Would you consider English the universal language?

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by science man, May 4, 2010.


Would you consider English the universal language yet?

  1. yes

    21 vote(s)
  2. no

    15 vote(s)
  1. thankyou
    ok fine it but get pretty close.
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  3. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    It depends on your time limits. If you count everything that was ever written and is still available, I'm sure Chinese wins. It also depends on your meaning of "publish," since printing is a relatively new technology, even in China where it was first invented. The older stuff was all done by hand.
    People use the term "universal language" in different ways. But in my experience it usually means an auxiliary language--natural, simplified or completely artificial--for people to use who don't speak the same native language. Not a replacement.
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  5. Agreed.
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  7. qwerty mob Deicidal Registered Senior Member

    Fraggle Rocker's points are well received, but I have the suspicion that what was in question is which present language is more likely to prevail internationally, over time. If that is the case, and we aren't talking about Esperanto or Simplified Chinese or some new synthetic language, then English has many advantages in the Evolution of a World Language:

    English is a non-inflected Indo-European language which shares roots with many cousin dialects

    It is a very highly evolved, inductive and adaptive language, which grows dynamically every year

    It is de facto the language of modern technology, from Hollywood to the Space Station

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    The phonetic Alphabet used to represent English is relatively simple with only a few dozen spelling rules, though many exceptions


    Very good wiki article on World Language


    Besides, who can argue with a goofy non-sequitur like this:

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  8. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Our "phonetic alphabet" is too simple. It doesn't have enough letters to represent all the phonemes in our language. Just look at our vowels: we have twelve, but there are only five letters for vowels.

    Of all the languages using the Roman alphabet, English and French are the least phonetic. (Although I'm not quite sure about Irish.) English has major word stock from Anglo-Saxon, French, Latin and Greek, and significant borrowings from many other languages, each of which follows the spelling rules of the original language--sometimes.
  9. ScaryMonster I’m the whispered word. Valued Senior Member

    But is English the most studied second language in the world?
    Or is Spanish or Japanese?
  10. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    English is probably the most studied. Virtually everyone in India who goes to school (which, unfortunately, does not include the entire population) takes classes in English. However, not all of those hundreds of millions of Indians learn it well enough to be counted as their "second language."

    It's also widely taught in China. English is relatively easy for Chinese because, surprisingly, the two unrelated languages have a lot in common. But again, that doesn't mean all those hundreds of millions of Chinese people stick with it and become even haltingly fluent.

    And of course English is important enough that people all over the world study it, but that does not mean they follow through and actually learn it.

    In Japan, Mexico, Europe, much of Africa and several other regions, a lot of people actually do learn to speak it with some fluency. But that's not enough to qualify it as "universal." The vast majority of the human race don't know a hundred words of English.

    The total number of people on Earth who can carry on some semblance of a conversation in English is comparable to the number of people who speak Mandarin as their native language: one billion in round numbers, only one-seventh of the planet's population. This is not "universal."
    Spanish is popular in American schools so it gives us the impression that it's popular everywhere. But it's not. Most other places in the world people don't see any need to learn Spanish. They don't understand (according to my wife's prediction) that Latin America will soon be the powerhouse of the world economy.

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    French is more popular in Africa, and Europeans study both French and German--in addition to English. A lot of people in eastern Europe and central Asia still learn Russian.

    As for Japanese, forget it. Nobody learns Japanese. It's way too difficult, and unless you actually go to Japan you will probably never meet a Japanese official, scholar, tourist, engineer or businessman who doesn't speak English. They don't even like it when other people try to speak their language, it's like we're defiling it.
  11. coolplay Registered Member

    I would definitly consider English as a universal language.
  12. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    * * * * NOTE FROM THE MODERATOR * * * *

    Did you read the entire thread? This question has been examined in quite a bit of detail. To offer an opinion without explaining why you feel that way isn't contributing much to the discussion.
  13. Walter L. Wagner Cosmic Truth Seeker Valued Senior Member

    It should be mentioned that English is the language of global commercial air travel. Airline pilots are required to learn English to speak with air-traffic-controllers in that language.
  14. Dywyddyr Penguinaciously duckalicious. Valued Senior Member

    Post #5 Walter!
  15. superstring01 Moderator


    I didn't know that about the Japanese. I have a friend from highschool who works for JAL and lives in Osaka. She teaches Engrish to Japanese flight attendants (and, big surprise, she's a beautiful, blond haired blue eyed lady). She has nothing but high praise for her life in Nippon, but isn't a dummy either. She knows a lot of the favorable treatment she receives is on account of the fact that (per her) she's an attractive, blond, American lady.

