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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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  • LosGatosCA

    English is the language of global business.

    This was brought home to me on a trip to Japan with a Swiss-German, married to a Spanish wife, who speaks fluent French, Italian, and English in addition to his household languages of German and Spanish.

    Our Japanese counterparts struggled mightily to speak English which ranged only from pretty good down to raw beginner. But of course speaking only some Spanish in addition to my native English, I was quite sympathethic to their struggle – I know nothing of the Japanese language and we are in their country as guests.

    On the other hand, at dinner my Swiss German colleague complained bitterly of wasting time due to the language barriers which culminated with: “How can you be a serious businessman and not speak English?”

    I was personally appalled, but I could see that his expectation and those of all his European colleagues was clear. They spoke English as a point of competence in a global business world.

    • Tokyokie

      From my experience in Japan, I concluded that most Japanese, even well educated ones, speak lousy English because of the nature of the Japanese educational system and its emphasis on rote memorization. Being able to recite a patterned sentence doesn’t prepare one for adapting that pattern to a different set of words and application to a different context. I’ve never met a Japanese who spoke passable English without having spent time in an environment in which English was regularly spoken. (This, of course, holds true for other languages and cultures as well, but I’d argue that an graduate student studying French in an American classroom probably speaks a better form of the language than the Japanese counterpart studying English.)

      But I can appreciate your Swiss-German associate’s disgust for the Japanese lousy English skills. Among the reasons for English’s adaptation as the language of international business is the precision of which it is capable. English has far more words than any other living language, lending it a nuance that other languages cannot achieve. Japanese, on the other hand, is a language that values imprecision. Saying something directly is considered impolite, thus getting a straight answer to a question, especially for an English speaker, is frustrating as hell. (And it also affects the way in which Japanese attempt to speak English.) Another factor in the situation you encountered, however, is the incipient sexism of the Japanese workplace. Executives, by and large, are male. Translators, by and large, are female. And in Japan, most men don’t even consider performing traditional female roles, whether it’s cooking, cleaning the house or speaking a foreign language adeptly.

  • Josh

    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).

    Does McCrum give any evidence to support these assertions? More importantly, does he give any evidence to suggest that English is better in these regards than any other language?

  • Walt

    If you think that English has lower barriers to entry than French, you’re out of your fucking mind. The one thing you can say about English is that it has so little internal coherence that foreign loan words don’t stick out so much, and are easily assimilated.

    • I should clarify: his argument about English v. French (as I recall off the top of my head) is actually about Anglophone v. Francophone culture. Anglophones accomodate incorrectly-spoken English and adapt it into the language over time; the flexibility of the language and fluidity of English-speaking culture is part of why there are so many dialects, “accents” and regional vocabularies, but it’s also part of what makes it easy for people to attempt English. French by contrast typically requires a high degree of formal fluency before the speaker is considered competent, posing cultural barriers for people to acquire the language and making it less likely that the language will evolve to suit multi-cultural contexts (or for that evolution to be seen as a legitimate part of the language).

      • mpowell

        This seems very likely to be true to me. Poorly spoken English is quite easy to understand. But if your French is poor, the French just don’t understand you. But I don’t know how you would actually measure this empirically.

      • Theron

        My thoroughly anecdotal evidence suggests native Spanish speakers are also quite accommodating. As I evolved from Spanish 101 stuttering to the reasonably fluent but clearly cobbled together version of Spanish I speak now, I never know anyone to get impatient with my efforts to speak their language.

  • Globish reminds me of another failed project called “Basic English” which failed, because native English speakers could not remember which words not to use :)

    So it’s time to move forward and adopt a neutral non-national language, taught universally in schools worldwide,in all nations. As a native English speaker, I would prefer Esperanto

    Your readers may be interested in the following video at http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=_YHALnLV9XU Professor Piron was a translator with the United Nations in Geneva.

    A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

  • blowback

    My philological studies have satisfied me that a gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years. It seems manifest, then, that the latter tongue ought to be trimmed down and repaired. If it is to remain as it is, it ought to be gently and reverently set aside among the dead languages, for only the dead have time to learn it.

    That Awful German Language by Mark Twain

    “If you think that English has lower barriers to entry than French, you’re out of your fucking mind.”

    Absolute bollocks! The evidence? Conjugation.

    For example, the verb “to go” or “aller”:

    Present

    English: I go; you go; he/she/it/goes; we go; you go; they go.

    French: je vais; tu vas; il/elle/il va; nous allons; vous allez; ils vont

    Future

    English: I will go; you will go; he/she/it/will go; we will go; you will go; they will go.

