In the musical “My Fair Lady,” Professor Henry Higgins expresses outrage at the “cold-blooded murder of the English tongue.” The guilty parties are the Scots, the Irish, the Welsh — and of course Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower girl from London with whom the linguistic purist falls in love. If Americans escape his scathing verdict it’s because “in America, they haven’t used [English] for years!”
What would Higgins say today? Even on the BBC, once a bastion of the “Queen’s English,” the way presenters speak immediately identifies them not only as Irish, Scottish and Welsh but as American, Australian, South African, Indian, Kenyan, not to mention as hailing from South London or the wilds of northern England.
When the world’s top business folks and politicians meet up in the Swiss ski resort of Davos, whether on the podium, a hotel bar or somebody else’s bed, chances are they will be speaking English - slurred, broken, groaned perhaps, but English nonetheless.
English has become a universal language. There are many reasons for its dominance: the heritage of the British Empire, and the post-world-war economic hegemony and cultural influence - ranging from Mickey Mouse and Marilyn Monroe to Elvis Presley and Snoop Dogg - of the United States.
But the main reason is the elasticity of the language and the broad-mindedness it communicates. If English grammar is rudimentary, the linguistic equivalent of rock’ n’ roll, the English vocabulary is huge. There are very few things that can’t be expressed in English, and if it can’t be said in English then a word is lifted from another language - like “kindergarten,” for example. If it doesn’t exist in English and a word isn’t lifted from another language it’s because what it represents doesn’t make sense to thinking shaped by the English language: a case in point, “Schicksalsgemeinschaft” (companions in fate).
The predominance of English in sciences, economy, culture and politics is overwhelming. In Palestine, in the days of Jesus of Nazareth, Latin was the language of the military and government. But to be considered educated you had to speak Greek; if you were Jewish you also had to speak Hebrew; and the language of the masses was Aramaic. In the Europe of the late Middle Ages, Latin was the language of the erudite, Italian the language of trade, and blossoming cultures used their own respective languages.
Karl Marx had an inkling of where things were headed. In his 1848 “Communist Manifesto” he wrote: “National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.”
Perhaps the universal language didn’t have to be English. In his soon-to-be-published utopian novel “Der Komet” (“The Comet)” German writer Hannes Stein imagines a world in which the assassination in Sarajevo of the Archduke of Austria - which sparked World War I - had not taken place. As a result, there were no First and Second World Wars; there was no Russian Revolution; and there was no Holocaust.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire is the cultural reference, and the Deutsche Reich is the economic and scientific driving force. It goes without saying that American scientists publish in German, the language that is also spoken in the Turkish province of Palestine among Zionist settlers living under the protection of the Sultan. Stein’s Utopia is compelling precisely because it isn’t all that improbable.
Yet one dares make the assertion that the world is lucky that it is English — that whore among languages — that has become the global lingua franca. From its inception English showed the multicultural flexibility and openness that are the secret to success. Originally a Scandinavian-Low German dialect, it was — after the invasion of England by the French-speaking Normans -enriched by a romance-language vocabulary to the extent that there are two words for virtually all objects.
What’s more, the Germanic endings and similar nonsense were dropped, so that — as every translator knows — English texts can convey the same thing as a German text that is one-third longer. End rhymes without inflectional endings are easier, something that is no less crucial to Shakespeare’s sonnets than it is to pop music lyrics.
So the triumph of the English language may not be so accidental after all. English-speaking financial guru and philosopher Nassim Taleb, who was born in Lebanon and lives in the United States, has said that the survival of institutions depends on a quality he calls the “antifragile.” Things are antifragile when they don’t fall apart under stress, but adapt instead. English is antifragile. It is opportunistic. Unlike French, for example, it doesn’t stand on rules and correct pronunciation. It can even accommodate a Henry Kissinger — and that says a lot.