    ***change of subject***

    So, where do you see English in fifty years compared to--say--Chinese**, Spanish, Arabic or French?


    **Which, I think you know is hardly even "one" language. The difference between the two most distant dialects in Mandarin is bigger than gulf between Russian and Ukranian; Spanish and Portuguese, and they are considered distinct languages. Per my recent readings, most of the time we use labels like "dialect" and "language" because of politics, not good science. Standard Mandarin isn't even really that widely used in China outside of official news bureaus, government documents and other national affairs systems. English--for better or worse--is pretty much "English" (outside of Scotland and Jamaica, and even in those places they can adjust automatically to the bland Anglo-American stuff we all use now).
  16. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    The Japanese are particularly attracted to blond and red-haired Westerners because they are so exotic. I've never been to Japan and I've never watched any Japanese TV, but the people I know who have, say that their billboards, print ads and TV commercials feature blonds and redheads (of both sexes) but not so many brown and black-haired foreigners.
    After reviewing the surprises of the last fifty years, I refuse to make any predictions.

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    My wife insists that Latin America's turn for leadership is coming soon. But even if she's right I don't know how that's going to play out linguistically. They have two languages with comparable populations of speakers. Even though many urban Brazilians can understand Spanish because it comes at them from every direction, I can't see them allowing their "Latin EU" be dominated by Spanish. And it doesn't work the other way: not many Spanish speakers have had much exposure to Portuguese, especially in Mexico, which vies for leadership of the region.

    Arabic? I don't know. The world's four largest Muslim nations are Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nigeria, and Arabic is strictly a liturgical language for them. Virtually no one there speaks it at home or in business. Arabic is our planet's #6 language, but with around 250 million speakers it's barely ahead of Portuguese. Farsi-speaking Shiite Iran would dearly love to break up the Sunni Arab hegemony over the Middle East, so it's not going to sit by and watch the Arabic language make more gains.

    French? I don't even understand why it's on the list. This is the 21st century, not the 19th.

    Chinese? They're not exporting it. China will absolutely have to switch to one of its phonetic writing systems before anyone outside the country is going to bother learning its language. And they won't be able to do that until the young generation who were all taught Mandarin in school grow up and replace the older people who still speak their regional languages, since their shared, non-phonetic written language is what binds them together as a culture. This will take most of those fifty years, and perhaps longer since the world's oldest continuous nation is rather patient.

    That leaves English. It's the language of computers, air traffic control, rock and roll, probably the majority of TV productions, a disproportionate number of movies, a large segment of the business community, and many other domains I haven't thought of. If things were to continue in the direction they're going today, the number of people who can communicate in English would continue to grow, but at that rate it would take a long time to earn the title of "universal language" or "everybody's second language." One seventh of the population can use it; if we double that it's still not close to half. It's still a damn hard language to learn to speak, even harder to learn to speak well enough to not be embarrassed and often misunderstood, and its writing system is phonetic only compared to Chinese--which will become phonetic within this century.

    Meanwhile, in those same fifty years, technological change will take place at an ever-increasing rate, triggering cultural, political and economic changes. The Estonians are really good at software development, perhaps in fifty years everyone will be studying Estonian.
    I'm not sure about that. I think they're comparable. Sichuan dialect is about as different from Beijing as any, and I could understand my Sichuan girlfriend talking to her family.
    No, that's not true. The Spanish-Portuguese phonetic gap is easy to bridge, but they have substantial differences in vocabulary. The dialects of Mandarin don't. Even the different Chinese languages don't have a large difference in vocabulary, since it's the written language that keeps them together. They pronounce their words so differently that they're not understandable, but they're still the same words, about 98%. You might be able to say that about Czech and Slovak, Dutch and Afrikaans, even Danish and Norwegian, but not Spanish and Portuguese.
    Not on my board, we don't.

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    If two people cannot understand each other without spending significant time studying each's other's speech, then they're speaking separate languages. If they can understand each other, with at most a little effort, then they're dialects. If the differences are almost exclusively in pronunciation, then they're accents.

