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Reflections on the English language
by Joseph Gatt
2009-05-28 09:35:41
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English transcends culture or any other communication barrier, something few languages have achieved in history. Here’s why.

English allows me to increase my readership not only in numbers but also in cultural background. Though French used to be the lingua franca between me and most of the people I met in the previous millennium, English has become the lingua franca of the new millennium. Before I knew, I was using English with native speakers of other languages, some of which I have native fluency in.

Why would I speak English with a native French speaker when I received a large part of my education in French? Here are the reasons, and I must say they are not exhaustive:

English has no ambiguities

In all the languages I speak other than English, (Berber, Arabic, French, Spanish, Turkish, Portuguese, Korean) society allows all sorts of ambiguities. That is not to answer a question, to answer it vaguely or to change the topic unlimitedly and in any circumstance, making communication difficult.  

Learners of English are taught to express their views directly. Though linguistically a lot of languages may technically contain less ambiguities than English, it remains that English uses words such as “maybe” or conditional forms in very specific situations. For example in Korean, when counting, people add a word that refers to the nature of the object that is counted: an animal, a human being, an electronic device, a box etc. Yet Korean people would say “it looks like it’s raining” when it clearly is raining.

English considers silent replies as a weakness, an inability to express one’s self in words whereas languages like French, Arabic, Berber or Korean see silence as a valid way to duck a question or comment one might not be comfortable with. In the end, it is easier to read the mind of someone speaking English than that of someone speaking most other languages.

English transcends social class

Though English-speaking countries are class ridden societies, English is the only language I speak which has no honorifics, that is words or grammar patterns that show marked respect to the interlocutor or humbleness. English encourages people to refer to each other by their name (with some exceptions such as doctors and professors), and does not add or drop words, word endings or verb endings, or use different pronouns or titles when addressing a superior.

This makes it very difficult to offend an interlocutor in English using words that he would himself use when addressing you in a conversation. Few languages have this, as French, Spanish and Turkish will make the T/V distinction, use different pronouns when addressing someone depending on age or social class. Korean is an extreme case which has separate words and morphemes (word components) depending on what the relationship between the speaker is. Others such as Portuguese, Berber and Arabic will use titles when addressing older people (Senhor in Portuguese, Aami or hadj in Berber and Arabic respectively), and omitting the pronoun. English however allows using “you” in any circumstance.

Again it’s a concept which is hard for native English speakers to imagine, but in most languages you don’t speak the same way your superior speaks to you. No one is considered superior when using English, which allows people to question each other more easily than when using other languages. In English, I don’t need to consciously or subconsciously feel that I am being dominated when speaking the language.

English transcends gender

All the languages I speak except English and Korean have no markers for gender. In French, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic or Berber, I would address a woman using different adjectives, sometimes even different conjugations when addressing a woman. Those markers indirectly remind women that they from a different class than men.

In all the languages that have feminine, no matter how many women they may be in a group, if there is one man among them the male marker or conjugation is used when addressing a woman. English only makes the female distinction in the third person, she, but when confronting a woman, the same speech is used as for men.

English transcends culture

There is no standard English, or some might argue there are several forms of standard English. Native English speakers don’t think of Southern US accents or South African accents as being wrong forms of English. People are not encouraged or forced to change their pronunciation or accents when speaking English, and no matter who is speaking, excluding extreme cases, English broadcasting companies do not resort to subtitles when the speaker uses a different accent.

It is considered rude and a lack of etiquette to correct someone’s English pronunciation or grammatical mistakes. This encourages everyone, no matter what their native language or ethnicity may be, to use English. English has become culturally a neutral language, and speaking English does not make anyone pretentious, and does not imply the speaker’s taste for British or American culture.

While people from Paris often mock people from provinces or former colonies and refer to their dialects as “linguistically wrong”, Spanish people laugh at Latin Americans when they say botar a la basura instead of tirar al contenedor which both mean “to throw to the garbage”. Berber, though considered by all linguists a separate language, is often referred to as a dialect (in the sense of sub-language rather than the common linguistic definition of dialect) because the idea of promoting it as an official language in Morocco or Algeria would threaten national unity, and the language is thus considered linguistically “wrong”. Koreans are also very picky about accents and put subtitles as soon as someone speaks a slight variation of the language, as if it could not be understood by the rest of the population. English however does not consider any of its variations to be linguistically wrong.

