Skip to content

Will English Go the Way of Latin and Sanskrit?

PSY’s viral hit Gangnam Style is testing two longstanding trends: mainstream American culture as a monolingual culture and the global dominance of the English language.

When I first watched PSY’s viral Youtube hit, Gangnam Style, I thought the South Korean singer-songwriter/horse dancer was singing “open condom star.” I was not alone. 

This is known as a mondegreen, a term coined by the writer Sylvia Wright to describe the mishearing of a song lyric or spoken word. Many famous examples abound in American pop culture, from Jimi Hendrix (“‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy”) to John Fogerty (“There’s a bathroom on the right”). The difference in this case, of course, is that PSY is a K-pop star who sings in Korean with a few English riffs thrown in (“hey sexy ladies”).

It is fascinating to see how PSY’s foreign language mega-hit is being absorbed by western culture. Gangnam Style has set a world record as the most-liked YouTube video of all time. So that raises the question of whether all those English speakers who “like” it actually understand it. Does that matter? Gangnam Style does have a social message, after all, as PSY pokes fun at the economic elites who live in the Gangnam section of Seoul, the Korean equivalent of Beverley Hills. That message seems to be mostly lost in translation.

If you look at some of the popular Gangnam Style parodies on Youtube, you will find that they tend to play on the song’s illegibility in the Anglosphere. One parody replaces all of the lyrics with the English words they sound like. Consider this gem: “She can put Target to God. She gobble gay.”

What’s the Big Idea?

This comedy of willful misunderstanding has prompted people to ask PSY if he would record an English-language version of Gangnam Style. That request is not out of ordinary. Foreign films are routinely remade for English-speaking audiences. Perhaps Justin Bieber could do a remake of Gangnam Style as well.

While that last suggestion is written in jest, it underscores two longstanding trends: mainstream American culture as a monolingual culture and the global dominance of the English language. This dominance is readily apparent in the products of mass media such as pop songs and movies. The impact of this cultural imperialism, on the other hand, may not be as apparent, but is nonetheless significant.

One-fourth of the world’s population can communicate in English with some level of proficiency. English has also emerged as the dominant language of academics. It is the dominant language of the Internet. It is indeed the dominant language of the knowledge economy. If you are an educated person in the 21st century, you speak English. In other words, English plays the same functional role that Latin once did before it became essentially a dead language.

So what is the outlook for English as the globally dominant language? We asked the Princeton University language expert and translator David Bellos that question in a recent interview.

Watch the video here:

What’s the Significance?

While English may be an awesome language, it has not become the global language because of any value that is intrinsic to the language itself. Simply put, language dominance is the product of economic dominance. 

Smarter faster: the Big Think newsletter
Subscribe for counterintuitive, surprising, and impactful stories delivered to your inbox every Thursday

So does that mean we will all be speaking Mandarin in a few years if the Chinese get the economic leg up? Not so fast, say a number of linguists who argue that English has a firm grip on its status as the common global language.

John McWhorter, author of The Power of Babel, sees English language dominance as a unique event in the evolution of language. McWhorter was quoted in The New York Times as saying “English is dominant in a way that no language has ever been before,” he said. “It is vastly unclear to me what actual mechanism could uproot English given conditions as they are.”

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan


Up Next