In 1951 there was a riot in the northern Dutch province of Friesland. It was not much of a riot, really, but the reasons for it, and the consequences, were interesting. The trouble started when a judge refused to hear the testimony of a local veterinarian in Frisian. The judge couldn’t understand Frisian, an old Germanic language related to Dutch, German, and English, and in any case Dutch was the official language of public affairs in Friesland. So the judge, though perhaps a little tactless, was within his rights.

Things were stirred up, however, by the editor of a local newspaper named Fedde Schurer, who wrote a scorching attack against the judge, comparing him to the “Saxon gang” which invaded Friesland from Germany at the end of the fifteenth century. Schurer was prosecuted for contempt of court. A mob gathered in protest in the central square of Leeuwarden, the provincial capital. Schurer was carried around on the shoulders of his supporters. The police charged with truncheons; the fire brigade pulled out the water hoses. Schurer, the people’s hero, fell through a glass window and scratched his arm. The national press began to pay attention. Metropolitan arrogance was condemned. And as a result, Frisian was recognized in 1956 as a language that could be used in the courts for the first time since the sixteenth century, when Friesland became a province of the Dutch Republic.

The idea of Frisian as a kind of national language was, like so much else, a product of nineteenth-century Romanticism. It had not been used in government, schools, or churches for hundreds of years. But in the late 1800s, folk poets emerged to promote the native tongue. The first Bible translation was only completed in the 1940s. Teaching the language in primary schools has been permitted since 1937 and in higher education since 1980. About 400,000 people now know Frisian—that is to say, about half the people in Friesland have at least a passive knowledge of it. You can hear it spoken on radio stations. This revival has come as a reaction against the uniformity of standard Dutch, an assertion of local identity, rather like Welsh, Irish, or Catalan.

There is a price to pay for too much regional chauvinism. At least all Frisians are educated in Dutch. But the Catalans are so keen to defend their language that Castillian Spanish is often neglected; some even prefer to learn English. As a result, Barcelona is in danger of becoming a more provincial city than it should be, isolated in a linguistic fog.

My paternal grandfather spoke Frisian at home. But he moved to Amsterdam to study theology, a common intellectual pursuit among gifted provincials. My father does not speak a word of Frisian. All that is left of our Frisian heritage is our name; a perverse pride in the fact that twelve hundred years ago Frisians murdered an eighty-year-old English priest named Boniface who had no business converting natives to the Roman faith; and the imperfect mastery of one sentence in Frisian, used during the old struggles against the Saxon gang, when a legendary hero named Big Pier swung his club with devastating effect. It was a password meant to weed out alien infiltrators. It goes, in English translation: “Butter, bread, and green cheese, if you can’t say that, you’re not a real Fries” (Bûter, brea en griene tsiis, wa’t dat net sizze kin is gjin oprjochte Fries).

One of the main attractions of a native tongue, or dialect, or slang, indeed the main reason for reviving or inventing one, is the fact that outsiders don’t get it. In a sense the entire language is a kind of password. If you understand, you pass. From a strictly regional point of view, my father and I have lost an “identity.” We don’t get it anymore either, we don’t pass, in Friesland. That is the way of the world. Once you head for the metropole, mud of the old soil does not stick to your boots for long. I can still speak and write in Dutch, but make a living by writing in English, my mother’s language. For me the metropole has shifted even farther afield than Amsterdam. This is hardly unusual either. I am just one in a crowd of Bengalis, Chinese, Germans, Cubans, Russians, Belgians, Poles, and whatnot who have gone the same route.

Whether we like it or not, North America has become, in a linguistic sense, the metropole of the world; the rest is periphery, even though almost a billion people—15 percent of the world’s population—speak Mandarin Chinese, and 266 million speak Spanish. English is the lingua franca of international business, pop music, computer technology, airline travel, and much else besides. The French don’t like it, but English is now the main language spoken in meetings of the European Commission in Brussels. English is the language of Hollywood movies, the common currency of worldwide entertainment. And in more and more countries, English is becoming the language of science and higher education too, replacing Latin as the lingua franca of learning.


A Dutch minister of education seriously suggested some years ago that English should be the language of instruction at all Dutch universities. The idea is not new. An education minister of the Meiji government in nineteenth-century Japan had a similar, though more radical, suggestion: only after English had replaced Japanese as the national language would Japan become a modern and civilized nation. His idea did not bear fruit. But as for Holland, another former Dutch minister of education recently told me he was convinced that English would be the nation’s primary language in two or three generations. If he is right, Dutch will go the way of Frisian, a badge of nostalgic identity, but nothing more than that. And the danger, in that event, would be that the Dutch would become like Singaporeans, proficient in several languages, masters of none. And where the Dutch go, others might follow.

