English is enough, right?


The internationalisation of English has begun to provoke a two-fold enervation. In many societies, imported English, with its necessarily synthetic, ‘pre-packaged’ semantic field, is eroding the autonomy of the native language-culture. Intentionally or not, American-English and English, by virtue of their global diffusion, are a principal agent in the destruction of natural linguistic diversity. This destruction is, perhaps, the least reparable of the ecological ravages which distinguish our age. More subtly, the modulation of English into an ‘Esperanto’ of world commerce, technology, and tourism, is having debilitating effects on English proper”.

George Steiner “After Babel”, 1973.

Why proper English rules OKby Simon Kuper, Financial Times.

There are several ways to overcome the problem of communication between people who speak different mother tongues. None of these ways is ideal. One solution, obviously, is that one of the interlocutors speaks the language of the other. Problems may arise: the knowledge of the language may not be adequate, one side is making a concession and the other has an immediate and significant advantage, there are possible political implications, it may be difficult to apply in multilateral diplomacy, etc. A second possibility is that both sides use a third, neutral, language. A potential problem may be that neither side possesses full linguistic knowledge and control, leading to possible bad misunderstandings. Nevertheless, this method is frequently applied in international practice because of its political advantages. A third formula, using interpreters, is also very widely used, particularly in multilateral diplomacy or for negotiations at a very high political level – not only for reasons of equity, but because politicians and statesmen often do not speak foreign languages.

So, which language is the diplomatic one? The answer is not simple at all. To start with, there is no single diplomatic “lingua francathat could be inscribed in the above-mentioned catchphrase. In the past there were periods when one language or another served as a common, widely-used means of inter-state communication, although usually limited to certain geographic areas or political groups of countries. Such a role was played by Acadian (Asyrian-Babilonian), by literary Chinese, by Greek “koin`e” (a mixture of dialects, based mainly on Ionic and Attic), and later by mediaeval Greek, then Latin, Arabic, Turkish, and yet later by Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Italian, Dutch, German, French, and recently, more and more, by English. Very often attempts have been made to impose one language or another, with the argumentation that it is “clearer”, “more flexible”, “more expressive”, “more eloquent, subtle or refined”, “most suitable for international negotiations”, etc. The mere fact that historically such a role has been taken in turns by so many languages proves that linguistic or semantic reasons are not decisive. On the contrary, it can be said that the dominant role of one language or another in diplomacy has resulted from the political, strategic, economic, cultural or other domination of one power or another in international relations.

J. Kurbalija and H. Slavik, Language and Diplomacy, 2001.

2 thoughts on “English is enough, right?

  1. Pingback: Learn English or stay home? | Dolmetschblog

  2. Pingback: One Lovely Blog Award | El blog del MIC de la ULL

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