Most importantly, there is no need to apologize for “not speaking good English”, something few languages allow. Non-native speakers of French or Korean are told to apologize when not speaking the language properly, and French and Korean people will stop at every random word to ask the non-native speaker whether he understands the word. English in turn assumes that everyone is smart enough to guess the meaning of words in their context, easing the communication between speakers of the language.   

English encourages free speech

By pure coincidence, the First Amendment of the US constitution has led all sorts of thoughts to be expressed in English, first by Americans, then by people from all over the world. Whether it is communist pamphlets or pamphlets demonizing communism, articles praising or blaming the president of any country in the world, all sorts of opinions are expressed in English.

An opinion expressed in English is open to criticism. Try criticizing anything written in French, Spanish or any other language and you will often by told that if a document is written by someone “superior”, whether intellectually or socially, you are not qualified to criticize it. Therefore speakers of other languages tend to hesitate when expressing an opinion or criticizing freely, given the nature of the social consequences they would face.

English is therefore allowing young and older minds to think together in a free world. Of course, some people might point out the racist, socially exclusive elements which are strong in English speaking societies, but the English language still allows the freedom to debate those issues.

It is certainly a succession of historical, cultural and economic events that English has become the most studied international language. As with Russian in the former Eastern block, people will study English regardless of the language’s structure. I do find it ironic that a number of English speaking countries promoted capitalism, which often leads to inequality of society, have a language promoting equality. In turn, the Soviet Union and North Korea, both countries promoting orthodox versions of communism and equality, maintained elements of social inequality in their languages.

I will conclude by saying that less than 10% of the world population (some estimates say 20%) understands English. English has its difficulties: its spelling is not phonetic, there is a considerable amount of irregular verbs and irregular plural endings. This does not prevent English from being by far the most studied language in the world. Only time will tell whether English will preserve its unique features, or whether closed-mindedness, ambiguity and social stratification will mark the language, as it used to be the case in Chaucerian times.    

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Emanuel Paparella2009-05-28 14:11:52
Indeed, Mr. Hadid, English as all languages, has its share of ambiguities among which many words that have various meanings dependgin of where they are placed syntactically. Ambiguity is the nature of language, it allows it to be poetical. Those who wish to eliminate the poetical from language wish to eliminate its ambiguities and reduce it to mathematical certitude. Two philosophers, Whitehead and Russel, even attempted the feat but of course failed, for to reduce language to mere utilitarian communication is to think of oneself as a computer and to have dehumanized oneself. Just some rambling thoughts on this fascinating subject; the very foundation of man's humanity and civilization. Thanks for your thoughts Mr. Hadid.

Alexandra Pereira2009-05-28 22:38:47
What do you mean with "using different adjectives when addressing a woman"? I don't understand this part, I mean, I don't think the adjectives are different if we exclude poetic language...

Alexandra Pereira2009-05-28 22:46:02
ps - you don't have to use the Portuguese Senhor nor the Spanish Señor when adressing older people, you can call them "you" just like in English: você or usted. Basically, it's up to the speaker to choose how to address the person. Senhor and Señor = Mr. or even Sir in English, which has titles too.

ap2009-05-28 22:47:01

Alexandra Pereira2009-05-28 23:05:04
"Try criticizing anything written in French, Spanish or any other language"?
Honestly, I can't see why not!
"Speakers of other languages tend to hesitate when expressing an opinion or criticizing freely, given the nature of the social consequences they would face"
Since when?? I think you're generalizing particular cases too much. So all English speakers are free to speak - as long as they do it in English?! Sorry to say, but I really don't agree with anything of this! And I'm going to write it in other languages:
- Não concordo mesmo nada com isto.
- No estoy de acuerdo con esto
- Je ne suis pas d'accord avec tout
- Non sono d'accordo con questo
- لا أتفق مع هذا
- No estic d'acord amb aquest
- 我不同意这个
- 私はこれに同意しない
- Nu sunt de acord cu această

Alexandra Pereira2009-05-28 23:50:35
I should add that in my opinion the only reasons why English is so globally used today are:
1. it is easy to learn
2. cultural and economic hegemony of English-speaking countries

We should remember that it wasn't always like this (and probably won't be for too long), and you shouldn't associate in a linear manner the fact that other languages have different and multiple variations with more rigid societies - actually that's deeply wrong -, it can, on the contrary, mean richness, possibilities and flexibility!!
For example, what if I feel like treating an older person using "tu" in Portuguese, Spanish, Italian or French? In english you use the general "you" - you don't have anything as familiar and intimate as "tu"! Plus: you can use it with men or women (does not distinguish gender), older or younger, boss or employee, etc - it all depends on the relationship you have developed with the person - it is not the language imposing a kind of relationship, it's the opposite! Language is just an instrument, and a flexible one.