The domination of a metropolitan language, whether Dutch, English, Castilian, or Chinese, can indeed be a fearful thing. Identities are threatened. But in fact mastery of the native language is often a password even in the metropole itself. I am convinced that my maternal grandfather, the son of an immigrant, and thus more British than the British, deliberately mispronounced his French, lest he be mistaken for a foreigner. So language is clearly a sensitive issue; and yet I believe the fears are often misplaced, and, when they are manipulated for political ends, sinister.

Some are so worried about the domination of English that they use such phrases as “killer language,” as though English were a kind of epidemic disease striking all people dumb in their own languages. The pathological terminology is no coincidence. Those who speak of killer languages, and deplore the extinction of Mbabaran in Australia or Wappo in the American West, also use terms such as “biolinguistic diversity” and link the survival of languages to larger ecological concerns: the disappearance of rain forests, animal life, and rare flora. Native habitats, ecolinguists claim, sometimes with good reason, are ruined by “biological waves” of Europeans and Americans crashing through the dense but fragile world of tribes and small peoples. Experts say there are still about six thousand languages spoken of which only about six thousand are expected to survive very long.

Guardians of more robust languages, such as the members of the French Academy, worry less about extinction than pollution. Words such as le weekend or le fax make them ill. And if you think Franglais is bad, take note of Japanese, which absorbs a huge mangled vocabulary from English, as it did before from Chinese, and even Portuguese and Dutch. A strike is a suto, from sutoraiki; to quit a health-threatening habit is to make a dokuta sutoppu (doctor’s stop); to sexually harass is to commit seku-hara. A personal computer is a paso-kon, a golfing handicap a hande, and so on. Creative linguistic pilfering is easy to do in Japanese, for a new verb can be created by simply sticking the verb ending ru at the end of any borrowed phrase, as in, say, makuru, to eat a McDonald’s hamburger—maku, short for Makudonarudo, and ru. (The equivalent in French, by the way, is bouf-fer un macdo.) The interesting thing is that the Japanese, like my British grandfather, are notoriously bad at learning foreign languages, partly, I believe, for xenophobic reasons, as though paralyzed by the thought that speaking a foreign language too well would sully the purity of one’s Japaneseness.

Keeping a language pure of outside influences is always a losing battle, for no language was ever pure in the first place. Old English was changed enormously by Norman French, but Old English was itself a mixture of Frisian, Anglian, and various Saxon dialects. The Japanese writer Tanizaki Junichiro once promoted the idea that only pure Japanese, stripped clean of Chinese loanwords, would be fine enough to convey the deepest literary expressions. Since almost 60 percent of the Japanese language consists of Chinese loanwords, this was an impractical suggestion. But he made it in the 1930s, a time of overheated nationalism, and such drives toward purification are invariably inspired more by political than literary concerns.

The French have been worried about Anglo-Saxon pollution for a long time. Charles Maurras, a gifted prose stylist and a poisonous philosopher who founded the ultra-right Action Française, was a grumpy spectator at the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. He was particularly incensed by the sound of English spoken around him, especially American English, that “disgusting patois.” Indeed, he thought international sports were a bad thing, for they infected the world with noxious Anglo-Saxon expressions. Maurras, a great defender of French classical purity, took a biological view of things, just like the ecolinguists. English was rootless, cosmopolitan, and infectious, like a disease. Naturally, he was a raving anti-Semite too.


Flemish Belgians have waged a long battle against foreign pollution, except that in their case the linguistic enemy is French, the language of the Walloons, who used to be richer and more powerful than the Flemish speakers. Flemish, a dialect of Dutch, was full of French words, just as English is, but for political reasons official Flemish pedagogues did their best to find Dutch equivalents for every French loanword. The results are rich in comic absurdity, at least to the Dutch ear. Helicopter thus becomes wentelwiek, literally “wheeling wing.” The other result is that more and more Flemings refuse to learn French. And since few Walloons know Dutch, two Belgians meeting in Antwerp or Liège will often find themselves speaking in English.

