English is the world's lingua franca-the most widely spoken language in human history. And yet, as historian and linguist Nicholas Ostler persuasively argues, English will not only be displaced as the world's language in the not-distant future, it will be the last lingua franca, not replaced by another.
Empire, commerce, and religion have been the primary raisons d'etre for lingua francas--Greek, Latin, Arabic have all held the position--and Ostler explores each through the lens of civilizations spanning the globe and history, from China and India to Russia and Europe. Three trends emerge that suggest the ultimate decline of English and other lingua francas. Movements throughout the world towards equality in society will downgrade the status of elites--and since elites are the prime users of non-native English, the language will gradually retreat to its native-speaking territories. The rising wealth of Brazil, Russia, India, and China will challenge the dominance of native-English-speaking nations--thereby shrinking the international preference for English. Simultaneously, new technologies will allow instant translation among major languages, enhacing the status of mother tongues and lessening the necessity for any future lingua franca.
Ostler predicts a soft landing for English: It will still be widely spoken, if no longer worldwide, sustained by America's continued power on the world stage. But its decline will be both symbolic and significant, evidence of grand shifts in the cultural effects of empire. The Last Lingua Franca is both an insightful examination of the trajectory of our own mother tongue and a fascinating lens through which to view the sweep of history.
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Nicholas Ostler is the author of Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin and Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World. He is chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages (www.ogmios.org), a charity that supports the efforts of small communities worldwide to know and use their languages more. A scholar with a working knowledge of eighteen languages, Ostler lives in Bath, England.From Publishers Weekly:
The days of English as the all-conquering international language of science, commerce, and hip-hop are numbered, according to this dense philological treatise. Linguist Ostler (Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin) recaps the rise and fall of lingua francas past--from ancient Sanskrit and Latin to French in the 19th century--to glean insights into how such languages spread--by military conquest, trade, and missionary work-- then shrivel when the originating country loses prestige and power. He concludes from this retrospective that English will recede (though not die), and that no new lingua franca will supplant it--sorry, Esperanto speakers!--because translation software will let everyone communicate directly without learning a common language. Ostler uses English's fate mainly as a peg to hang a rather technical comparative study in which pedestrian generalities emerge from a thicket of historical minutiae. The interested layman will find the book readable, but the level of arcane detail about unfamiliar languages ("the characteristic ezafe construction of Persian noun–phrases, which appends all dependents to the head noun with a linking –i-or-e-, is copied in Chagatay Turkic") may put off the casual reader. 10 b&w illus.; 3 maps. (Dec.)
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