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What I Ended Up Reading In Between World Cup Matches Abroad

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Last month during the Greece/South Korea World Cup game, my eight-year-old son noticed the players speaking to one another in English, and asked me: “Mom, is English the official language of soccer?” As with so many of his astute little queries, I didn’t know the answer at the time. But while in Asia, I read three fabulous books that kept bringing me back to this question and finally not only answered it, but helped me see why it matters.

First: How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization by Franklin Foer: sort of an empirical, if anecdotal, validation of FIFA’s claim that the world’s language is not English, but soccer itself.

This is a great read, if a bit simplistic. I know professors who have their students read this book freshman year, and Jon Western’s discussion of traveling in the Middle East over the past few weeks of WC finals echoes some of Foer’s insights. But Foer doesn’t actually explore the relationship between the English language and the globalization of soccer.

For that, I browsed through most of Robert McCrum‘s Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language. As the subtitle implies, McCrum’s central argument is that English has already become a sort of global Common.

Of course, I’ve long noticed the same trends my son picked up on: English as a kind of lingua franca in transnational spaces. [I was traveling, for example, with a native Arabic speaker, a native Filipino speaker, a brother fluent in Indonesian and Thai locals, but conversation within my group unfailingly took place in some form of English.] I have always tended to chalk this up to some combination of Anglo-American hegemony and the linguistic incompetence of Americans [my Kuwaiti friend rightly trusted his English more than he trusted my Arabic]. But McCrum demonstrates that it’s more than that. The success of English, he argues, is due in large part to the attributes of the language itself: its average word length and lack of diacritical marks make it easy to pick up, write and transliterate. [Try texting in Welsh or in Chinese characters for example.] Most importantly, it’s versatile, capable of transmogrifying (and how), evolving to fit many cultural and class contexts; and it possesses low barriers to entry (unlike say French). McCrum argues that this bundle of characteristics makes English uniquely suited to global spaces and accounts for its rapid proliferation worldwide.

An interesting functionalist account. But is it right that a particular language like English, so mired in imperial history, should take precedence over others? What does this mean about the global culture taking shape? The alternative of course is to build a global Common disconnected from such particularisms, which is precisely what the inventors of Esperanto attempted in the 19th century. But despite a small transnational community of speakers that persists to this day, Esperanto has never really filled its intended function of proliferating as a global lingua franca. Why?

McCrum doesn’t consider how English out-gamed its invented competitors, but this question is explored in the third book I read, the humorous and incisive >In the Land of Invented Languages (many, many thanks to the commenter who suggested this one to me). If I had to recommend a single book this summer, here it is. I mean, it begins:

“Klingon speakers, those who have devoted themselves to the study of a language invented for the Star Trek franchise, inhabit the lowest possible rung on the geek ladder. Dungeons and Dragons players, ham radio operators, robot engineers, computer programmers, comic book collectors – they all look down on Klingon speakers…”

Author Arika Orent continues:

The lessons the Klingon phenomena can teach us about how language does and doesn’t work (trust me on this) can be fully appreciated only in the context of the long, strange history of language invention, a history of human ambition, ingenuity and struggle that, in a way, culminates with Klingon.”

This brilliant little book is a journey through some of the world’s 900 invented languages and the “mad dreamers” who made them up, pitched them to the world, and failed to get any takers. I put it down halfway inspired to become an Esperantist, for there is something beautiful in the decision to choose a global tongue for its very trans-nationalism, rather than having it chosen for you by syntax and historical circumstance – the process that McCrum documents.

But in the end, I put down my paperback (or my brother’s Kindle, whichever I happened to have) and went back to studying Thai phrases, not Esperanto, and to speaking English with my Arab and Filipino counterparts rather than struggling along in either Thai or Arabic. When Spain finally beat Holland in that dreadful final match, it was in some dialect of English – or Globish, rather – that the cheers and groans alike resounded through the beach bar, packed with Dutch, Spanish and other European tourists, where we watched. And as McCrum explains, English is indeed not only an informal working language of soccer, a game originally imported from England, but the official default language of FIFA. So the basic answer to my son’s question is yes, but it’s what the question invites us to explore about world history, linguistics and the globalizing human mind that’s really interesting.

[cross-posted at Duck of Minerva]

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