The End of English?

Below is a comment I sent in response to a post on Professor Dennis Baron’s ever-interesting blog, The Web of Language. In this post, he suggests that English may be on its way out.  It’s a bit far-fetched at this moment, at our apogee (or slightly post-apogee), but worth considering.  The level of discourse, especially in the public square, is taking a nose dive. The canon of literature lays unexamined in many schools, and while there are numerous outstanding authors writing in English today, most of them are familiar only to an elite much smaller than ever before.  Gone are JFK’s references to poetry and literature, and at increasing number of dinner tables, the names John Steinbeck, Eugene O’Neill, Emily Dickinson, Dickens, Milton, Swift, and  the long list of previously familiar, even vaguely familiar, names would meet a blank stare.  Here are my comments to his post:

I’ve been writing for years about endangered languages, a subject which generates yawns even from most linguists, but Dennis Baron has presented the ultimate attention-getter — will English go the way of Latin?  Of course it will, ultimately, just like the sun will go out one day.

Baron’s article is written with tongue partly lodged in cheek, of course.  I don’t see any “medley” of any other languages poised to step in as the universal standard language, but our hubris about English, combined with our ignorance of how it is constructed and used, and the widespread reluctance to showcase the best of it on the most common purveyors of culture (newspapers, movies, television, even political speeches) is unsettling.

I’m fond of English myself, and there are some outstanding masters of our language out there. It’ll be too bad when it’s gone, but I’ll be gone too so others will have to deal with the sadness.

Those Indian tribes whose languages are  being (sadly) extinguished at an accelerated rate lost first in the military world, then the political word, and the language survived for a century or so with the support of only tribe or family, both of which are small, weak entities in the grand scheme of things.  We should pay attention to our military antics and our politics if we  want the language to thrive.

Exercise: Students with an interest in history might write a paper about the various “universal” languages.  They will undoubtedly be surprised to learn that English is but the most recent one.  They could begin with Greek and Latin and work forward from there. The fall of Latin would be a particularly interesting essay subject. It took almost 2,000 years to extinguish Latin completely, with the Catholic Church its last bastion.

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