The main danger, however, of linguistic purism is not absurdity so much as stagnation and lifelessness. The example of Singapore is a warning less against using English as the main language of instruction in a country where most people speak something else as well than against too much engineering. The former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew has been a ferocious watchdog in this regard, trying to ban Chinese dialects in public life, or issuing public warnings against using Sino-Malay slang while speaking English. One reason so many Singaporeans cannot speak any language really well is their self-consciousness. Forced to speak an affected 1950s BBC English in public, they lapse into a looser, slangier hybrid tongue called Singlish in private, almost as though to spite the stern headmaster. Too stiff or too slangy—neither is likely to produce great literature.

Singaporean BBC English is not the only example of a model frozen in time. Filipino newspapers still use American journalese of the 1930s—“Prexie nixes solons”—and the Indian English-language press can still read like the pre-war Manchester Guardian. In fact, of course, BBC English as a model of how the Queen’s language should be spoken no longer exists. British radio and television announcers speak in a variety of regional accents, encouraged since the 1960s, when dialect became cool. And standard English has become something known as Thames Estuary, after the eastern suburbs of London and beyond. It is a nasal, almost whining, southern middle-class English with shades of cockney. Tony Blair tends to lapse into it. Mick Jagger has spoken a faux-cockney version for years. Even the Queen’s speech last Christmas bore traces of it.

In any case English, as a lingua franca of business, information technology, and entertainment, will continue to creep into other languages, just as French used to do, or German, Chinese, Sanskrit, Arabic, and Persian. English is also mutating into professional dialects that consist of nothing but jargon. Inside the institutions of the European Union, something one might call Brussels English is taking shape with its own peculiar jargon and even spelling. Airline pilots across the globe converse in an English that is comprehensible only to themselves. In some cases, it is the only English they know. This has been known to cause problems in emergencies. It is one of the reasons Japan Airlines started hiring foreign pilots.


Jargon English is ugly, but hardly a mortal threat to the continued existence of other major languages. And even where English, mostly by reason of imperial conquest, has become a main language, the effect on native identities is by no means as clear-cut as some people suppose, or fear. India is one obvious example. English is the common language of Indian elites and the government. It is in fact the only truly national language of all India, even though it is spoken only by about 5 percent of the population. Indeed, the modern sense of Indian nationhood found one of its first and most eloquent expressions in English, in the writings of Nehru. English was the language of the colonial masters, but also of many nationalists who fought for independence. And English is the language of some of the finest Indian writers today, not just those who write nostalgically from London or New York, but Indians living in Delhi, Calcutta, and Bombay.

To be sure, Nehru and others wanted to make Hindi into the national language. But they chose a rather artificial form of Hindi, heavily encrusted with archaic terms borrowed from Sanskrit. Some of the main proponents of this national language were not native Hindi speakers but Hindu intellectuals from Gujarat and Bengal. And in the south Hindi was not spoken at all. So it never really took hold. And few people wish to revive it, even though there are proponents of a more popular Hindi, as an official alternative to English. They have not gotten very far either.

The problem was put well by a south Indian, whose article, in English, was plucked by a friend of mine from the Internet. The author, named Rajeev Srinivasan, is a native speaker of Malayalam, the language of Kerala, about which he has all the Romantic sentiments of a nineteenth-century idealist. He writes: “As someone who is completely bilingual in English and Malayalam, I can say with certainty that for me, Malayalam is the language of the heart, and English of the head.” Neither Hindi, nor English, he continues, could possibly express the “distinct Malayali ethos, with its melancholy, brooding ways that contrast so markedly with the exuberant, tropical landscape.”

Then, to clinch his argument about languages of the heart and the head, he quotes a poem by Sir Walter Scott:

Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,

Who never to himself hath said,

This is my own, my native land!

But even if Sir Walter Scott’s words can only appeal to his head, Rajeev Srinivasan still prefers English to Hindi, for at least English connects you to the wider world, not to mention the World Wide Web, whereas Hindi would make Malayalam speakers feel like second-class citizens. Hindi, he says, is “a conquering language.” The language of one old empire, then, can be useful in staving off the advances of another.

There are examples elsewhere of the same phenomenon. The people of East Timor, whose common language now is Indonesian, or Bahassa Indonesian, wish to have another national language. The only one they can think of is Portuguese. Meanwhile, people in Irian Jaya have a difficult time rising against their Indonesian masters because their many tribal languages are mutually incomprehensible. They, too, could do with a national language in their struggle for autonomy. Dutch, perhaps?

