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The formation a lingua franca: from the course of history

By Zhou Yaowen | 2013-07-25
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

As the English language has become the lingua franca of the global village, an increasing number of Chinese students are reading extensively in English.
Photographed by Jiang Hong
Concerning the possible emergence or creation of a lingua franca, scholars generally hold one of three viewpoints. Some believe it should be man-made; some advocate that regional languages will merge into a lingua franca; and some iterate that a lingua franca is formed through historical processes.
 
Man-made international language: more idea than reality
 
Some scholars champion the idea of a future lingua franca that is man-made—a new language that transcends the boundaries of race or nation, embodying a spirit of ethnic and linguistic equality. These scholars envision such a lingua franca as being an amalgam of the strengths of national languages, thereby taking on the most logical syntactical structures and being the easiest to learn, enabling its widespread use. Plenty have attempted to construct a lingua franca; however, among more than 500 initiatives historically, only Esperanto has survived. Esperanto was the creation of a Polish linguist and doctor named L. L. Zamenhof in 1887. The proposal received the approval of linguists and other advocating equality among languages and they named it as “Esperanto” which was derived from his pseudonym Doktoro Esperanto. At the turn of the 19th and 20th century, Esperanto was introduced into China.
 
126 years after its birth, Esperanto has been recognized as an international auxiliary language; its scientific nature has also been affirmed by the international community. However, Esperanto also has some problems. For instance, as a man-made language, Esperanto is not a national language and therefore it has no native habitat or naturally increasing population of users. Learned and grasped merely by some intellectuals, Esperanto has no base for the dissemination among the masses and does not serve as a vehicular language in any community. No country has made it the first foreign language to be taught at school. Few historical documents or scientific texts are written in Esperanto. In short, it is not widely used. Currently there are only about 10 million Esperanto speakers world-wide, and each year fewer than 100,000 new speakers join their ranks. Scholars of linguistics have not reached a consensus on the use, dissemination and the future of Esperanto. As for its development into an international lingua franca however, I believe the potential is relatively small.
 
Language evolution follows “the Snowball Theory”
 
Other scholars propose that certain regional languages could be merged into a lingua franca, notably among them Joseph Stalin and several Soviet linguists contemporary to Stalin who supported and explicated his views. In “Marxism and Problems of Linguistics,” Stalin used the concepts “crossing”, “merging” and “combining” to discuss the integration of languages between different nations and over the course of different eras. “Crossing” is more narrow in meaning in his application, describing the phenomena whereby when languages “cross,” one will inevitably emerge victorious while others will die away. He related this process to the communist teleology, proposing that it would occur in the epoch prior to the victory of socialism on a world scale. “Merging” refers to the case that different dialects, after gradually absorbing common elements of a national language, lose their uniqueness and originality and merge into the national language. The formula is written as: A1+A2→A1. “Combining” is explained as a new common language will be formed by absorbing the best elements of the national and regional languages during the period of the victory of socialism on a world scale, and its formula is A+B+C=N(new language).
 
While I agree with Stalin’s concept of “crossing” and “merging”, I find fault in “combining”. Current world history has already witnessed the emergence of regional languages and a lingua franca. Moreover, a lingua franca does not have to be a product of an ideal Communist society. For instance, each of the working languages at the UN, i.e. English, French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese and Arabic, is the common or official language spoken in a nation or a region, among which the English language is in the position of a lingua franca. In addition, the evolution of a language follows “the Snowball Theory”: dominant languages will become increasingly widely used by more and more people; as these languages absorb the speakers of weak languages, weaker languages will be added into the snowball and disappear. The formula of “combining” proposed by Stalin actually violates the snowball theory.
 
English has become the lingua franca of the global village
 
Based on social function, language could be divided into five categories: dialects, national languages, official state languages, regional languages and the lingua franca. The dialect has the smallest function while the lingua franca has the greatest one. The social function of a language is formed in the course of history as a result of the dynamic size of the speech community and the number of users as languages evolve and have contact with one another. This is about the communication capacity of a language; the significance is not that languages are unequal. The linguist Zhou Youguang has observed, “The common language of the global village is never decided on in a conference, but formed gradually in history. The English language, in fact, has become the lingua franca of the global village.”
 
I share the same idea. Back in the 16th century, English was a language spoken merely by millions of habitants in England. Its cultural influence was not as great as that of Italian or French, and its range was narrower than Spanish. In the following two centuries, however, the English-speaking community expanded quickly, as the bourgeois and industrial revolutions took place in Britain and its citizenry spread from the metropole to its colonies. By the mid-19th century, the UK had become a world power and adopted policies for language assimilation in its colonies, prescribing English as the official language to be taught at school and in so doing greatly enlarging the speech community of English. Statistics have shown that English is the official language or common language in approximately one quarter of the countries and regions in the world. English is spoken as the native language by 300 million people, as the second language (not a national language, but a common language within a nation) by 250 million and as a foreign language by another 300 to 500 million people. Among the six working languages of the UN, English is the most frequently used.
 
Concurrently, as the science and technologies are more advanced in the UK and the U.S., English is the common language of scholarly publishing and 90% of materials available on the internet are in English. In order to enable their young population to study science and engineering in the UK and the U.S., many former British colonies which are now independent have made English the official language (or one of the official languages), the teaching language or the first foreign language. In China, education policy has regarded Chinese, mathematics and English as the three basic school subjects ever since the early 20th century, and English is tested at the national college entrance exam.
 
Of course, it would be premature to say that English is now the recognized lingua franca; moreover, the position of a lingua franca is by no means permanent. Prior to World War I, French used to be the common language of continental Europe and was spoken at almost all international conferences in the West. After France’s early defeat in World War II and the role of the U.S. in saving the day for the Allied Forces, combined with the U.S's strength in science and technology, English gradually superseded French as the common language of the international arena. Years from now. If the economies, science, technology and culture of English-speaking countries are surpassed by an emerging, populous economic power, the language of that country could possibly be used by countries where English is spoken as the official language or the first foreign language, thus challenging the global primacy of English. This process of superseding English, however, will not be completed in one day.
 
Zhou Yaowen is from the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
 
The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No.416, Feb 18, 2013.
 
Chinese link:
 
http://www.csstoday.net/Item/49118.aspx
 
Translated by Jiang Hong
Revised by Charles Horne
 
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