the last lingua franca


The dominance of English today as the language of business, science and popular entertainment appears unassailed and perhaps unassailable. For the linguist David Crystal, it is entirely plausible that “English, in some shape or form, will find itself in the service of the world community for ever”. In his new, engaging and learned book, The Last Lingua Franca, Nicholas Ostler challenges this widespread confidence in the continued future of English as the dominant global language, and, more radically, questions whether there will be any need at all for a single language of international communication “in a world where digital technology is cheap and ubiquitous”. Acknowledging the unparalleled geographical expanse of English, Ostler draws a firm distinction between English as a mother tongue and English as a lingua franca or communicative tool for non-native speakers. This distinction motivates two separate questions concerning the future of English. First, will English, given its spread as a native language, split into a range of separate languages akin to the development of Latin into the Romance languages? Second, will it continue to be a widely used lingua franca, possibly even increase its influence? Ostler’s answer to both of these questions is a resolute no. In a world linked by digital communication networks, native speaker communities of English, no matter their location, are able to remain in constant contact and familiar with each other’s varieties. Regular communicative interaction promotes parallel linguistic development; only when a group of speakers becomes communicatively isolated (or isolates itself) can its dialect diverge from related dialects to the point of becoming a distinct language.

more from Kerstin Hoge at the TLS here.