I heard a wonderful story recently, which, like most good stories, may either be true or apocryphal. A cranky Frenchman attending an international engineering conference in Paris bridles at having English as the common language of the presenters. “Why must we conduct these proceedings in English?” he rails. “We are in France, we should be speaking French!” To which another attendee replies, “We’re speaking English because the British and the Americans got together a few years ago to make sure we didn’t have to conduct the proceedings in German.”
I have always been fascinated by language. I remember as a child learning that languages were divided into categories – Romance (Spanish, Portuguese, French) and Teutonic (German, Dutch) – and that many of them could trace their roots back through Latin and Greek to an Indo-European language that came out of the Middle East. In high school, I was lucky enough to have a Latin teacher who offered to come in early one morning a week and teach us Greek. If you know both Latin and Greek, you can figure out the meaning of most English words.
Even so, I understand what that French engineer was complaining about. I would be cranky too if I had to learn English as a second language. It has no consistency. It has exceptions galore. Anyone who saw Desi Arnaz fighting through the pronunciations of rough, through, bough, and cough (all of which are spelled the same but don’t rhyme) on an old I Love Lucy episode can appreciate the confusion it engenders. Ironically, German is a much more structured and grammatically consistent language.
But I realized recently that English’s inconsistency is exactly what suits its status as an international language. English is complicated because it’s an agglomeration of many languages. How did this happen? Because the centuries, England kept getting invaded. Every time another country invaded, it brought weapons and words. Could English actually easier for others to learn because of all this linguistic agglomeration? After all, there are relatives to words in numerous other languages.
People may snipe that English is the international language only because of British hegemony in the 19th century and American hegemony in the 20th century. But I think English’s claim to being an international language started much earlier. The French were big contributors: most words that end in –tion, -ence, or –ment come from French. But as Wikipedia’s Lists of English loanwords by country or language of origin points out, English has taken words from languages ranging from Dutch (aardvark, mannequin) to Hawaiian (taboo) to Arabic (algebra, alcohol).
That’s why we have so many words in English that mean the same thing. Check out the Web site Four Level Game and you’ll see examples from Saxon (Old English), French, Latin, and Greek. That’s how we get, respectively, king, royalty, regent, and monarch, or blue, azure, aqua, and sapphire.
Now I realize that chauvinistically ignores the Asian languages, which are so linguistically removed from English. But even so, English is a secondary official language in India, and according to someone I met at a party recently, there are certain Chinese companies that require their executives to be fluent in English, even if those executives are not doing business in the United States.
And of course, those who do want to do business in America are forced to learn English as well. Here in Silicon Valley, we live on a cul-de-sac of five houses. Only two of the families are native speakers of English; our other neighbors hail from Taiwan, Germany, and Israel (where English is only a semi-official language, after Hebrew and Arabic). Seeing and listening to my neighbors – and remembering my feeble attempts to learn other languages – I feel extremely lucky to have been brought up to speak what is now a global language. It’s like inheriting a lot of money you didn’t earn.
I’m also grateful the proceedings are not being conducted in German.