Review: Nicholas Ostler at the Oxford Literary Festival

Nicholas Ostler\’s book is not about English, at least it\’s not a congratulatory exploration of the current global dominance English seems to enjoy. In fact the book reveals that this preeminence is as ephemeral as that previously enjoyed by Latin, Persian, Sanskrit and every other language which has been spread beyond its native borders by trade, conquest or religion.

In his talk, Ostler revealed that the emphasis placed on English in the title was in fact insisted on by agents and publishers worried about the reception a world history based on language would have without a firm emphasis on its relevance to contemporary society, along with whether people would even understand the term \’lingua franca\’. Meanwhile, Ostler himself feels it is almost impossible for native speakers to judge the value of their own language objectively and that anything concerning the immediate future of English as a language used for science, business, computing and popular culture must be speculation.

That said, he has some interesting and firm beliefs which support his wish to call English the last language to be chosen as a global means of communication, based on the rapid technological advances being made in the field of translation. It is his belief that in a few generations the need to learn a second language for business will be replaced with technology providing a

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curate machine translations sufficient for commerce. It may be hard to see how these will replace professional translators especially in the field of literature, but they may provide people with the confidence to publish in their mother tongue knowing that they will be able to reach a global audience.

What most amazed me were the statistics collected concerning English\’s status as a global language. In the last few years a survey in China found that the percentage of people who thought that English was essential had dropped 15% in the 2000s. There was little likelihood that the trend would be reversed: the language used on the internet had changed from being almost entirely in English, to 23% in Chinese with the percentage in Russian, Spanish, and Arabic increasing at a far faster rate than that in the professed language of global communication.

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Therefore, from this esteemed linguist and Oxford alumnus, I have learnt that whilst historically prosperity has always promoted culture, decline in that prosperity has generally ensured a fall from grace for the language of the previously ruling power. Since the British Empire which forced English as a lingua franca upon the world ended its utter dominance after the Second World War, it is surprising that there has been less of a backlash with former colonies refusing to accept further the language of their former masters – though I suppose that the search for profit has always overmastered nationalist tendencies. Eventually, however, we shall be forced to acceed that English cannot be held as a great and lasting boon compensating for our former imperialist tendencies and, with only 2% of the output of the current British publishing industry accounting for translations from foreign languages, eventually realise quite how insular we really are.