AS German politicians continued negotiations to build a governing coalition in the wake of the confusing election result, Guido Westerwelle, chairman of the successful Free Democrats (FDP), took over the leadership of his party's parliamentary group. He described the discussions on the matter as having been "sehr fair". In times of crisis, people tend to fall back on their unaffected selves. So it is telling that, at a moment of drama and tension, Mr Westerwelle should use English words in full confidence that his fellow citizens will understand him.
"Fair" is no longer really even a foreign word in Germany; you will find it in German dictionaries as surely as you will find "budget" in French ones. English terms are creeping into the very fabric of all other languages. Sometimes that is because a specific cultural particularity of the English-speaking world is untranslatable. The closest German synonym for "fair" -- gerecht -- doesn't mean quite the same thing. The word "hamburger" supplants no French equivalent. But sometimes English words are imported into languages that do not need them in the slightest. Surely no culture lacks a word for "meeting" or "leader", yet there are now few languages in which these English words (transliterated if necessary, as in the Spanish mitin and líder) would not be understood.
This makes the experience of a native English speaker in a globalising world very different from that of a non-native. A study done last year by the Pew Research Centre found 71 per cent of Germans in their thirties and forties agreed that "children need to learn English to succeed in the world today". The closest equivalent question you can ask an English speaker is whether it is important to learn any foreign language. Only 30 per cent of Britons in their thirties and forties think it is, Pew found.
The question arises of whether a linguistic world that English bestrides like a colossus is a good or a bad thing. There are two ways in which the importance of English might cause justifiable resentment. First, being a native English speaker is the equivalent of possessing a reserve currency. Most international conversation requires English, just as most international trade requires dollars, euros or pounds. When a French and a British company bid on a Russian contract, making sure that nothing is lost in translation constitutes an extra cost for the French company -- whether that is monetised (through the hiring of translators) or not. Because of this cost, if two knowledge workers -- one a native English speaker, the other not -- seem to be of similar quality, the non-English speaker is likely to be the better worker in his own language.
But perhaps economies of scale - the weight and variety of thinking and commerce carried out in English - negate this effect. Perhaps the native English speaker is subject to more quality control, having already proved his value in a more competitive (because more global) marketplace. Just as economists differ over how big a benefit the US draws from not having to purchase another currency to do business, it is hard to quantify the benefits to the US and UK of getting to work in their own language.
Another way the predominance of English might rankle non-speakers is by swamping smaller languages. But here, too, the picture is mixed. Languages that have been historically disadvantaged may actually benefit from English dominance. If a Catalan speaker in Barcelona also speaks English, he can work in any multinational corporation there, or transact business across Europe. He no longer has to master Spanish to rise out of the local economy. Similarly, an English-speaking immigrant to continental Europe from the Arab world can get by for longer without the language of his new country. This does not mean that the growing importance of English is good, only that its effects on linguistic minorities are ambiguous.
It is speakers of other dominant languages who are most likely to resent the rise of English. Last winter, Le Monde Diplomatique published a number of articles that explored the possibility of replacing English with a global language less associated with the American hegemon. Spanish, Chinese, Arabic and (naturally) French were among the possibilities considered. Such a replacement is most unlikely.
English as a language has two obvious advantages that no potential rival can match. First, because it is a hybrid of Romance and Germanic languages, it has a ring of familiarity not just to western Europeans but also to many Africans and virtually all Latin Americans. In Asia, the only continent where a majority speaks an unrelated language, English is already the lingua franca of gigantic India and Pakistan. Second, however complicated English may be as a literary language, it is fantastically simple as a pidgin. In Turkic languages, to take one comparison, one must master the grammar before one can say practically anything at all.
English has become self-sustaining more for sociological reasons than for linguistic ones. It is the language of elites, largely as a result of Britain's empire, and then thanks to US postwar dominance. Speakers of Chinese and Arabic may rival English speakers in terms of numbers but they are not as strategically situated. Good luck trying to find a Chinese speaker at a corporate headquarters in Quebec or an Arabic speaker in a government office in Paraguay. Not only will tomorrow's elites be inspired to learn it by imitation; today's elites -- including those in China and the Arabic-speaking world -- have a vested interest in maintaining it as the world's linguistic reserve currency. If all memory of British colonialism were erased and the US retired from the world stage, English would still remain the international language of choice -- even if that is not, as a German might put it, "fair".
The writer is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard.
— FT Syndication Service