David Bellos is Director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton University, where he is also a professor of French and comparative literature. He has won many awards for his translations of Georges Perec, Ismail Kadare, and others, including the Man Booker International Translator’s Award. He also received the Prix Goncourt for George Perec: A Life in Words.
David Bellos: The situation today with respect to the diversity of language in the world is probably rather special. It’s probably not got any real historical precedent. English is the dominant inter-language of the world and it is used and spoken by vastly more people than those who have it as their first or family language. Maybe up to a billion people speak English in the world who are not English speakers, if you see what I mean, to some level of proficiency. It’s got nothing to do with the intrinsic qualities of the English language itself. English is no more simple, no more complicated, no more accurate and no more fuzzy than any other language in the world.
Although Latin performed a similar functional role for a thousand years between the Roman Empire and the 15th, 16th century as the language of science and as the language of theology and so forth in intercultural communication at a high level, I think English has spread much further both in the sense of the planet, but also much further down in terms of its usages.
This has one obviously negative consequence and that is that the relatively small number of people who speak English as their native tongue, as their dominant tongue and no other are becoming unique. They are going to be very soon the only monolingual people in the world, lacking that double dimension that having another language always gives you. So that’s the negative consequence.
I don’t personally believe that the dominance of English as a global communication device is going to have any impact on the diversity of human languages. People are going to go on speaking Chinese and French and Arabic and everything else. Some of those smaller languages will die out, but other dialects and forms of speech will arise. I don’t think there is going to be a kind of planetary unification of all forms of speech. It’s not at all likely and nothing to be frightened of because it’s not going to happen.
It produces a sense of inferiority and irritation and annoyance and a degree of anti-Americanism amongst the speakers of those languages that in past centuries held the role of global inter-language, notably French, which was of course the international language for a couple of hundred years, but then so was Latin and so was Greek and so was Syriac and so was Arabic and so was Chinese. I mean many languages have had this role and they’ve lost it. After all Sumerian, remained a written language for a large part of the Middle East of the Assyrian sphere of influence for many centuries and the last uses of Sumerian for ceremonial and religious purposes date from the third century Common Era. It had a run of 3,000 years. Now English as a global language has had a run of, I don’t know, less than 50 years really, so we’re early days yet and I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but the one thing I'm sure of is that nothing lasts forever.
Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd
You have to have a very quick mind and you have to have this peculiar ability to speak whilst you’re listening.