Language, Writing

The Rise and Rise of English – And It’s Negative Impact on Global Literature

As a native speaker, the rise, spread, and entrenchment of English in the global order has been a boon. No matter where I go I know that I will be able to communicate with the vast majority of people with whom I would want to communicate. It has become a sign of education, class, and culture to speak English. Here in Paris wealthy families pay very well for nannies and governesses that speak English natively.

Every major literary work is translated into English, the majority of global best sellers are written in English, pop music and TV are dominated by English the world over. If life was a game of Civilization 4, the United States (not Britain) is well on it’s way to cultural victory.

It is making cross cultural communication easier and could indeed become THE global language. We see this is a good thing most of the time.

But is it?

In France I work at a technology venture capitalist firm. Everyone that works here must speak English. If one even wants a shot at being funded they must speak English well enough to present – ideally well enough to work in California if we send them there. Further, all public relations pieces, blog articles, etc. are written in English. Bad English.

Turns out that watching TV and reading blog articles doesn’t really prepare one to write a respectable essay. The European tech VC field is FULL of people that insist on writing and communicating in English. However they make no effort to actually ameliorate it. Often they reach a level where they can speak decently and then cease to improve.

This is a widespread problem, it is certainly not limited to the French business world. It’s most lethal poison seems to be reserved for the literary traditions of non-English speaking countries. This is a point brought up by Minae Mizumura in her recent book. According to her the literary tradition of Japan has been declining since 1945 – vocabulary is shrinking, words are getting simpler, old stylistic flourish have ceased exist entirely. She nears claiming that Japanese literary tradition is on it’s deathbed. And maybe it is. God rest Soeseki and Kawabata.

Not only is reading in English seen as somehow both cool AND intellectual at the same time, but even authors are now writing in English or in Japanese designed to be easy to translate. Obviously this has a huge negative effect on the actual quality of the literature. And it doesn’t stop there, the same problem is seen in European literature as well. Most writers now eye a translation to English and target English readerships.

The negative effect this has on their native literature is clear – but what about the effect on English? We, as native speakers, are inundated with the asinine and poorly written output of the entire world. And as the ESL proportion of the English speaking population increases, so too does the simplification of our language – all in order to reach people that only know it incompletely.

The government of the UK is removing e.g., etc, i.e., n.b., et al from usage because apparently it expects too much of an education from the legions of new ‘Britons’ crowding the island. English writers are being encouraged to use fewer idioms in order to accommodate people that don’t know them. Idioms are a core part of English! I expect simplified orthography to be the next step; we do live in an age where Oxford professors question the value of spelling at all.

What a time to be alive!

Standard
Language

Sanskrit and the West – Discovery and Loss

Classical learning in the west primarily consists (or consisted if you want to take a pessimistic view of the state of classical learning) of the study of the major ancient languages – Latin and Greek. However, at the end of the 18th century another classical language entered the tradition: Sanskrit. Having always existed at the periphery of the Classical World (from a Western perspective, of course), Sanskrit the other great ancient descendant of PIEĀ  or Proto-Indo-European.

This is something that British scholars quickly realized during the process of colonization – the similarities between Sanskrit and the languages that they had studied in University were too striking. It couldn’t be coincidence. And returning to Europe with the staggering volume of writing that they had found, Sanskrit had something of a renaissance in the West – or rather, a naissance. It was quickly introduced into English and German universities where the similarities between it and the Greco-roman tradition ensued. During the 19th century this cross study of the three major languages led to the development of a whole new field of study: comparative linguistics. As well as the theory of a much, much older origin language, PIE.

Sanskrit verbs conjugation was very similar to that of Greek, though slightly less complicated. What was extremely complicated, and hence very interesting to this generation of European scholars (these were the people that eventually deciphered cuneiform and hieroglyphs) was the complicated rules regarding sound agreement, called Sandhi. These sound changes where significantly more complicated than those found in Greek (sound agreement and elision in Latin is hardly worth mentioning as it is almost entirely relegated to poetry and in the form of small contractions in the active perfect 3rd plural and a few other cases). This, combined with the fact that there was an enormous amount of material to be read led to a huge explosion of academic interest. The results of which can still be seen today as the major centers of Sanskrit studies are in the USA, England, and Germany not India.

However, this interest was not sustained and the study largely died off after the comparative aspects came to be understood. The demise of the classical education (at least as a requirement), began after the first Word War and as fewer men took up the study of their own tradition, even less took an interest in foreign traditions. Western classicist now fear a similar decline of Latin and Greek that they have seen with Sanskrit: that is, it is now relegated to a very small number of extremely specialized academics. And last time Latin and Greek retreated into the monasteries it took centuries for it to return in the form if the Renaissance.

If you have any interest in this study, University programs still exist at schools that still have serious classics programs. There is also something of a Sanskrit renaissance going on in India as the country rediscovers its roots and it’s own tradition resurfaces (it never stopped being used in a religious context). One of the best things about Sanskrit is the fact that the best literature (or what is generally regarded as the best), that of Kalidasa, is much easier to read than the majority of the Vedic works. His writing was mostly drama and truly excellent poetry.

Despite its complicated Sandhi system, the ancient Indians were extraordinarily serious about the study of grammar. Their intense study resulted in the language not changing nearly as much as one would expect over such a long period of time. This work all started with one of the first true grammarians: Panini.

I studied Sanskrit in school for a few semesters and it was extraordinarily rewarding. However I could not maintain three classical languages no matter how related they were!

Here are some resources for those interested.

Standard