English: Open-source success?
JONATHON KEATS, in guest post at Schott’s Vocab, argues two very distinct propositions about English. They’re both interesting, well intentioned, and, I’m afraid, wrong. The first is an empirical claim. (The second is a proposal that Johnson will take up in a future post.)
There is a reason why neither Globish nor Basic caught on in a mainstream way, and that reason is the basis of the English language’s growing global power. Unlike French – and many other languages including Italian and Spanish – English is inherently unrestricted, lacking a centralized academy or official dictionary. English can grow and change with the world, and can do so organically, getting made as it is spoken. New words are constantly coined, invented at the ever-accelerating rate of new technology and science. Equally important is the tendency of English to borrow vocabulary and grammar from other languages, adapted and mutilated as needed. In that sense, English has become the universal language of the world, for all the languages of the world are contained within it. The first grand experiment in what technologists now call open source, English is also the greatest open-source success.
Mr Keats, who writes primarily at Wired, can be forgiven a bit of techno-enthusiasm. But the open-source phenomenon in computing, compelling as it is, has little in common with how languages grow and spread. There are two pieces to Mr Keats’ argument: that English is open-source as other languages are not, and that that is why it has spread. Both are incorrect.
Yes, French has an official academy, as do many other European languages. English does not. But English is quite conservative nonetheless: watch me sneak “infer” for “imply” into a post one day and see the host of people who will have a panic attack, even though this substitution is quite common. If English were truly open-source, “irregardless” would be a legitimate option. Meanwhile, foreigners who know of the French Academy but don’t know French often make the mistake of thinking that the French obey its dictates. They don’t. Time magazine was noting “Franglais” in 1963. This list is just a small sample of English words in French. Today, French continues adopting techno-terms like le web, le mail and so forth. The street argot Verlan has been a source of words later adopted by the mainstream. And so on. The French respect the academy, but their actual language behaviour shows them as willing to adapt and change nearly as much as English-speakers. And you could substitute languages from German to Persian for French here. Language contact and mutual influence is a subject of a huge linguistics literature. English is not unusual as a heavy borrower.
So English has not spread because it is especially open-source. In fact it hasn’t spread for any reason related to its inherent properties. It is fun to say that English’s adaptability, allegedly simple grammar or some other trait gave it an edge in the global marketplace of languages. But people don’t adopt a language as they might switch from an iPhone to an Android phone, because they like its features. Individuals learn it over a course of years, and societies adopt it over the course of generations, for reasons far more to do with commerce and conquest than with grammar and vocabulary. French dominated Europe for the first two centuries after the academy’s founding. An observer writing in 1900 might argue that French held sway because of the stability and coherence given the language by its august guides on the quai de Conti. But that would be wrong too. Give the credit for French’s long run to France’s political and military power from Louis XIV through Napoleon. In the same way, the rise of English has more to do with the Royal Navy than the lack of a Royal English Academy.