English is the terminal language for the human race

I recently listened to “Story of Human Language”, a 36-lecture course by John McWhorter, a professor at Columbia.

Of the world’s 6,000 extant languages, roughly 20 have a significant number of speakers (Vietnamese is on the list, for example).

19th century attempts to make a universal language failed with “volapuke” and Esperanto (some history). In the 20th century, however, English accomplished what Esperanto could not.

The world’s disparate languages developed due to isolation. Now that the world has been saturated with communication, the academic linguist does not expect substantial changes going forward. People tend to first learn a more popular language as a second language because it is useful for commerce. But eventually the unpopular language withers and their grandchildren end up being native speakers of what had been the useful second language. Native Americans had at least 300 languages when the European invasion began. Today, however, a Native American such as Elizabeth Warren will grow up speaking English. The same process has occurred in China, where linguistic diversity has shrunk and the comparatively simple second language of Mandarin is now the first language for children. That means that eventually English might eventually be every human’s native language.

Separately, the teacher is a bit of a heretic according to Wikipedia: “McWhorter considers that anti-racism has become as harmful a force in the United States as racism itself. According to him, what is holding blacks back is ‘black attitudes’ rather than white racism. … McWhorter has criticized microaggression and white supremacy theories, and has argued that technology cannot be racist”. Let’s try to imagine how long a white employee of Columbia would last if he/she/ze/they made these kinds of statements!

7 thoughts on “English is the terminal language for the human race

  1. Being a native lion, can imagine what native Americans like Elizabeth Warren are going through. Even lion roars are being replaced by english terms like “penalty tax”. What’s the opposite of a penalty tax, a reward tax? Why do Americans call some taxes penalties, sometimes trust funds, sometime insurance, sometimes progressive?

  2. > But eventually the unpopular language withers and their grandchildren end up being native speakers of what had been the useful second language.

    That’s exactly what happened in my family, wherein my immigrant great-grandparents (arrival in U.S. circa 1880) taught the native tongue to their children, who as a matter of deliberate choice didn’t pass it on. As a result, my parents speak a stripped-down, pidgin version of the Old language and I barely speak it at all. My grandfather was adamant about this: “This is America! We speak English in this house!” (except for a few choice colloquialisms and the very rare curse.) He simply decided through the force of his own edict that his children were not to speak the Old language except on rare occasions. It was his duty as an American! He also initially couldn’t fathom why I was required to take two years of a foreign language (I chose Spanish and German) in high school. We told him it might come in handy if I ever had to travel out of the United States.

    Of course, as result my identity politics juices were suppressed and I missed out on all the fun.

    I do find the Spanish more useful today; I can read most of it but my production is sketchy due to a lack of practice.

  3. It’s also possible that the terminal language will be Mandarin, as the Chinese may colonize the United States after everybody here gets used to free everything, completely give up education and working, and the military strength subsequently deteriorates. People forget that India and China were not always third world countries. So position at the top is not guaranteed.

  4. The biggest exception is Hebrew, which had not been a living language for centuries but was resurrected beginning in in the late 19th century — though the number of Hebrew speakers worldwide is only about 10% of the number of Vietnamese speakers.

  5. If I had to bet – and pardon my ignorance, I’d bet against Prof. McWhorther, and say that English would become the terminal secondary language for the world. The shaping of what languages are used is done at a global and local level.

    There is no doubt that English, at a global level, is the dominant language, due to the Anglo-american pop cultural dominance, in particular in the western world, and, of course due to the internet. In Europe, in the mid 20th century, French was still a popular second language, but it has completely been surpassed by English. And all relevant science and technology debate and idea exchange is being done in English.

    However, at a local level, there is a big difference between large countries and small countries. The large countries, especially when there is a political project behind it (expansion of a central system, integration of immigrants, patriotism, etc.), tend to homoginise their main speaking language. Also, large countries, due to their large internal markets tend to require other languages as much.

    But if one takes a look at smaller countries in Europe, such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal or Switzerland, one sees that, while English is widespread and very well known, it does not surpass the local native languages. In fact, both Belgium (French and Dutch) and Switzerland (French, Italian, Swiss German and Romance) have more than one official non-English languages that do not see to disappear, even though many people these days use English as routine, if not daily, language.

    If you also look at the continent of Europe, years of European integration have certainly seen English being more used, but it has not replaced any of the native languages. There is no major evidence that local languages are dying. Will therefore English succeed in overtaking these languages as a primary one, as the linguist postulates? I’d argue no. Unless there is an externally imposed pressure to suppress local languages and impose a common one, that will not happen. It won’t happen as a centralised mandate from the EU, and it won’t happen as a common rallying factor to promote integration of immigrants, as happened in the USA, like Alex described above for his ancestors. Local languages are a factor relevant to individual pride, origins and roots. And China is also a different a case where central authoritanism and repression plays a significant role (two examples, Tibetans and Uighurs, despite the Chinese constitution granting all nationalities the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages).

    Europe will be an interesting control case for Professor McWhorter’s theory. Now with the UK leaving the EU, only two countries remain with English as an official language (Ireland and Malta), a population of native English speakers representing less than 2% of the total inhabitants of the EU. Therefore there is no central authority whose member’s primary language is English.

    (As a sidenote, see this interesting article at the FT about the rise of “Eurish” or the new version of continental English (https://www.ft.com/content/b5afd93a-0d94-11e8-8eb7-42f857ea9f09). Unfortunately the comments are offline right now, because I remeber reading many interesting inputs from the readers.)

    The other potential interesring control case is the USA itself. Native Americans clearly had no demographic or economic power to impose or maintain their language as the primary. However, Spanish now represents a non-trivial proportion of the spoken language, with native speakers representing about 13% of the population (and growing).

    So, my bet is that, unless there is a major world power imposing English as a primary language, or that external factors, such as epidemics, or major economic distress, lead to significant decrease of the demographic and economic power of communities that spean non-English native languages, English will not be the terminal primary language of the human race. I’d bet it’s more like the Star Wars universe – yes the main common language is English, but Chewbacca still speaks Wookie to everyone.

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