Whistle-stop journey round the world

27th June 1997 at 01:00
ENGLISH AS A GLOBAL LANGUAGE. By David Crystal, Cambridge University Press. Pounds 12.95

This is a reassuring and judicious mix of outline facts and good sense about the English language, says Jean Aitchison

The rise and rise of English is much commented on, but rarely documented in a readily accessible form. This little book is a cross between a tourist guide and a no-nonsense school textbook. David Crystal outlines the rocketing take-off of English in a whistle-stop tour which carries readers through several hundred years of expansion, wafts them around the world, and escorts them through various cultural offshoots, such as travel,education, and the media.

According to the preface, the book "simply asks three questions: what makes a world language? Why is English the leading world language? Will it continue to hold this position?" The answers are straightforward: a language becomes an international one because of the political power of its people, especially their military power. In the 19th century, "British political imperialism ... sent English round the globe". A language's dominance is maintained and expanded by economic power. In the current century, English has been maintained and promoted through the economic supremacy of America: "The language behind the US dollar was English". English, then, is the leading world language because it "has repeatedly found itself in the right place at the right time".

As for the future, English may have already grown to be independent of any form of social control. "There may be a critical number or critical distribution of speakers ... beyond which it proves impossible for any single group or alliance to stop its growth", Crystal speculates. In 500 years' time, will everyone automatically be introduced to English as soon as they are born?

These, then, are the bare bones of the argument, and they make unexciting reading - they repeat what dozens of other people have already said. But the conclusions are not as important as the way in which they are supported. Crystal is a master of the academic documentary, as is clear from his, justifiably, highly praised Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language (1995). The current minnow is largely based on that earlier huge and gloriously illustrated whale, though with "a fuller and more focused analysis of the cultural factors involved", he claims.

Crystal is skilled at assembling scattered yet useful data in a form that seems safe and reliable. He presents enough facts and figures to make readers feel that they are getting good value for their time and money. It is reassuring to read that, in India in 1995 the population was 935,744,000, that speakers of English as a first language there numbered 320,000, and as a second language 37 million, that out of 557 pop groups included in a recent encyclopaedia of popular music, 549 (99 per cent) work predominantly in English, and that of 1,219 solo vocalists, 1,156 (95 per cent) sing in English, and so on. The statistics do not always matter, the security they engender is what counts.

Crystal's mundane prose style even adds to the attraction, in that readers do not assume they are being bamboozled by a con-man. Long ago, "Uncle Mac", a presenter on children's radio, always made his listeners feel safe. David Crystal could be regarded as the "Uncle Mac" of language. A bogus Uncle Mac linguist would be a disaster, but Crystal's linguistic credentials are impeccable. He was Professor of linguistics, first at the University of Reading, then at the University of Bangor, before he decided to write full time.

It would be easy to point out oversimplifications in this little book, but these are inevitable, given its range. It is on the whole reliable, though one could quibble over a number of details.

However, the book's value is clear. It is a judicious mix of outline facts and good sense about language. Value judgments are rare, but sound. If everyone was automatically introduced to English as soon as they are born, this could be part of a rich multilingual experience, Crystal points out. But if English is left as the only language to be learned, then it would be "the greatest intellectual disaster that the planet has ever known".

Overall, this commonsensical little book will be a useful tool for spreading the important message that English is not supreme because it is superior - its supremacy is a historical accident; that English is not declining; and that it would be a tragedy if English alone remained among languages.

Jean Aitchison is the Rupert Murdoch Professor of language and communication at the University of Oxford

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