3. What you can't do with each language

Negative Side of Each FactorFactors Not EverlastingThe Changing Geographical PictureThe Changing Pattern Within Each Language-DialectsThe Factor of Future Uncertainty

The population factor in language has been described as among the most objective and stable. While there is no doubt about its objectivity (provided reliable statistics are available for a given country at a given period), stability is something else.

There is, of course, no absolute stability in language or in anything else in the world. The earth's population is subject to shift and change. During the last few centuries the tendency has been for populations to grow in numbers, to the point where some scientists are beginning to wonder about the problem of food and living space. Even this trend, however, may be reversible. Atomic warfare on a large scale may bring the world's population down to more manageable proportions, to cite one spectacular possibility. But population decrease has occurred before in history without the benefit of atomic fission or planned birth control. The Black Death that cut Europe's population to half its former numbers, and the Thirty Years' War that saw the population of Germany shrink to one third its original size, are two examples. There is no guarantee that something of this nature may not occur again.

In connection with language, it is, rather, relative population trends that are of interest, and here history presents some significant episodes.

Among the major western languages, English, which around the year 1100 a.d. seems to have been spoken by no more than 1,1/2 million (French at that time had a speaking population of about 8 million), had gone up to 5 million by the year 1500. At that period our most reliable figures indicate 12 million for French, 10 million for German, 9,1/2 million for Italian, 8,1/2 million for Spanish.

By 1700 English had grown to about 8 million, but in the next two centuries, mainly by reason of expansion in the North American and Australian continents, it rose to 123 million, outstripping French, which in 1900 showed 52 million, German with 80 million, Spanish with 58 million, Italian with 54 million, and Russian with 80 million. By 1952 the approximate figures were: English, 250 million; Russian, 150 million; Spanish, 120 million; German, 100 million; French, 80 million; Italian, 60 million. Anyone evaluating the status of the western languages in 1500 would have concluded that French would remain forever in the lead, and that English would forever trail its four major European competitors.

China's population of an estimated 140 million in 1741 (the first year for which tentative Chinese statistics are available), representing the practical totality of Chinese speakers, had risen to 300 million by 1800, to 440 million by 1900, and is estimated today at 600 million. Here a projection into the future would have worked out more correctly, but the percentage of growth of English speakers, from the 10 to 15 million of 1741 to the 250 million of today, is seen to exceed even the rate of growth of Chinese.

No one viewing the few thousand speakers of Latin at the time of the founding of Rome around 500 B.C., would have been able to foretell that by the time of Christ the Latin language would have spread over the entire Mediterranean basin and far to the north and east, encompassing a population of at least 100 million persons.

The truth is that not only languages, but the populations speaking them, rise and fall in accordance with historical conditions which are largely unpredictable. It is not merely a case of populations of individual countries rising and falling at different rates. It is also a case of wholesale language shifts on the part of individuals and masses. If the speakers of Imperial Latin had been only the descendants of the early Romans who founded the City on the Tiber, and not the children of the Oscans, Etruscans, Greeks, Carthaginians, Iberians, and Gauls conquered by Rome, Latin would have remained an obscure language. If only the descendants of the original English settlers spoke English in America, at least half of our American population would not be speaking English. But the prestige of Imperial Latin and American English were such that most of those who came in contact with them learned and spoke them, with a foreign accent in the first generation or two, as native speakers in the following generations.

Accepting the lessons of the past for the future, we may safely assert that the present hierarchy of language populations is by no means fixed and everlasting. Some of the thirteen leading languages may drop into a lower classification with the passing of time, while other languages may come up to replace them. Even if this does not happen, the order of the thirteen leaders may be quite changed by the year 2000.

Changes in the geographical distribution of language go on under our own eyes. We see, for example, that while English gains ground in certain areas, by reason of economic or financial penetration, it loses ground in others. India, Pakistan, Ceylon, and the Philippines, four countries where English was till recently used for all official government purposes, now tend to replace it with native languages. Russian, not English, or French, or German, is the foreign tongue most studied in eastern European states and, probably, in Red China. But English makes giant strides in Japan, western Europe, and Latin America, displacing even German and French. Chinese in North Korea, English in South Korea, replace an earlier Japanese influence. In North Vietnam Chinese tends to displace French. Everywhere, language distribution follows the pattern of military conquest or economic penetration. The world's linguistic picture is extremely unstable.

