Book review: The last Lingua franca: English until the return of Babel

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NICHOLAS Ostler has no special "reverence" for English, his native tongue, which presumably motivated a working knowledge of 26 different languages and bestows a rather refreshing scepticism towards the rise and rise of globalised English. His thesis is plain: the fate of all languages which attain the status of a lingua franca is that they will, in time, decline. Just as large groups once used Latin, Greek or Phoenician, the idea that English is somehow immune to the same fate, so Ostler argues, comes from an ignorance of our linguistic past.

In a thorough analysis of the rise and fall of different lingua francas, Ostler provides us with a series of rich examples showing how these "common languages" achieve prominence and how they subsequently, and inevitably, lose this, left to shrivel for use only as mother tongues. Choosing to provide as a case study the perhaps less well known example of Persian - rather than Latin, the subject of his previous book - Ostler dazzles us (sometimes too brightly) with the range of his linguistic knowledge.

How languages lose currency, the mechanisms that arise to overthrow one dominant language and replace it with another, fascinates Ostler and here he really excels. He characterises the "three Rs of lingua franca death": economic Ruin, political Relegation or social Resignation. The last of these has especially befallen Russian, a former lingua franca in Eastern Europe, where social trends have almost eliminated its use, it having been usurped in less than a generation by the "cooler" language of Hollywood, video games and pop culture.

Yet fashions fade and English could just as easily lose its cultural cachet. While many hundreds of millions still learn English as a second language, Ostler predicts that soon they will not need to. Developments in machine translation will allow us to communicate in our native tongues while computers do all the hard work. Language learning will be relegated to a historical curiosity, the hobby of only the very keen. This does ring a rather sad note for a book which begins with Goethe's aphorism "He who is not acquainted with foreign languages knows nothing of his own."

Whether or not his predictions of a return to a virtual Babel come true, Ostler is convinced that as the economic power of the Anglo Saxon nations fade, so will the widespread use of English as markets such as China, Brazil and Russia gain power. Yet he admits there is no single language that is likely to take its place. I doubt we will lament the loss of English's usefulness for a good time to come.