It's the same with adjectives - how come you affirm that they are different? You just have different conjugations, and it can mean that a given language is more specific than english, but the adjectives are the same!

Alexandra Pereira2009-05-29 00:15:02
I just can't see how can't someone understand, independently of the specific virtues of English (and it has a few), that it can never immitate:
- the binary rhythm of Catalan
- the musicality of Italian
- the plasticity of Arab
- the orality of Berber
- the emphatic delicacy of French
- the latin suavity of Romanian
- the poetry of Spanish
- the pictography of Chinese
etc etc etc (just to mention only a few virtues of those languages too)

Emanuel Paparella2009-05-29 09:58:20
Since Ms. Pereira has managed to find only a few virtues in English when compared to other languages, perhaps we ought to expand Mr. Hadid's list os such virtues a bit. In the first place it should be pointed out that there are in the world some 7000 languages and all of them are important for they all express reality in their own unique way. When a language dies it is like a species dying; we are all impoverished. Of these 7000 languages only ten languages are spoken by more than 100 million people. English of course is one of them. (continued below)

Emanuel Paparella2009-05-29 09:59:48
The general consensus seems to be that English boasts about 375 million native speakers, and those using English as a second language outnumber the native speakers. All told, about 1.5 billion people use English; more people use English than any other language!
English is spoken all over the world. It is the mother tongue in the USA, Canada, Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and several Caribbean countries. Additionally, it has special status in over seventy countries, such as India, and is the most widely taught foreign language in over 100 countries, including China, Spain, Brazil, and Egypt. The majority of the world's books, newspapers, and magazines are written in English. Most scientific and technical terms are in English. (continued below)

Emanuel Paparella2009-05-29 10:04:29
Perhaps the most unique characteristic of the English language is that rather than shooing away foreign words, English seems to welcome them. All told, English contains about two million words. In comparison, French is comprised of fewer than 100,000. Who doesn't know the meaning of respondez-vous, si-vous plait (RSVP) or cul de sac? You do not have to be a linguist to understand that there is plenty for professionals to like about English. With many words from which to choose, one can be extraordinarily precise. Further, there is logic in English grammar. As a living and practical language, there are continual changes in English. It changes as words come in and out of vogue and as the culture changes. For instance, the "split infinitive" is no longer a cause for the gasping of breath. A popular example of the split infinitive is Star Trek's "to boldly go where no man has gone before." Clearly, we could say, "to go boldly where no man has gone before." Having healed the split infinitive, we'd still be ending our phrase with a preposition, which while it still makes some people cringe, is gaining acceptance in English. It is a living language, after all.
Love it or hate it, English is the literary and technical "coin of the realm." That is not to cast aspersion on other languages which have their own unique virtues and characteristics.

Emanuel Paparella2009-05-29 10:17:53
P.S. Sometime ago I wrote a piece in English on a new museum in Puglia. I then wrote the very same piece in Italian. When I read them together I felt emotionally different. Since what was being described was quintessentially Italian, somewhow the more proper language for the piece was indeed Italian. Which is to say, content is not everything. Form is important too in languages, as McLuhan taught us some forty years ago; and it may be the secret of languages. They are not only means of communication; they are also transmitters of culture and expressions of the poetical; they cannot be reduced to mathematical equations as assprted logical positivists and Whitehead and Russel misguidedly have attempted to do.

Emanuel Paparella2009-05-29 14:32:59
Errata: assorted.

Emanuel Paparella2009-05-29 14:37:01
P.S. I often remind Florentines, who pride themselves of having given a language and literature to Italy, that Tuscan in the year 1000 was just another dialect (or a corruption of Latin) as the other twenty or so dialects of Italy still being spoken. When people from the same region want to be wholly familiar and in some way exclude curious interlopers, they speak dialect.

Emanuel Paparella2009-05-29 14:42:45
Another consideration: English came about with the Normans invasion of England in the 11th century and the complete absorption of the Normans' French into the Old Saxon's language. That explains why English, a Germanic language has so many cognate words (up to 50%) with languages deriving from Latin such as Italian, Rumanian, French, Spanish and Portuguese. There is a French connection there and therefore a more remote Latin connection. Food for thought.