Living people who in their earlier years studied French and German because those were, along with English, the great world languages are now advising their children to take up the study of Russian and Chinese. Spanish at the time of the First, and Portuguese at the time of the Second World War had considerable vogue on grounds of Latin-American trade. The world's language picture is an extremely confusing one for the person who does not have an absolutely precise purpose in mind. The oil engineer who learns a little Arabic because he is being sent to the oil wells of Iraq, the businessman whose agency in Rio calls for a Portuguese speaker and who accordingly takes a course in Portuguese, are on comparatively safe ground. But what of the man whose plans are not yet formulated? What of the high-school or college student who is faced with the conflicting claims of a dozen modern foreign languages? The picture that unfolds before his eyes is not merely confused, but unstable. Selecting a language, or two or three languages, is somewhat on a par with picking a winning horse at the races.

It is this confusion and uncertainty as much as anything else that has contributed to the decline of language study in American high schools and colleges. Were there a language which the American student could embrace with full confidence that it would take care of all, or at any rate most, of the foreign problems that might confront him in later life, he would embrace it with enthusiasm. As matters stand, he is supposed to gamble so many hours for so many years of his limited lifetime, on the chance that the French, or Spanish, or German, or Italian, or Russian that he is taking up will be the language he may need later.

Matters are not eased by what we may describe as the changing pattern within each language, or, to put it another way, the different facets or aspects of the same tongue. It has been customary in the past to impart foreign languages in their purest and most grammatical literary form, on the supposition that they would be used primarily for the purpose of enjoying the literary culture of the country from which they stemmed. Recently there has been a spectacular reversal in this point of view, with the spoken tongue in its most colloquial vernacular form, including even slang and vulgarisms, presented as the summum bonum. This has led to bigger and better confusion. When you are already taking a gamble on a given foreign tongue, you are further required to gamble on one of its aspects. Are you learning French for the purpose of reading Moliere, or French for the purpose of arguing with a Paris taxi driver? It is not at all the same thing, nor does it involve the same processes.

Even where some sort of compromise is effected between the written and the spoken language, along comes a question of dialects to complicate the matter further. Foreigners learning English are often faced with a very difficult choice: shall it be British or American English? Both are important. Knowledge of one does not automatically imply full command of the other, particularly in the colloquial realm. If you undertake to learn Chinese or Arabic, you will have a universal written tongue, but many widely diverging vernacular dialects, almost mutually incomprehensible. Even in standardized western European languages, like French, Italian, and German, you may run up against dialectal differences. It is all very well for the pedant to say: "Learn the standard, official tongueParisian French, Castilian Spanish, Florentine Italian, North Mandarin Chinese"! What happens if you encounter a speaker of Provencal, or a Puerto Rican, or a Sicilian, or a Cantonese? And what of those languages, like English and Arabic, that have no true official spoken standard, because each locality sets up its own standards of pronunciation?

The facts of language are harsh, but it is best to face them, and even to repeat them. Language is divided into numerous varieties, of which thirteen can be described as major tongues, and of the thirteen only seven or eight have, at the present moment, broad international diffusion coupled with all the other factors, economic, political, and cultural, that make a language of paramount importance.

But - there is no guarantee that the language picture will remain the same, even within our own lifetime. Population, distribution, as well as economic, political, and military factors, are all subject to sudden and startling change.

Languages are subject to drastic change and variation not only externally, but internallyin their forms, in their vocabularies, and above all, in their class and local distinctions, so that learning any one of them, even your own, means subjecting yourself to a constant process of check and recheck, of additional language learning, of acceptance, or at least recognition, of a variety of words, constructions, usages, accents, and intonations.

From the standpoint of selecting a national language for world use, if such be our purpose, this means not only a choice among the languages, but also a choice among the individual forms of a language (British or American, Mandarin or Cantonese, Castilian or Argentine usage)

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