    In any such paradigm there are always pairs that come close to the line and are hard to decide. Spanish and Catalan are so close that you might argue that it's a political decision to call them separate languages. So are Catalan and Portuguese; my friends in Valencia said they had a lot less trouble making themselves understood in Portugal when they started speaking Catalan instead of Spanish. And I agree that a Spaniard can probably learn to get along in Portuguese in a few months of living there, without taking classes.

    Of course this makes a mockery of the Dutch/Flemish divide; now that is pure politics.

    But as for Mandarin, my old girlfriend's family moved from Sichuan to Taiwan after WWII and within a couple of weeks they could understand Beijing Mandarin perfectly, and within a couple of months they could speak it with a bit of an accent.
    Yeah okay, but those "national affairs systems" include the schools. Every kid is taught in something approximating Beijing Mandarin, so they all grow up speaking it. Their children won't learn Sichuan Mandarin and their grandchildren won't learn Cantonese or Shanghai.
    We generally recognize four standard dialects: British, American, Australian and Indian. Kiwi is a variant of Aussie, and I'm not sure about South African. Standard British English is R.P. (Received Pronunciation, or what we call Oxford or BBC English), an artificial but now standardized variant, and there are dozens (maybe more) major non-standard dialects within the U.K. I think the Birmingham dialect (Brummy) is more different from British Standard than Scots dialect is. We have a few non-standard dialects within the USA, but TV is doing a great job of leveling them. Southern dialect is now hardly more than an accent.
  17. baftan ******* Valued Senior Member

  18. superstring01 Moderator

    Yeah, but Chinese is the "official" language of one nation (Two if you count Taiwan and maybe three if you count Singapore, who uses English on a national scale).

    I am. The only thing that ties some of the Chinese dialects is the fact that the written characters are the same. Taking into consideration regional usage variations and shifts in pronunciation and you get damned close to another language. Also, when I worked for Walmart, I had a lot of Russians working for me and only two associates who could translate: An elderly Russian man who was my maintenance supervisor**, and a CSM who's parents were from Ukraine. She, with very little effort, translated all the necessary instructions for the Ruskies. Per her, the differences were so small that it only took a few weeks of talking with them to find the commonalities. The writer of "The Power Of Babel" claims that if Ukraine and Belorussia had remained part of Russia, we'd simple consider both to be dialects of Russian, and I'm inclined to agree.

    I don't totally disagree. I know what separates those two languages, but the EASE in learning the other one--having learned one or grown up with one-- is beyond easy. It takes a month or two at most.

    I dated a Paulista (yes a "Paulista") early in high school who NEVER studied Spanish. Upon moving to Cleveland, she learned Spanish in a very short time in order to communicate with all the other kids from Hispano-America.

    The difference is similar to that between French and Provençal. A Spaniard cannot go to Cataluña and understand what's beings said. Trust me, I've been there, with Castellanos, and we found ourselves scratching our heads every time we tried to listen to conversations. It'sjust slightly more than a regional dialect (Like Valenciano or Gallego) significantly beyond a regional accent difference (ceceo, seseo and distinción). It borders on a full fledged language. Just look at how you say "please" in Català: "Si us plau" Remind you of somebody else? Or, "I don't speak Catalan": "No parlo [bé] el català".

    Like French, Italian and Portuguese, Catalan kept the "beginning" of the Latin liturgical word "parabulare" for "to speak", but Spanish inherited the back half in "hablar". "Loqui", it would appear, just got lost to the obscurity of the ages.

    I don't know enough about it to argue. But my "half" sisters mother is from the Black Country and she swears that nothing is more un-intelligible than the Bloody Scots! And, frankly, few people make a bigger mockery of the Queen's English than those from the Black Country.


    **The guy's wife worked our overnight crew and had ovarian cancer and never missed a day of work. Even after surgery, we had to FORCE her to stay at home (with pay!), for one week to heal. She got chemo once a week and never ever was late. Never called off. Yes, the woman was that tough. She just wrapped her bandanna around her head and trudged into work every night. She grew up in Siberia, spent a good number of years in a gulag, was helped escape by an American church. She reminded me of my grandma from W. VA who grew up on a subsistence farm. God that woman worked until they had to tie her to a bed, and only that was just two months before death from cancer.
    Last edited: May 20, 2010
  19. Syzygys As a mother, I am telling you Valued Senior Member

    ...and the French is what, like 1% of the world's population???

