H.L. Mencken > The American Language > Chapter 12. The Future of the Language > 1. English as a World Language
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H.L. Mencken (1880–1956).  The American Language.  1921.

XII.   The Future of the Language
 
 
1. English as a World Language
 
The great Jakob Grimm, the founder of comparative philology, hazarded the guess more than three-quarters of a century ago that English would one day become the chief language of the world, and perhaps crowd out several of the then principal idioms altogether. “In wealth, wisdom and strict economy,” he said, “none of the other living languages can vie with it.” At that time the guess was bold, for English was still in fifth place, with not only French and German ahead of it, but also Spanish and Russian. In 1801, according to Michael George Mulhall, the relative standing of the five, in the number of persons using them, was as follows:
 
French.....................31,450,000
Russian.....................30,770,000
German.....................30,320,000
Spanish.....................26,190,000
English.....................20,520,000 1
 
   1
  The population of the United States was then but little more than 5,000,000, but in twenty years it had nearly doubled, and thereafter it increased steadily and enormously, and by 1860 it was greater than that of the United Kingdom. Since that time the majority of English-speaking persons in the world have lived on this side of the water; today there are nearly three times as many as in the United Kingdom and nearly twice as many as in the whole British Empire. This enormous increase in the American population, beginning with the great immigrations of the 30’s and 40’s, quickly lifted English to fourth place among the languages, and then to third, to second and to first. When it took the lead the attention of philologists was actively directed to the matter, and in 1868 one of them, a German named Brackebusch, first seriously raised the question whether English was destined to obliterate certain of the older tongues. 2 Brackebusch decided against it on various philological grounds, none of them particularly sound. His own figures, as the following table from his dissertation shows, 3 were rather against him:
 
English.....................60,000,000
German.....................52,000,000
Russian.....................45,000,000
French.....................45,000,000
Spanish.....................40,000,000
 
   2
  This is 1868. Before another generation had passed the lead of English, still because of the great growth of the United States, and yet more impressive, as the following figures for 1890 show:
 
English.....................111,100,000
German.....................75,200,000
Russian.....................75,000,000
French.....................51,200,000
Spanish.....................42,800,000
Italian.....................33,400,000
Portuguese.....................13,000,000 4
 
   3
  The next estimates, for the year 1900, I take from Jespersen. The statisticians responsible for them I do not know:
 
English.....................from 116,000,000 to 123,000,000
German.....................from 75,000,000 to 80,000,000
Russian.....................from 70,000,000 to 85,000,000
French.....................from 45,000,000 to 52,000,000
Spanish.....................from 44,000,000 to 58,000,000
Italian.....................from 34,000,000 to 54,000,000
 
   4
  Now comes an estimate as of 1911: 5
 
English.....................160,000,000
German.....................130,000,000
Russian.....................100,000,000
French.....................70,000,000
Spanish.....................50,000,000
Italian.....................50,000,000
Portuguese.....................25,000,000
 
   5
  And now one, somewhat more moderate, as of 1912:
 
English.....................150,000,000
German.....................90,000,000
Russian.....................106,000,000
French.....................47,000,000
Spanish.....................52,000,000
Italian.....................37,000,000 6
 
   6
  If we accept the 1911 estimate, we find English spoken by two and a half times as many persons as spoke it at the close of the Civil War, and by nearly eight times as many as spoke it at the beginning of the nineteenth century. No other language spread to any such extent during the century. German made a fourfold gain, but that was just half the gain made by English. Russian, despite the vast extension of the Russian Empire during the century, barely more than tripled its users, and French barely doubled them. Perhaps all of the figures in the table are excessive; that is almost certainly true of German, and probably also true of English and French. The same authority, in 1921, modified them as follows:
 
English.....................150,000,000
German.....................120,000,000
Russian.....................90,000,000
French.....................60,000,000
Spanish.....................55,000,000
Italian.....................40,000,000
Portuguese.....................30,000,000 7
 