The Philippines is an interesting case, for it went from being a European colony to an American one. The first great Filipino novel, Noli me tangere by José Rizal—the bible, as it were, of Filipino identity and independence, a book drenched in modern national sentiment—was written in Spanish. More than one twentieth-century Filipino writer, expressing himself in English, has deplored the loss of Spanish as the national tongue. Some writers would like to use Tagalog. But most readers of Tagalog, mainly on the island of Luzon, prefer comic books to literary novels, however expressive of deep national sentiments. So English remains the language of the elite, and thus of most Filipino literature—though not of the movies, a more popular art.

Tagalog will survive for a long time, just as I expect Malayalam will. But many smaller languages continue to disappear, not all because of English. A gentleman named Tefvik Esenc, the last speaker of a Caucasian language called Ubykh, died on his farm in Turkey in 1992. Red Thundercloud, from South Carolina, ran out of people to converse with in Catawba Sioux, and died in 1996. Australia used to have 250 aboriginal languages. Soon there may be none. Yiddish is dying, certainly as a literary language, and Ladino is almost dead. Deaths are always sad events. But I am not sure the ecolinguists always deplore these losses for the right reasons.

When languages die because the speakers are massacred or forced to change, this is indeed deplorable, but the ecolinguists think diversity is a good thing per se, and the loss of any language, no matter how small, and whatever the circumstances of its demise, a loss to humanity. For as Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine, the authors of Vanishing Voices, argue: “Each language is a living museum, a monument to every culture it has been vehicle to.”* This is no doubt true. And living museums are fascinating for linguists and other enthusiasts. But should every living museum be preserved for its own sake? Literature may have an intrinsic value, but do spoken languages? The ecolinguists argue that they do, partly for environmental reasons. Languages, claim Nettle and Romaine, “are like the miner’s canary: where languages are in danger, it is a sign of environmental distress.”

Is this always true? The Inuit of Nunavut, formerly known as Eskimos, are indeed a threatened community, not by the Canadian government but because they are a dwindling group on the edge of the world. Their suicide rate is horrendous. But they do still speak their native language. Another expression of their identity is shooting rare Bowhead whales with .50 caliber hunting rifles. The point here is not to be facetious. The hunts are not just for the meat. They are defended on cultural grounds: shooting whales is deemed essential for the preservation of identity. This, surely, is not what the ecolinguists have in mind.

One reason minority languages have been threatened during the last two centuries is the rise of nationalism. France used to be a country of many languages. But the republican idea of liberty, equality, and fraternity has meant that all French citizens—and preferably the rest of the world as well—should speak French. This has been both a good and a bad thing. A common language strengthened a common sense of citizenship, which, in principle, if not always in practice, transcended race or religion. It was bad in the sense that a common language was forced on Bretons and other minorities to the detriment of their own. This was based on the fallacy that people should speak only one language, as though multilingualism should necessarily tear up the nation.

Nettle and Romaine say we “need to divest ourselves of the traditional equation between language, nation, and state.” In fact, the word “traditional” here makes little sense. Most nation-states are not very old, and certainly not eternal. But they are right in that many languages are older than the states which adopted them. The ecolinguists prefer to think of most languages as expressions of culture, local, even tribal culture, languages of the heart, so to speak, rooted in a particular soil. The metropolitan or “global languages” on the other hand are for “communicating beyond local levels and expressing ourselves as citizens of the world”—that is, they are languages of the head.

This, too, is a questionable claim. German was the main language of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. More citizens of Budapest in the early twentieth century read German-language newspapers than Hungarian ones. German was presumably the language of the head. And yet some of the greatest literature and poetry to emerge from the empire was written in German by people who had no “local” Germanic roots at all. Many of them were Jews, the so-called rootless cosmopolitans, and thus perhaps the most loyal citizens of Franz Joseph’s realm: Kafka, Joseph Roth, Musil.

To equate language with the state may be wrong, but to equate it entirely with a specific local culture or common ancestry is equally wrong. Another ecolinguist, David Crystal, has a balanced view of culture and language. Language, he says, is a pre-eminent but not exclusive badge of identity; cultures can continue even after shifting to another language. But then, by way of assessing the catastrophic consequences of losing a language, he asks us to imagine what would have happened if Norman French had displaced Old English after 1066: no Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Dickens. True enough. But that is to assume that Shakespeare could only have expressed himself in English. One might as well turn this imaginary example the other way around. What if English had not displaced Irish as the main language of Ireland? No Joyce, Yeats, Wilde, Shaw. And what are we to make of Beckett, who wrote in French and English, and who, when asked whether he was British, answered “Au contraire“?

