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LEITURA: The future of English / Matéria publicada na revista Speak Up edição 226 - março/2006

The future of English

Qual o futuro do inglês? vai se tornar a primeira língua de fato universal, ou terá o mesmo fim do latim, que se desintegrou em línguas locais? A partir deste mês, apresentamos um dossiê para acompanhar os passos do idioma de Shakespeare.
The future of English was the subject of a recent Newsweek cover story. The language's international success is causing it to evolve: will it go the same way as Latin and split up into different languages?
Going Global

Is English set to(1) dominate the world? It is more widespread(2) than any language has ever been. The Economist described it as "impregnably established as the world's standard language." It is used globally in business, diplomacy, sport, music, advertising and technology. A fifth of the world's population speak it to some level of competence, another fifth are hurrying to learn it, and everybody seems to want it written on their T-shirts.
Will this dominance continue and increase until English is spoken absolutely everywhere? Many think the answer is obvious: yes.
But not everyone is so certain. Some claim that the dominance of English is unhealthy(3). Others go further, saying the uncontrolled expansion of English is leading it towards disintegration.
Complacent Attitudes
Would the dominance of a single language be a good thing? It would certainly save translation costs in the European Union.
It's easy for those who speak English to assume that its remarkable spread is healthy. In 2002 The Wall Street Journal noted: "A growing number of people are speaking a smaller number of languages, meaning that age-old obstacles to communication are collapsing(4). Surely this is a good thing."
Is it really? The evidence(5) is not all in favour of fewer languages. Speaking a single language - Serbo-Croat - did not save the former Yugoslavia from atrocities, for example. War-torn Rwanda and Somalia have fewer languages than other African countries.
While English grows and grows, half of the world's 6,000 languages are endangered(6). Some say that this is natural: languages have always died out and they always will.
Except that, like endangered animals, the number of languages under threat(7) has sharply increased as a result of the global economy. 90 per cent of today's languages could be extinct by 2100. And English could be the major factor in their disappearance.
Experts now suggest that language diversity may be as important as bio-diversity. Long-established cultures hold precious insights(8) into the world. Letting them die may lose us invaluable knowledge, for example, in the fields of medicine, herbology and agriculture. Languages may be worth protecting just as much as species.
But how? Language preservation is a long way behind ecology. Linguists disagree about how to save dying languages. Who should take on such a responsibility?
Monolingual Monopoly
A homogenous English-speaking world does not appeal to everyone. Experts point out that, due to birth rates(9), the relative number of native English speakers is already dropping(10) compared with other languages. In economic terms, English's "market share"(11) is falling.
The fluctuations of world economics may also increase other languages' influence. As the stable populations of the UK and the USA grow older, more consumer power will lie with the dynamic young workers of emerging nations. Spanish, Mandarin and Hindi are already important. Urdu, Tamil and Malay may not be far behind.
We may also see a reaction against the dominance of the United States, as new powers strive(12) to assert economic and cultural independence. Speaking English may now be seen as a passport to a better life. But, as the world becomes one great consumer market, it may also be associated with oppression and injustice. If social and economic inequalities remain or worsen, the backlash(13) against First World control may some day become a backlash against the English language.
Some predict that this will lead to economic zones. The world could become increasingly multilingual, with people constantly switching between global and local communication. Those who only speak one language - even if it is English - may be left out.
Changing Times
"New Englishes" are also emerging. Today British and American culture set the norms for English. But will these countries retain unchallenged(14) authority? As Indian and African English increase in importance, the balance of power could shift.
English is also at the cutting edge(15) of so many fields - such as technology, business and entertainment - it should be no surprise that new vocabularies and grammar are emerging.
The internet is often considered the flagship(16) of English. True, it brings the language into uncharted corners(17) of the world. Yet, in this frenzy of communication, the rules of Standard English are often bent or bypassed(18). Experts are just beginning to chart the astonishing(19) development of "Net English."
Native English speakers are, for the first time, outnumbered by second-language speakers. Variants like "Spanglish" - a mix of Latin American Spanish with English - see other cultures unashamedly(20) borrowing from English and mixing it with their own. Such vibrant crossbreeds(21) reflect local cultures, but are barely(22) recognisable beside Standard English. The hybrids of the Far East - "Japlish" and "Chinglish" - are idiosyncratic, sometimes hilarious and often incomprehensible.
Even in Europe, the enthusiasm for using the global language leads to comical misuses, such as this sign in a Rome laundry(23): "Ladies, leave your clothes here and spend the afternoon having a good time."
Tomorrow's World
What is the future for English? Should we be confident or alarmed? How can expert predictions vary so wildly, from triumphalism to disaster?
The simple truth is that no language has ever been in such a position before. The closest comparison is perhaps with Latin, before it split into the Romance languages. Could English be about to disintegrate? We will try and find out in the forthcoming issues of Speak Up. William Sutton

The Global Language in a Circle
McArthur's Circle of World English tries to organize an unruly language. In the middle is an idealized formal language. Farther out lie the regional varieties that either have a standard usage or are developing one, and on the fringe lie freely evolving regional dialects.
Despite its spot at the center of the wheel, no one really speaks World Standard English.
Figures The English Language's Vital Statistics
Native speakers of English:
400 million Second-language English speakers: Between 400 million and 1.4 billion (experts disagree) Total population of countries where English is an official language: 1.4 billion
Estimated number of people currently learning English worldwide: over 1 billion

Some amusing examples of the international use and abuse of English (with spelling mistakes and unfortunate choices of phrase). Inset left: "Spanglish" was even the title of a movie last year.
Far left: Guia de Sotaques do Inglês available at


1 set to - determinado a, prestes a.
2 widespread - difundido.
3 is unhealthy - não é saudável.
4 to collapse - desmoronar.
5 evidence - evidências, sinais.
6 endangered - ameaçadas de extinção.
7 under threat - sob ameaça.
8 hold precious insights - guardam compreensões preciosas (da vida).
9 birth rates - taxas de natalidade.
10 to drop - cair.
11 market share - fatia do mercado.
12 to strive - esforçar-se.
13 backlash - reação contrária.
14 unchallenged - sem concorrência.
15 at the cutting edge - na vanguarda.
16 flagship - "carro-chefe".
17 into uncharted corners - em lugares inexplorados.
18 bent or bypassed - distorcidas ou ignoradas.
19 astonishing - impressionante, surpreendente.
20 unashamedly - de modo descarado, sem vergonha.
21 crossbreeds - híbridos.
22 barely - quase não.
23laundry - lavanderia.

Matéria publicada na revista Speak Up edição 226 - março/2006

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