   7
  I am inclined to think that the German estimate is still far too high; probably even Hickmann’s 90,000,000 is too liberal. The number of Germans in Germany is about 60,000,000, and in German Austria not more than 6,000,000 or 7,000,000. Add the German-speaking inhabitants of Holstein, Alsace-Lorraine, the lost portions of Silesia and the Dantzig territory: perhaps 3,000,000 more. Then the German-speaking peoples of the Baltic region, of Transylvania and of Russia: at most, 2,000,000. Then the German-speaking colonists in North and South America: 2,000,000 or 3,000,000 more. Altogether, I put the number of living users of German at less than 75,000,000, which is probably no more than half of the number of living users of English. Japanese, I daresay, should follow French: it is spoken by at least 60,000,000 persons. But it seems to be making very little progress, and its difficulties put it out of consideration as a world language. Chinese, too, may be disregarded, for though it is spoken by more than 300,000,000 persons, it is split into half a dozen mutually unintelligible dialects, and shows no sign of spreading beyond the limits of China; in fact, it is yielding to other languages along the borders, especially to English in the seaports. The same may be said of Hindustani, which is the language of 100,000,000 inhabitants of British India; it shows wide dialectical variations and the people who speak it are not likely to spread. But English is the possession of a race that is still pushing in all directions, and wherever that race settles the existing languages tend to succumb. Thus French, despite the passionate resistance sistance of the French-Canadians, is gradually decaying in Canada; in all newly-settled regions English is universal. And thus Spanish is dying out in our own Southwest, and promises to meet with severe competition in some of the nearer parts of Latin-America. The English control of the sea has likewise carried the language into far places. There is scarcely a merchant ship-captain on deep water, of whatever nationality, who does not find some acquaintance with it necessary, and it has become, in debased forms, the lingua franca of Oceanica and the Far East generally. “Three-fourths of the world’s mail matter,” says E. H. Babbitt, “is now addressed in English,” and “more than half of the world’s newspapers are printed in English.” 8   8
  Brackebusch, in the speculative paper just mentioned, came to the conclusion that the future domination of English would be prevented by its unphonetic spelling, its grammatical decay and the general difficulties that a foreigner encounters in seeking to master it. “The simplification of its grammar,” he said, with true philological fatuity, “is the commencement of dissolution, the beginning of the end, and its extraordinary tendency to degenerate into slang of every kind is the foreshadowing of its approaching dismemberment.” But in the same breath he was forced to admit that “the greater development it has obtained” was the result of this very simplification of grammar, and an inspection of the rest of his reasoning quickly shows its unsoundness, even without an appeal to the plain facts. The spelling of a language, whether it be phonetic or not, has little to do with its spread. Very few men learn it by studying books; they learn it by hearing it spoken. As for grammatical decay, it is not a sign of dissolution, but a sign of active life and constantly renewed strength. To the professional philologist, perhaps it may sometimes appear otherwise. He is apt to estimate languages by looking at their complexity; the Greek aorist elicits his admiration because it presents enormous difficulties and is inordinately subtle. But the object of language is not to bemuse grammarians, but to convey ideas, and the more simply it accomplishes plishes that object the more effectively it meets the needs of an energetic and practical people and the larger its inherent vitality. The history of every language of Europe, since the earliest days of which we have record, is a history of simplifications. Even such languages as German, which still cling to a great many exasperating inflections, including the absurd inflection of the article for gender, are less highly inflected than they used to be, and are proceeding slowly but surely toward analysis. The fact that English has gone further along that road than any other civilized tongue is not a proof of its decrepitude, but a proof of its continued strength. Brought into free competition with another language, say German or French or Spanish, it is almost certain to prevail, if only because it is vastly easier—that is, as a spoken language—to learn. The foreigner essaying it, indeed, finds his chief difficulty, not in mastering its forms, but in grasping its lack of forms. He doesn’t have to learn a new and complex grammar; what he has to do is to forget grammar.   9
  Once he has done so, the rest is a mere matter of acquiring a vocabulary. He can make himself understood, given a few nouns, pronouns, verbs and numerals, without troubling himself in the slightest about accidence. “Me see she” is bad English, perhaps, but it would be absurd to say that it is obscure—and on some not too distant tomorrow it may be very fair American. Essaying an inflected language, the beginner must go into the matter far more deeply before he may hope to be understood. Bradley, in “The Making of English,” 9 shows clearly how German and English differ in this respect, and how great is the advantage of English. In the latter the verb sing has but eight forms, and of these three are entirely obsolete, one is obsolescent, and two more may be dropped out without damage to comprehension. In German the corresponding verb, singen, has no fewer than sixteen forms. How far English has proceeded toward the complete obliteration of inflections is shown by such barbarous forms of it as Pidgin English and Beach-la-Mar, in which the final step is taken without appreciable loss of clarity. The Pidgin English verb is identical in all tenses. Go stands for both went and gone; makee is both make and made. In the same way there is no declension of the pronoun for case. My is thus I, me, mine and our own my. “No belong my” is “it is not mine,” a crude construction, of course, but still clearly intelligible. Chinamen learn Pidgin English in a few months, and savages in the South Seas master Beach-la-Mar almost as quickly. And a white man, once he has accustomed himself to either, finds it strangely fluent and expressive. He cannot argue politics in it, nor dispute upon transubstantiation, but for all the business of every day it is perfectly satisfactory.   10
  This capacity of English for clear and succinct utterance is frequently remarked by Continental philologists, many of whom seem inclined to agree with Grimm that it will eventually supersede all of the varying dialects now spoken in Europe, at least for commercial purposes. Jespersen, in the first chapter of his “Growth and Structure of the English Language,” 10 discusses the matter very penetratingly and at great length. “There is one impression,” he says, “that continually comes to my mind whenever I think of the English language and compare it with others: it seems to me positively and expressively masculine; it is the language of a grownup man and has very little childish or feminine about it. A great many things go together to produce and to confirm that impression, things phonetical, grammatical, and lexical, words and turns that are found, and words and turns that are not found, in the language.” He then goes on to explain the origin and nature of the “masculine” air: it is grounded chiefly upon clarity, directness and force. He says:
 