Literary genius remains a mystery. The emergence of a Nabokov or Beckett cannot be rationally explained, but ancestry or nationhood surely has very little to do with it. It is generally true, of course, that you gain a feeling for the rhythm and expressiveness of a language by growing up with it, by learning nursery rhymes as a child and talking with other children at school. Literate native speakers can spot a cliché when they hear one. But none of this is essential. A Joseph Conrad can switch languages and still be great, and not because he was expressing “Polishness,” let alone “Englishness.”

When Conrad began to write his famous novels, English was the lingua franca of a great empire, but not yet of the world. Will the dominance of English produce more Conrads? One of the more interesting literary events of the last few years has been the success of Ha Jin, a Chinese writer in English. Ha was in his twenties when he came to the United States. He is perhaps no Conrad, but his prose is arresting. One of its characteristics is a kind of cultural minimalism, entirely lacking literary or cultural allusions. His novel Waiting was set in China, so allusions connected to the English-speaking world would have looked out of place anyway. And yet one wonders whether Ha Jin’s work is a harbinger of a new international English style, in which culture and language are entirely disconnected. Kazuo Ishiguro, born in Japan but raised in Britain, did not consciously switch languages (he does not speak Japanese), but he tries to avoid any allusions which can be understood only by native English speakers. He claims to write for the world. The password quality of language, in other words, is deliberately discarded.

The current generation of writers in English with a non-English background is living in a different world from the one inhabited by Conrad, Nabokov, or Arthur Koestler. Before World War II, writers and their readers, whether they came from London, St. Petersburg, or Budapest, still shared cultural references. Literate people had a working knowledge of the Old and New Testaments and classical mythology. There was still such a thing as European, or even Western, civilization. There is much less of that now. The common references today are both global and parochial, that is to say, they are by and large American: Hollywood, pop music, airline and computer jargon. And the consequences of this may be worse, in some respects, for Americans than for speakers of more minor languages.

The one big advantage of speaking Dutch or Danish, or even German or Bengali, is that one is forced to be proficient in at least one other language if one is going to function in the modern world. Even the most ardent ecolinguists do not argue for monolingualism. David Crystal speaks of “healthy bilingualism,” a somewhat dubious term perhaps (the word “healthy” should be used with care), but his meaning is clear: the native tongue is about history, culture, identity, and literature, while the metropolitan language is for communicating with the wider world. The distinction can be overstated, as I said, but the ability to speak and read more than one language is surely a good thing. Reading another language allows you to understand not only what people from a different place think, but how they think. Not that thoughts or feelings are determined by language. Indeed, the more one learns to understand other languages, the more a common humanity comes into view. This does not resolve human conflict. Wars would still occur even if the whole world spoke English or Esperanto. But you can only understand your own cultural, political, and social place in the world if you understand the world of others, and for that it helps to comprehend what they say.

In some respects, then, the metropole can be a more provincial place than the periphery. With only one language at one’s disposal, even if it is the language of the world, others will look either very strange or deceptively similar. They speak English, eat McDonald’s hamburgers, and watch Hollywood films, so they must be just like Americans. This can be as misleading as the assumption that because we cannot understand what people say, their thoughts must be foreign to us too.

English is the password language of an international elite, far larger in scale than French or Latin ever was. This is the result of history, of empire-building, and the power of the United States. There is nothing about the English language itself that predestined it to dominate. In some distant future, the lingua franca of business and culture could be Chinese—difficult to imagine, perhaps, but theoretically possible.

Millions and millions aspire to join the Anglophone elite. Perhaps one day there will be almost universal comprehension of English. But the ambition to be understood by everyone will surely be matched by an equally tenacious desire to guard one’s own passwords, which cannot be so readily understood. Unlike the retired Dutch education minister, I do not expect Dutch to disappear soon as a primary language. On the contrary, I believe that the superficial uniformity of globalization will provoke the Frisian effect in many places. The Internet, which links the whole world, is seen as an imperialist bastion of English, but in fact is slowly turning into an electronic free-for-all, where people can use any language they like. Indeed the Internet is becoming a repository not just of existing languages, but of virtually extinct languages too. For it is only there, on audio links to cyberspace, that you can still hear such rare Australian Aboriginal languages as Jiwarli, whose last native speaker died in 1986. And that is why I believe that just as we cannot stop ourselves from rebuilding the Tower of Babel, it will be knocked down again and again.

This Issue

May 31, 2001