Is Shakespeare’s Language Dying?

Will Shakespeare soon be spinning in his grave?

It is a cliché to say that we live in a fast changing world. It is again a cliché to say that the nation to watch in the coming century will undoubtedly be The People’s Republic of China – already the most populous nation on Earth and, if the predictions are to be believed, soon to be the richest.

But, what will be the appearance of this new world? We already consume vast quantities of China’s consumer goods, and have used and adapted their inventions for centuries. But what of their language? Will we soon be foregoing the teaching of European languages in schools – although to believe media reports, we teach languages anyway – and instead opt for Mandarin? Indeed, in half a century, will the entire world be communicating in Mandarin?

The answer to the last question is a definite no (in fact, I only mentioned it to cause any BNP readers extreme discomfort at the thought). To better clarify the question, it is worth remembering that for almost a century, English has been the international language of business – a legacy from the long hegemony of the British Empire and the continued dominance of the American market. But as China rises, will Mandarin replace English as the premier language of the world?

To address this issue as logically as possible, it is very probable to surmise that eventually English will no longer be the world’s language, especially as China begins to export its culture in the coming century. But such is the head start that English education has across the globe (another consequence of British Imperialism), and so great is the continued dominance of American culture, it is unlikely to occur in the imminent future – and certainly unlikely, in my view, to occur in the 21st century.

So is the future more likely to be multilingual? Already, many employers look for their staff to be able to speak other languages to allow easier trading across the globe. In some bilingual countries, notably Canada, all government employees must be able to speak both English and French. Perhaps then it is possible that both English and Mandarin will be spoken alongside and, perhaps, merge into a joint jargon.

To have an idea of what this might look like, one need look no further than the technical instructions for any number of electrical appliances. All too often these are found to be written in a rather incomprehensible lingo barely helped by the diagrams. Of course, this is not limited to instruction manuals. According to various urban myths, when Coca-Cola first introduced their brand of drink into China, the name initially used translated roughly as “bite the wax tadpole” or “female horse stuffed with wax.” In the defence of these manual writers, they are working in a foreign language – but that doesn’t make it any less amusing.

This article’s title also raises a slightly more interesting question. What happens to the great works of literature when a language dies out? Language extinction is not a recent phenomenon – for example, nobody today speaks a word of Babylonian (and nor has anyone for several thousand years). When these languages cease to be spoken, who then will be able to read the great works of civilisation – whether they be accounts of long-forgotten military victories or other great works of fiction. Until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in Egypt by Napoleon’s soldiers, nobody had been able to translate the mysterious Egyptian hieroglyphs, denying historians (and the interested general public) the chance to discover an ancient culture.

More recent languages that have started to head the way of the Dodo include numerous dialects from across Central and South America as well as around Indonesia. According to research reported in the National Geographic Magazine, there will be a drastic reduction by a half of all languages spoken (from a current total of approximately 7,000) during this coming century. Included in this list will be at least one language native to the British Isles: Cornish. Despite valiant efforts by some individuals, the number of speakers has dwindled considerably, fading perhaps alongside the hopes and aspirations of the Cornish Independence Movement – a remarkable political party that has long strived for an independent country of Cornwall with its native tongue resoundingly ringing about loud and proud between bites of their delicious pasties. That said, there are examples of various attempts to save previously dying languages – Welsh being a prime illustration. As well as being spoken by approximately 20% of the population of Wales, this language is also peculiarly spoken in one region in Argentina (or at least so claims Wikipedia).

So, has writing this article inspired me to learn a new language – either with the aim of making me more employable or else to save some dialect from extinction? The short answer to that is a no, although that’s not to say that I don’t aspire to become more fluent in other languages. This may be because I am somewhat complacent – I can be reasonably confident that so many others across the world have taken the trouble to learn English as a second language. Regretfully, my own linguistic skills stretch no further than a reasonable grasp of French, a smattering of a dozen or so words of German and various (and probably rather insulting) attempts at accents. But perhaps, given time and a nice journey abroad, I will become more fluent and, maybe, learn something new.

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