The English consonants are well defined; voiced and voiceless consonants stand over against each other in neat symmetry, and they are, as a rule, clearly and precisely pronounced. You have none of those indistinct or half-slurred consonants that abound in Danish, for instance (such as those in hade, hage, livlig), where you hardly know whether it is a consonant or a vowel-glide that meets the ear. The only thing that might be compared to this in English is the r when not followed by a vowel, but then this has really given up definitely all pretensions to the rank of a consonant, and is (in the pronunciation of the South of England) 11 either frankly a vowel (as in here) or else nothing at all (in hart, etc.). Each English consonant belongs distinctly to its own type, a t is a t, and a k is a k, and there is an end. There is much less modification of a consonant by the surrounding vowels than in some other languages; thus none of that palatalization of consonants which gives an insinuating grace to such languages as Russian. The vowel sounds, too, are comparatively independent of their surroundings; and in this respect the language now has deviated widely from the character of Old English, and has become more clear-cut and distinct in its phonetic structure, although, to be sure, the diphthongization of most long vowels (in ale, whole, eel, who, phonetically eil, houl, ijl, huw) counteracts in some degree this impression of neatness and evenness.
 
   11
  Jespersen then proceeds to consider certain peculiarities of English grammar and syntax, and to point out the simplicity and forcefulness of the everyday English vocabulary. The grammatical baldness of the language, he argues (against the old tradition in philology), is one of the chief sources of its vigor. He says:
 
Where German has, for instance, alle diejenigen wilden tiere, die dort leben, so that the plural idea is expressed in each word separately (apart, of course, from the adverb), English has all the wild animals that live there, where all, the article, the adjective, and the relative pronoun are alike incapable of receiving any mark of the plural number; the sense is expressed with the greatest clearness imaginable, and all the unstressed endings -e and -en, which make most German sentences so drawling, are avoided.
 