    French: je/j’irai; tu iras; il ira; nous irons; vous irez; ils iront.

    Past

    English: I went; you went; he/she/it/went; we went; you went; they went.

    French: je/j’ allais; tu allais; il allait; nous allions; vous alliez; ils allaient;

    • On the other hand, English has a whole lot of inconsistency as well which does make it confusing for beginners. Arika Orent’s book gets into this in quite a bit of detail: the efforts of many language inventors over the years have been grounded in the desire to improve upon what they see as the “irrationality” of English.

      • Theron

        A simple grammar and a massive vocabulary allow for tremendous flexibility, but you also have to memorize that vocabulary – I am glad as a native speaker I never had to consciously try to memorize all the variations of “take+preposition,” for example.

  • LS

    English also has a pretty strict subject-verb-noun order and only the barest hint of declension. On the other hand, the relationship between spelling and pronunciation is bizarre, with the values of letters no longer reflecting spelling (“knight” and “new). Still, at least its distinguishing characteristics is not to have evolved from some weirdos in the Île-de-France deciding to stop pronouncing the last syllable in their slang Latin (“French, the Ebonics of Latin”).

    • LS

      Sheesh: “characteristic is…. stop pronouncing the ends of words in their slang Latin.”

      • The Ebonics of Latin? So would that make it Frattin, or Gallatin?

    • Theron

      Ah yes, spelling. Think I’ll grab me a pole and some bait and see if I can catch a mess of ghoti. :)

  • TOB

    Yes, he did write for the New York Sun, but as far as the English language goes, this is a pretty serious takedown of “Globish” by John McWhorter in TNR…

    http://www.tnr.com/blog/john-mcwhorter/75710/english-special-because-its-globish

    • Uncle Kvetch

      Thanks for that link, TOB; while I haven’t read Globish, based on McWhorter’s review it sounds awfully familiar.

      I spent several years in grad school poring over the very similar kinds of things various French speakers have churned out over the last several centuries about all the “unique” qualities of their language that make it so very perfectly suited to…well, everything really…great literature, great theatre, diplomatic negotiations, philosophical thought, reason and enlightenment, the mission civilisatrice, what have you. What you very quickly come to understand is that these kinds of works aren’t really about language at all (McCrum is not a linguist, as McWhorter makes amply clear) — they’re stories that we like to tell ourselves about ourselves, and nothing more.

      Globish is clearly one more in this never-ending series of just-so stories, and it sounds like a particularly clumsy and irritating example of it.

  • DJS

    Excellent post.
    I love Foer’s book. I’m powering through Simon Kuper’s Soccernomics now, but I do believe Globish will be next.

  • The question of whether it is right that English is presently a global language is every bit as embedded in history and accident as the fact of English’s current dominance. There isn’t a tabula rasa waiting around to inscribe a new, deliberate global language onto, nor are there any ahistorical persons around to invent one or speak one.

    The question of what it means for global question is more interesting. Some years back, I heard an interview with Derek Walcott; the gist of one part of it was that, from his perspective, his Caribbean English was correct English, and changes he made from it were concessions to being understood by outsiders. Chinglish, Jinglish, Denglish, Spanglish, Franglais all have their audiences. There are English words that have moved into German with meanings that are unknown to native English speakers (e.g., handy and mobbing).

    Anyway, people aren’t learning English just to speak to the hegemon (or the hegemon’s island allies); it’s the South Koreans speaking to the Swedes, the Arabs to the Thais, and so forth. At times, native speakers are an actual hindrance to conversation.

    And in time it will change.

    • Tuttle

      It’s not called a ‘lingua franca’ because it’s French.

      And, interestingly enough, lingua franca proper was mostly Italian and used the term ‘franca’ in the Arabic sense of ‘European’. Yet many centuries later French itself became the lingua franca of international diplomacy until displaced by English after WWI.

  • gordbrown

    Another advantage English has that should be noted is the fact that it comes from multiple hegemonies. First there was the English empire, but over and against that there was another major power that also spoke English and was outside the empire. As the British Empire continued, then broke up but left English in its wake, the United States engaged in a different kind of hegemony which in turn stood outside but reinforced the older more traditionally imperial model. No other language has that kind of advantage in the world.

  • BillCinSD

    I wasn’t that impressed with Foer’s book, but then I had already read Kuper’s “Football Against the Enemy”. Foer’s book is more or less the same book as Kuper’s just written more recently.

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