Alexandra Pereira2009-05-30 01:59:58
Goodness gracious, I just can't take this disgusting cultural and linguistic-centrism anymore!!! Do you live in the 21st century?

Yes, Mr. Paparella, English is so eager to absorb words of other languages that I'm pretty sure a good deal of it will be absorbed by Spanish in the future!
Plus: no, the second language in Brazil is Spanish, just as Portuguese is the second language for most of the Spanish-speaking South American countries. Even in many parts of Europe people don't speak English. In fact:

Chinese/Mandarin is spoken by 1.2 Billion
Spanish is spoken by 329 Million
English is spoken by 328 Million

AND welcoming foreign languages is NOT IN ANY WAY A UNIQUE CHARACTERISTIC of English in particular. What a distorted and faked ignorance!! That's not intellectually honest nor clever, especially coming from an Italian teacher!!
Sure - a quite remote latin connection. Anyway, that's not what's being discussed here.

Alexandra Pereira2009-05-30 02:18:14
English is not more welcoming of other languages than any other language I speak (in fact, I think that it seriously runs the risk of being swallowed by both Spanish and Chinese, two fantastic languages). All the other languages I speak are full of words and expressions "borrowed" or created after Arabic words, or words from African, Asian and South-American languages, just as Japanese, for example, has plenty of words borrowed from my native language and others. They keep adding words and changing others constantly. So that is a total and inexcusable fallacy!

Alexandra Pereira2009-05-30 02:32:59
And finally, we should be totally honest about the supposed "great number of words" in the english language:
- first of all, it's impossible to know the exact number of words of ANY of these languages at a given time, as they are constantly changing

- second, in the most respectable statistics of words of the "english language" we find numerous Hindi words, words from many other languages of former colonies and even non-colonies, like "fazenda" and "hacienda", which I'm absolutely sure ARE NOT English words... That's a pretty DISHONEST AND PROPAGANDISTIC APPROPRIATION, very closely related with cultural and economic hegemony phenomena!

- Thirdly, even having more words in a given language does NOT MEAN that you can describe social and cultural realities with more accuracy by using it, as any linguistics specialist knows - it all depends of their combination and purpose!

Alexandra Pereira2009-05-30 02:41:12
ps - And Yes, your article on the new museum in Puglia was MUCH BETTER in Italian than in English, I'm sorry to let you know. They simply are not comparable, the Italian one is miles ahead. Now I defy you to write a piece on any other neutral topic in both languages, and we'll see.

Emanuel Paparella2009-05-30 11:38:30
In your eagerness to cast aspersion on the English language, a silly thing to do with any language but unfortunately possible when driven by ideology and bias, you have missed the overarching point made in those cmments, Ms. Pereira, and it was this: ALL languages are important as unique transmitters of particular cultures and the poetical in the world and deserve to be preserved and protected. As I said to compare and assign winners and losers is like comparing apples and oranges and to fall into the absurdity of ideological fanaticism. Ask any linguist or philosopher of language worth his/her salt.

Alexandra Pereira2009-05-30 13:48:34
Cast aspersion? I love English.
I'm just not ignorant enough to proclaim it BETTER.

Exactly, ALL languages are important, and the supposed advantages of English that you pointed out are frequently not based on any reality - not a great favor that you're doing to English.

Alexandra Pereira2009-05-30 13:55:27
ps - Interesting to notice that you write about other languages as some kind of rare cultural souvenir that should be "preserved" from disappearing and "protected" as if they represented threatened species.
I would like to let you know that in several countries from Europe to South America and Asia, Chinese is being taught as second language, while in the latin world a very high number of students prefers Chinese as a third language and to have another latin language rather than english as second language at school, every year. Those students are now the majority, actually. How disconnected can you (or do you want to) be from what is actually happening?

Emanuel Paparella2009-05-30 14:56:50
I repeat: ALL LANGUAGES ARE UNIQUE AND THEREFORE IMPORTANT AND INCOMPARABLE. That's what I said, not what you'd like to fantasize I said.

Pari passu, try an experiment of your own: read Shakespeare or Milton in Spanish or Portuguese and then ask yourself without ideological or politically correct lenses, if something has not been lost in translation. Oh, you'll get the content and with that content you'll be able to launch a movement such as Romanticism, but content is not the only thing that matters in a language, any language!