   12
  The prevalence of very short words in English, and the syntactical law which enables it to dispense with the definite article in many constructions “where other languages think it indispensable, e. g., ‘life is short,’ ‘dinner is ready’ ”—these are further marks of vigor and clarity, according to Dr. Jespersen. “ ‘First come, first served,’ ” he says, “is much more vigorous than the French ‘Premier venu, premier moulu’ or ‘Le Premier venu engrène,’ the German ‘Werzuerst kommt, mahlt zuerst,’ and especially than the Danish ‘Dender kommer forst til molle, far forst malet’ ” Again, there is the superior logical sense of English—the arrangement of words, not according to grammatical rules, but according to their meaning. “In English,” says Dr. Jespersen, “an auxiliary verb does not stand far from its main verb, and a negative will be found in the immediate neighborhood of the word it negatives, generally the verb (auxiliary). An adjective nearly always stands before its noun; the only really important exception is when there are qualifications added to it which draw it after the noun so that the whole complex serves the purpose of a relative clause.” In English, the subject almost invariably precedes the verb and the object follows after. Once Dr. Jespersen had his pupils determine the percentage of sentences in various authors in which this order was observed. They found that even in English poetry it was seldom violated; the percentage of observances in Tennyson’s poetry ran to 88. But in the poetry of Holger Drachmann, the Dane, it fell to 61, in Anatole France’s prose to 66, in Gabriele d’Annunzio to 49, and in the poetry of Goethe to 30. All these things make English clearer and more logical than other tongues. It is, says Dr. Jespersen, “a methodical, energetic, business-like and sober language, that does not care much for finery and elegance, but does care for logical consistency and is opposed to any attempt to narrow-in life by police regulations and strict rules either of grammar or of lexicon.” In these judgments another distinguished Danish philologist, Prof. Thomsen, agrees fully.   13
  There is, of course, something to be said on the other side. “Besides a certain ungainliness [Dr. Jespersen’s masculine quality],” said a recent writer in English, 12 “English labors under other grave disadvantages. The five vowels of our alphabet have to do duty for some twenty sounds, and, to the foreigner, there are no simple rules by which the correct vowel sounds may be gauged from the way a word is written; our orthography also reflects the chaotic period before our language was formed, and the spelling of a particular word is often unconnected with either its present pronunciation or correct derivation. And although our literature contains more great poetry than any other, and though our language was made by poets rather than by prose writers, English is not musical in the sense that Greek was, or that Italian is when sung.” But these objections have very little genuine force. The average foreigner does not learn English in order to sing it, but in order to speak it. And, as I have said, he does not learn it from books, but by word of mouth. To write it correctly, and particularly to spell it correctly, is a herculean undertaking, but very few foreigners find any need to do either. If our spelling were reformed, most of the difficulties now encountered would vanish.   14
  Meanwhile, it remains a plain fact that, if only because of the grammatical simplicity, it is easier to obtain an intelligible working knowledge of English than of any other living tongue. This superior simplicity, added to the commercial utility of knowing the language, will probably more than counterbalance the nationalistic objections to acquiring it. In point of fact, they are already grown feeble. All over the Continent English is being studied by men of every European race, including especially the German. “During my recent stay in Berlin,” says a post-war English traveler, 13 “nothing annoyed me more than the frequency with which my inquiries of the man in the street for direction, made in atrocious German, elicited replies in perfect English.” This writer accounts for what he observed by the fact that “the English-speaking nations own half the world,” and asks, “what language should they study but English?” But the spread of the language was already marked before the war. Another Englishman, writing in 1910, 14 thus described its extension in the Far East, as observed during a trip to Japan:
 
It was only on reaching Italy that I began fully to realize this wonderful thing, that for nearly six weeks, on a German ship, in a journey of nearly ten thousand miles, we had heard little of any language but English!
 
