The popularity of English has made many people think that it could eventually replace other languages and become some sort of "universal language," but this concern is not new; in fact, people throughout history thought the same could happen with other languages.
We can’t predict the future, but we can certainly learn from the past. And my answer to the above question is a very certain NO. Of course, we may have a difference of opinion, but consider the main reasoning behind the idea. While it is true that more than 50% of the 6000-7000 languages in the world are endangered and will be dead in a matter of a century, that still leaves billions of people speaking the rest of the remaining languages, which can be around 600-700. Compared to one, this is a huge a number.
Not only that. The concern that many express now, citing the growing popularity of English, that it could replace other languages, is not a new thing. In fact, people throughout history thought the same could happen with other, even more popular, languages.
We all know the boom that Greek enjoyed in the last three centuries BC. Its prestige and practical value, especially to the people who inhabited the Mediterranean basin, were immense. It was the primary language in which science, commerce, and art were carried out. Important matters such as trade and politics were discussed overwhelmingly in Greek, similar to what happens with English today, and with fewer real competitors than English has now. Then came the rise of Rome, and the political situation eventually changed. The popularity of Greek started to shrink. It gradually decreased ,and now it is used only in the eastern Mediterranean.
Then, after the Muslim conquest, its use diminished even more, as it was spoken only in Anatolia and Greece. Then, it shrank even further after the Ottoman conquest. Then, after the population exchanges in the 1920s, Greek met its ultimate semi-demise and was confined to Greece only. Although Greek didn’t completely die out, it didn’t replace other languages and was not even close. It didn’t replace even the languages in the area in which it had been spoken for three millennia.
The spread of Latin was enormously accelerated with the rise of the Roman empire, which disseminated its language across a wide area including western Europe, North Africa, and parts of the Balkans. But again, the equation of power changed. The Arabs took over North Africa, the Slavs took over the Balkans, the Germanic tribes took over England, Rhineland, Austria, and Switzerland. This resulted in the total displacement of Latin from these areas, and ultimately the colloquial varieties that remained disintegrated into unintelligible varieties that we know today as Spanish, French, Italian, etc, with Classical Latin becoming a completely dead language.
Arabic had gained a tremendous status and prestige in the 7th century not just in the Arabian Peninsula, but throughout the whole Middle East and far out into North Africa. Muslim conquests played a major role in spreading Arabic in these areas, exploiting the unprecedented weakness of Byzantium and Persian empires. It replaced Greek in all the major cities and many Afro-Asiatic languages like Aramaic and Coptic in the countryside. However, after only two or three centuries, the Muslim Caliphate collapsed, and with it the status and prestige of Arabic. Arabic then shrank into a language mostly used for religious purposes.
From the 12th century and well into the 20th century, French enjoyed great prestige all throughout Western Europe. After the Norman Conquest, England aristocracy spoke almost exclusively French for more than three hundred years. French traveled far into the Holy Land during the Crusades. It was also spoken all throughout the French colonial Empire. Then, after numerous military retreats and political defeats, the prestige of French bled out, and it declined to become just one of many important languages of Europe, parts of Africa, and Quebec. Beyond these territories, it has little value.
Now let's go back to English. It is true that the spread of English comparably overshadows the spread of these languages, especially with modern technology. English is now disseminated to every corner of the globe. But let's look at the realities here. While it seems that a large percentage, roughly 24%, of the world's population speak some English, it is spoken fluently only by about 450-550 million speakers.
The rest one billion or so of speakers, in places like India, Malaysia, Nigeria, etc., speak English with a very moderate degree of proficiency in addition to their own native language. Many people speak English for work-related purposes or to cope with modern technology. They don't speak English in their day-to-day communication or because English speakers come to live among them, as was the case with the languages we cited above. Here is a map of where English is spoken today:
The socioeconomic conditions that factored into the phenomenal spread of English are most surely going to change in the upcoming centuries. My bet is on Mandarin. We cannot know how the rise (or return) of China to becoming a Great Power will influence people's notion of prestige, nor can we know what political changes are in store. But the rise of China remains the greatest possibility. Here's China's GDP compared to that of the US:
In addition to this, English is only spoken by a majority of the population in the British Isles, North America, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. It is clear that these places are territories where English people came to settle permanently, not merely to trade or rule. It is doubtless that six centuries in the future people will still speak English in these places. But it is very doubtful, given the power dynamics, that English will preserve its prestige far into the future, and will certainly suffer the same faith as that of Greek, Latin, Arabic, and French.
A first version of this article first appeared in The Language Nerds
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