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    Beside most educated French do speak English...
  20. Syzygys As a mother, I am telling you Valued Senior Member

    Confused a bit? Lay down the pipe for god's sake!
  21. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    You're making the mistake that most Westerners make, which is understandable since the Chinese perpetrate it: Calling all forms of speech used in China dialects of a single language. They do this for two reasons:
    • They can all read each other's writing, AFAIK a unique phenomenon among the world's language communities.
    • English is not their native language so our terminology consists of awkward translations of theirs. They refer to everything spoken in China as "China speech," Zhongguo hua. The various forms of that speech are guan hua, "official speech" or Mandarin, and then Guangdong hua, Fujian hua, Taiwan hua, Sichuan hua, Hunan hua, Shanghai hua, etc., the distinct "speech" of each region or province.
    • They don't use this term for the written language. Xie Zhongguo ci: write China character; kan Zhongguo shu: see (read) China book. (Chinese needs no inflections, articles, etc., because of its rigid syntax. That's why they call themselves "China man," a literal translation of Zhongguo ren.)
    On a science and scholarship board, especially in this subforum, we hew to the proper linguistic definitions.
    • Two forms of speech whose speakers cannot understand each other without considerable effort are languages.
    • Two variant forms that can be understood with a bit of difficulty and/or effort are dialects.
    • Two variant forms that satisfy the definition of dialects, but differ almost exclusively in pronunciation, are accents.
    • There are other forms and variants of speech such as jargon, cant and argot, but they don't concern this discussion.
    What we call "Chinese" is in fact the entire Sinitic language subgroup of the Sino-Tibetan family. It consists of several distinct languages--forms of speech whose speakers cannot readily understand each other. Linguists argue over the classification, since terms like "readily" are imprecise, but the following is the minimal acknowledged list of distinct Sinitic languages, with the name of the most prominent dialect and a rough estimate of number of speakers:
    • Mandarin, including Beijing hua, but extending throughout much of the country, e.g. all the way to Sichuan, 800 million
    • Wu, including Shanghai hua, 100 million
    • Yue, including Guangdong hua (Cantonese, the speech of Hong Kong and Guangdong province), 100 million
    • Min, including Taiwan hua (the language of the native people of Taiwan, not the Mandarin imposed by the Nationalist refugees after WII), 50 million
    • Xiang, including Hunan hua, 35 million
    • Hakka, various dialects spoken in southern China and adjacent countries, 35 million
    • Gan, spoken in Jiangxi province and neighboring regions, 20 million.
    I hope this is a start toward straightening out the issue of Chinese languages versus dialects of those languages.
    He's right about Belarus (literally "White Russian"), a "language" none of us had heard of before Perestroika. I wouldn't say the same for Ukrainian. Ukraine was a major political power in the past and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is distinct from the Russian Orthodox. There has always been a substantial Ukrainian expat community who fiercely kept their language alive. Ukrainian has significant phonetic differences from Russian and its version of the Cyrillic alphabet has extra letters for phonemes that don't exist in Russian, such as the H sound. I'll accept your friends' assertions that Russian and Ukrainian are mutually intelligible. So classifying them as separate languages is indeed a matter of politics and national pride, like Dutch and Flemish, or even Dutch and Afrikaans. But it's a long tradition that was not likely to be overturned even before Glasnost.
    Sometimes its the foreigners who make the breakthrough. With my modest fluency in Spanish and a smattering of Portuguese and Italian I found Catalan ridiculously easy to understand, to the embarrassment of my hosts.
    Parabola is a word the Romans borrowed from Greek and turned it into a verb. And that's not Portuguese, see below.
    No. Spanish hablar and Portuguese falar are from Latin fabulare, yet another vernacular alternative that sprang up for loquere. Remember that Latin initial F often changed to H in Spanish and was subsequently muted: fornus --> horno, ferrus --> hierro, fugire --> huir.
    Last edited: May 20, 2010
  22. betterlife translator Registered Senior Member

  23. CheskiChips Banned Banned

    I voted Yes, because I think the US should invade and colonize most of the world and make them speak American.

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