
significant role of English on the information superhighway. The
biggest potential setback to English as a global language, it has
been said with more than a little irony, would have taken place a
generation ago – if Bill Gates had grown up speaking Chinese.
The future of global English
After a while, any account of the social history of English, such
as the one recounted in chapters 3 and 4, starts to repeat itself.
Under each heading, the narrative identifies a major domain of
modern society, puts it in a historical perspective, then discusses
the extent to which it now uses or depends upon English. The
overwhelming impression, after such an exercise, must be that the
language is alive and well, and that its global future is assured.
But linguistic history shows us repeatedly that it is wise to be
cautious, whenmaking predictions about the future of a language.
If, in the Middle Ages, you had dared to predict the death of
Latin as the language of education, people would have laughed in
your face – as they would, in the eighteenth century, if you had
suggested that any language other than French could be a future
norm of polite society. A week may be a long time in politics; but
a century is a short time in linguistics.
In speculating about the future of English as a world language,
therefore, we need to pay careful attention to indications which
seem to go against the general trend. And we need to ask, in
broad terms: What kinds of development could impede the future
growth of English? It will then be possible to arrive at a balanced
Several possibilities can be envisaged. A significant change in the
balance of power – whether political, economic, technological or
cultural (p. 10) – could affect the standing of other languages so
that they become increasingly attractive, and begin to take over
functions currently assumed by English. Political factors might
make groups of people within a country, or even whole countries
or groups of countries, antagonistic to English. Pressures arising
out of the need to express community identity might disrupt the
ability of English to function as a global language. Here, the chief
scenario envisaged is one where the language fragments into mu-
tually unintelligible varieties, in much the way that vulgar Latin
did a millennium ago. This chapter deals with the issues raised by
these possibilities.
The rejection of English
We begin with the situation where the people of a country feel
so antagonistic or ambivalent about English that they reject the
option to give English a privileged status, either as an official lan-
guage or as a foreign language. If several countries were to begin
thinking in this way, there could in due course be a pendulum
swing which would render the claim of global status less credi-
ble. The chief reasons for such antipathy were