I came across mention of this book when I was doing a post, several weeks ago, about using the computer to translate from one language to another. Since I’m interested in anything to do with languages, I immediately put in a request for the book from the library.
Naturally, all the books I had requested became available the same week. I was sure I would like this one, so I started with it. It proved a much more difficult read than I had expected, however, so it was the last one of those that I finished.
The basic premise of The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel, as indicated by the title, is that English will eventually cease to operate as a global lingua franca, but no other language will take its place. Nicholas Ostler doesn’t make this argument until the very end of the book, however. All the previous chapters are laying groundwork, showing the history behind the rise and fall of various languages that have at some point served for communication among people who do not share a mother tongue.
I found the parts dealing with English and other European languages most interesting, as I was already familiar with the history and languages involved. I was particularly interested in the changing role of Latin over the centuries. I had always simply accepted its role as the primary vehicle of education and culture in Europe, up until modern times, without wondering much about it came about.
I also found the discussion of Persian very interesting, because I much of it was new to me, yet I knew just enough about the countries and histories involved that I did not get lost in a jumble of unfamiliar names and events. When it came to languages such as Sogdian, however, I found that even rereading a passage gave me very little further insight into what Ostler was saying. I simply had no good references point to use as context for so much new information.
Ostler presents a great deal of material showing multiple examples of the different ways a language can come to function as a lingua franca. Most often, this is a result of commerce, but religion and expanding empire can also spread use of a language. In any case, a language used in this way only retains widespread use as long as people continue to gain benefits from using it. When those benefits cease, for whatever reason, use of the language declines.
Sometimes, of course, the lingua franca becomes the mother tongue of a people who have used it long enough. In the process, it may become altered enough to constitute a new language (the source of many if not most new languages). In that case, it ceases to be a lingua franca, since by definition that is a language shared by people whose primary languages are different.
In other cases, the lingua franca loses its role either because the need for such communication goes away or a different language takes over that role. This could happen due to changing trade patterns, changes in government (either being conquered by people who speak a different language, or by achieving independence and not wanting to speak the language of the previous overlords), or changing religions (in cases where the former and/or the current religion requires use of a special language).
The bulk of this book is simply going into great detail about examples of these language shifts. Personally I think the points could have been made with fewer examples, but I suppose more material is seen as stronger support for a thesis that may challenge entrenched views. Since it’s not a subject I had read about previously (language used specifically as lingua franca), I don’t know whether Ostler’s view is particularly controversial or not.
A review from Publishers Weekly suggests that Ostler is really more interested in the technical discussion of sociolinguistics, and simply uses the fate of English as a way to attract a wider audience. I do think Ostler seems confused about who he is really writing for – the casual reader or the academic. Or else he doesn’t know how to match his writing to his intended audience.
I would have been much more interested in an in-depth discussion of whether machine translation really will be able to function as the means for speakers of different languages to understand each other, without learning a common language. If that can happen, then the need for a lingua franca such as English may go away. But as this is still a relatively new field, so there’s not much Ostler can say except that if current trends continue, computers will be able to replace human translators.
It’s hard not to be skeptical. When it comes to written communication, I can see the possibility of automated translation being adequate to convey meaning for many, perhaps even most purposes. With writing, the language tends to be somewhat more formal, which I think makes it somewhat easier to translate. Changes in language normally affect spoken language first, and by the time they are codified in written works the translation software would be updated to capture them.
I find it hard to envision automated instantaneous translation for conversational speech, however. No doubt the computers could become small enough and fast enough to work the way universal translators do in sci-fi books and movies. But could they really convey the subtle nuances that often play an important role in spoken language? Languages differ in how they use speed, tone, and stressed syllables to shade the meaning. When there is not word-for-word correspondence in meaning (and there rarely is), how would the translator determine which words get that extra stress or change in tone?
If I just need to get – or convey – some basic communication, those nuances might have little importance. But what about sensitive negotiations, either between diplomats or trading partners? Subtle shades of meaning can make a big difference in such cases.
One could argue that there would be no need for widespread knowledge of a common language for that purpose. An embassy or business could maintain a staff of multilingual experts for such negotiations, while letting ordinary communications depend on machine translation. That is an aspect of sociolinguistics that I would find much more interesting than the history of pidgins and creoles I never heard of before.