Emanuel Paparella2009-05-30 15:39:03
"the supposed advantages of English that you pointed out are frequently not based on any reality"

When I get statements like the above in a philosophy paper without any supporting evidence and documentation, I promptly deduct points or assign an F with this comment: what can be easily proffered without evidence and documentation can easily be ignored as irrelevant or fallacious. In fact, it becomes quite silly when the enunciator pretends to be an authority in the field and therefore not needing evidence or documentation. When professors do it and come out with statements such as "Notre Dame is a third rate university," they eventually acquire the reputation of "charlatans" and eventually crash their scholarly and academic career.

Emanuel Paparella2009-05-30 17:02:45

For any reader of these bizarre comments who may be interested in the nexus between language and culture beyond silly Punch and Judy shows of language comparisons, as exemplified in the same, open the attached link above to an article I wrote a few months ago in “The Global Spiral” titled “The Nexus between Language and Vico’s Historicism.” It begins thus: “The study of language is the starting point of Vico’s historicism. For Vico language is humanity’s primordial historicization.” By the way, Vico wrote in Italian and Latin, albeit for scholarly purposes he has been translated in just about all the major languages of the world. The article may be also in Ovi's archives but I don't remember.

Alexandra Pereira2009-05-31 03:21:25

I want Shakespeare, Joyce and many others in English, thanks. Actually, I can't imagine Brodsky or Nabokov in Russian. But that was not what we were discussing.

I am glad with your F - quite a compliment. :) Not a fair professor, are you?
Want more evidence than the one I've provided? I think my criticisms to your speculation were quite clear.

ps- Too many Notre Dame students are third rate for Notre Dame to be good as an education institution.

Emanuel Paparella2009-05-31 03:35:12
Point made! Thanks.

Eero Nevalainen2009-05-31 17:42:26
The reason why English is the new "lingua franca" in the world is that it makes very little language-nationalist cultural-ideological demands on its non-native speakers. It just yields itself to be used as a tool without strings attached.

Compare this to the attempts from certain quarters to force Swedish as some kind of Nordic common language -- I went to Norway a week ago and got a lecture from a Fenno-Swede about how Finnish-speakers have never amounted to anything, how "democracy comes from the west!" (compare Freudenthal -- "Finns never showed capacity to form a state"), and how I should be ashamed of myself to speak English in Norway... (Norwegians were 100% cool about it though). No wonder this is not working in my case :-)

About language being egalitarian... Finnish is very much like that.

Alexandra Pereira2009-05-31 22:39:15
Without strings attached? Don't tell me you never learned anything about the English Queen, tea, Henry Ford or the American Presidents in your English classes. Just about as many strings as any other language, I think.

Why is it an official language in Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Samoa, Barbados, Sudan, Uganda, South Africa, Tanzania, etc?
The complete list of strings attached include the colonialist past (that's not original, but it's true for English too), cultural influences and too many brands!

Alexandra Pereira2009-05-31 22:48:11
Would it have been any different if you had spoken Norwegian, French or Italian in Norway?

Danai2009-06-19 17:23:58
ambiguity is relative. all languages have ambiguities but english has less. I am a native speaker of an african language. In that language, there are many ways to avoid being direct, to avoid declarative sentences, to avoid giving answers to questions, to avoid saying anything really. It is harder to do this in English. a question like "did he tell the truth?" can be spun so many ways in my language. In English, it is less so. In English more so than other languages, it is a simple perfectly understandable question. The person spoken to may choose not to answer. You will know if that happens. In my language, you may not be able to tell. "I will come at 6 pm" in my language means I will come then, I will come five hours later, I may not come at all. Not so in English. Not 100% of course but pretty much more straightforward in English.

also those who don't speak my language perfectly are mocked by those who do. my ethnic group ("tribe") looks down on those of other groups who don't speak it correctly. But in America, people do not object to my accent or misuse of words.

Modiu Ayinla2013-10-09 10:07:39
English language is not the best language ever, it lack respect in some form making it easier for young chap to disrespect their older ones. it has caused a lot of confusion in other society who are not English speaking country, And also make it difficult for some children to relate with their parent due to some cultural difference in English culture.

stevensoel2013-10-09 16:08:36
hadid mr iron akli my mind in arabic is taliking about ambiguity he is suffering no to understand arabic ;if you see english as a clear you say thats your opinion no more . the simple reason is that arbic is so wide langage and very rich for every word you got about ten replacment words
depending on regions . great expectations ....

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