   15
  It is an amazing thing when one thinks of it.   16
  In Japan most of the tradespeople spoke English. At Shanghai, at Hong Kong, at Singapore, at Penang, at Colombo, at Suez, at Port Said—all the way home to the Italian ports, the language of all the ship’s traffic, the language of such discourse as the passengers held with natives, most of the language or board ship itself, was English.   17
  The German captain of our ship spoke English more often than German. All his officers spoke English.   18
  The Chinese man-o’-war’s men who conveyed the Chinese prince on board at Shanghai, received commands and exchanged commands with our German sailors in English. The Chinese mandarins in their conversations with the ships’ officers invariably spoke English. They use the same ideographs in writing as the Japanese, but to talk to our Japanese passengers they had to speak English. Nay, coming as they did from various provinces of the Empire, where the language greatly differs, they found it most convenient in conversation among themselves to speak English!   19
  If, as some aver, the greatest hindrances to peaceful international intercourse are the misunderstandings due to diversity of tongues, the wide prevalence of the English tongue must be the greatest unifying bond the world has ever known.   20
  And it grows—it grows unceasingly. At the beginning of last century English was the native speech of little more than twenty million people. At the end of the century it was spoken by 130 millions. Before the year 2000 it will probably be spoken by 250 to 500 millions.   21
  In the most high and palmy state of Rome, the population of the Empire was less than 100 millions. To-day 350 millions own the sway of rulers who speak English.   22
Note 1.  Jespersen, in his Growth and Structure of the English Language, p. 244, lists a number of estimates for previous periods. At the beginning of the sixteenth century English was variously estimated to be spoken by from four to five millions of persons, German by ten, Russian by three, French by from ten to twelve, Spanish by eight and a half and Italian by nine and a half. French was thus in first place, closely followed by German, with English fifth. In the year 1600 English was spoken by six millions, German by ten, Russian by three, French by fourteen, Spanish by eight and a half, and Italian by nine and a half. The six languages thus ranked exactly as they had ranked a century before, but with French showing a greatly increased lead, and English slowly spreading. In the year 1700 the various estimates were: English, eight and a half millions; German, ten; Russian, from three to fifteen; French, twenty; Spanish, eight and a half; Italian, from nine and a half to eleven. Jespersen shows that Mulhall’s estimate, given above, differed a good deal from that of other statisticians. The guesses made in the year 1800 and thereabout ranged as follows: English, twenty to forty; German, thirty to thirty-three; Russian, twenty-five to thirty-one; French, twenty-seven to thirty-one; Spanish, twenty-six; Italian, fourteen to fifteen. Mulhall did not list Italian. [back]
Note 2.  Long before this the general question of the relative superiority of various languages had been debated in Germany. In 1796 the Berlin Academy offered a prize for the best essay on The Ideal of a Perfect Language. It was won by one Jenisch with a treatise bearing the sonorous title of A Philosophical-Critical Comparison and Estimate of Fourteen of the Ancient and Modern Languages of Europe, viz., Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, German, Dutch, English, Danish, Swedish, Polish, Russian and Lithuanian. [back]
Note 3.  Is English Destined to Become the Universal Language? by W. Brackebusch; Göttingen, 1868. [back]
Note 4.  I take these figures from A Modern English Grammar, by H. G. Buehler; New York, 1900, p. 3. [back]
Note 5.  World Almanac, 1914, p. 63. See also English, March, 1919, p. 20. [back]
Note 6.  Hickmann’s Geographisch-Statistischer Universal Atlas. [back]
Note 7.  World Almanac, 1921, p. 145. [back]
Note 8.  The Geography of Great Languages, World’s Work, Feb., 1908, p. 9907. Babbitt predicts that by the year 2000 English will be spoken by 1,100,000,000 persons, as against 500,000,000 speakers of Russian, 300,000,000 of Spanish, 160,000,000 of German and 60,000,000 of French. [back]
Note 9.  New York, 1915, p. 5 ff. [back]
Note 10.  Third ed., rev.; Leipzig, 1919. [back]
Note 11.  But certainly not in that of the United States, save maybe in the South. [back]
Note 12.  Feb., 1921, p. 450. [back]
Note 13.  John Cournos: English as Esperanto: Its Extraordinary Popularity in Central Europe, English, Feb., 1921, p. 451. [back]
Note 14.  Alexander M. Thompson: Japan for a Week; Britain Forever!; London, 1910. [back]

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