I recommend everyone to read this outstanding book by Nicholas Ostler, Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World.
I agree with him all the way but I beg to differ a little on his argument that ‘many principal tongues have collapsed, and the upcoming period for the topmost language ‘English’ is not protected or certain.’ I think English has assured its place for posterity, it has emerged as predominant dialectal of science on internet.
First the best from Nicholas Ostler, Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World.
“From the language point of view, the present population of the world is not six billion, but something over six thousand.” Nicholas Ostler, further elaborates “The language history of the world shows more of the true impacts of past movements and changes of people, beyond the heraldic claims of their largely self-appointed leaders. They reveal a subtle interweave of cultural relations with power politics and economic expediency.”
‘This book attempts to convey something of the characteristic viewpoint on the world of each language whose story it tells. Evidently, living in a particular language does not define a total philosophy of life: but some metaphors will come to mind more readily than others; and some states of mind, or attitudes to others, are easier to assume in one language than another. It cannot be a matter of indifference which language we speak, or which languages our ancestors spoke. Languages frame, analyse and colour our views of the world. 'I have three hearts,' claimed Ennius, an early master poet in Latin, on the strength of his fluency in Latin, Greek, and Oscan.’ writes Nicholas Ostler.
According to him ‘the top 20 global languages - defined in terms of their use as a first or second language - provide an interesting reflection on the fortunes of those languages that have spread by organic growth and those that have expanded by means of mergers and acquisitions.
At the top of the league table is Mandarin Chinese, which has 1,052 million speakers, more than twice as many as the next highest, English, with 508 million.
Third is Hindi with 487 million and fourth Spanish, with 417 million. Of course, English is a far more global language - though primarily as a second language - than Chinese, the vast majority of whose speakers live in China.
But with the present rise of China - and indeed India - it would not be difficult to imagine Mandarin and Hindi becoming far more widely spoken by 2100. By way of contrast, French, which until the early 20th century was, with English, the global language of choice, albeit with rather more prestige, now lingers in ninth place in the table, with a mere 128 million speakers - little more than half the number of Bengali speakers, and just above Urdu.’
Ostler further hypothesises that languages that have been - in some form or another - globally influential: included Sumerian, Akkadian, Egyptian, Chinese, Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, and the main European languages, not least English. Ostler articulates that languages reflect and articulate the cultures and histories of different communities:
‘Greek, fortunes were tied only loosely to Greek civilisation and which somehow managed to hitch a ride on the Roman empire and become, as the prestige language of learning, an integral part of that historical era too. Latin ultimately failed to outlive the imperium and which slowly transmuted into the dialect Romance languages.
Sanskrit, which spread from northern India across the subcontinent, largely on the back of Hinduism, and then - though no one quite knows how - to south-east Asia. Codified 2,500 years ago and barely changed since, this was a language that took great pleasure in its own beauty, which was intimately bound up with an Indian worldview, but which was ultimate to ossify to such an extent that today, although still an official language of India, it is spoken by fewer than 200,000 people.’
Chinese: ‘Chinese history is an exemplar of exceptionalism and the Chinese language entirely conforms to this pattern. It's written system dates back around 4,000 years and during that time it has changed remarkably little.’ Ostler's explanation for its longevity is interesting:’ Chinese civilisation is highly centred and averse to disunity; like Egyptian civilisation, it owed allegiance to an emperor who enjoyed a "mandate from heaven"; and the sheer density of population in its heartlands during ancient times largely prevented "swamping" by other languages. In a world now dominated by alphabetic languages, Chinese, based on characters, remains a pictographic tongue. This is why the same Chinese written system can serve equally well for the many different Chinese dialects (sometimes described as languages) and thereby provide a powerful source of unity for such a huge and wide-ranging population.’
Ostler pinpoints the major turning point; ‘A major turning point comes around AD 1500. Before that, the spread of languages was essentially by means of land routes, which meant that the growth of a language was relatively slow and usually organic. After 1500, the major form of expansion was by sea.
The classic mode of language growth in the new European era was by means of military conquest: by contrast, languages such as Sanskrit and Chinese had spread largely by means of the successful natural growth of language communities. Indeed, it is salutary to learn that it has mainly been western cultures - Greek, Roman, French, Dutch, Portuguese, British and American, together with Islam - that have sought to impose themselves, and their languages, on others.’
Nicholas Ostler, writes about Arabic “Within twenty-five years of the prophet Muhammad's death in 632, they had conquered all of the Fertile Crescent and Persia, and thrust into Armenia and Azerbaijan. Their lightning advance was even more penetrating towards the west: Egypt fell in 641 and the rest of North Africa as far as Tunisia in the next decade. Two generations later, by 712, the Arabic language had become the medium of worship and government in a continuous band of conquered territories from Toledo and Tangier in the west to Samarkand and Sind in the east. No one has ever explained clearly how or why the Arabs could do this.”
Nicholas Ostler, on the Impact of Arabic: “But the importance of language in Islam went far beyond the production of a telling slogan. Eloquence, the sheer power of the word, as dictated by God and declaimed to all who would listen, played the first role in winning converts for Islam, leaving hearers no explanation for the beauty of Muhammad's words but divine inspiration. The classic example is 'Umar ibn al-Khattab, a contemporary of Muhammad and acknowledged authority on oral poetry, determined to oppose, perhaps even to assassinate, him. Exposed directly to the prophet's words, he could only cry out: 'How fine and noble this speech!' And he was converted.”
“Our language places us in a cultural continuum, linking us to the past, and showing our meanings also to future fellow-speakers. As well as being the banners and ensigns of human groups, languages guard our memories too. Even when they are unwritten, languages are the most powerful tools we have to conserve our past knowledge, transmitting it, ever and anon, to the next generation. Any human language binds together a human community, by giving it a network of communication; but it also dramatises it, providing the means to tell, and to remember its stories.” Writes Nicholas Ostler.
My observation on ‘Why English will remain the central language of science and internet for the foreseeable impending human era.’
Because English is the language of internet and science. Antiquity describes how the future will frequently be shaped in big part by the unexpected and the unfathomable, language is one definitive instance example. Many principal tongues have collapsed, and the upcoming period for the topmost language ‘English’ is not protected or certain.
But I think the dominant global language for future needs to be the language of the internet and science and law. English Language lifecycle in this age will endure if it continues to be the language law, insurance, commerce, science.
‘There are approximately 7,000 language communities in the world today, more than half have fewer than 5,000 speakers, and 1,000 fewer than a dozen: many will be extinct within a generation.’
How English became the language of science and the internet ??
Estimates of the number of Internet users by language as of June 30, 2016:
Internet World Stats presents its latest estimates for Internet Users by Language. Because of the importance of this research, and due to the lack of other sources, Internet World Stats publishes several tables and charts featuring analysis and details here below for the top ten languages and also for the detailed world languages in use by country.
Gordin is a professor of the history of science at Princeton and his upcoming book, Scientific Babel, explores the history of language and science. Gordin articulates that English was far from the dominant scientific language in 1900. The dominant language was German.
“So the story of the 20th century is not so much the rise of English as the serial collapse of German as the up-and-coming language of scientific communication,” Gordin held. “If you look around the world in 1900, and someone told you, ‘Guess what the universal language of science will be in the year 2000?’ You would first of all laugh at them because it was obvious that no one language would be the language of science, but a mixture of French, German and English would be the right answer,” said Michael Gordin.
The first person to publish extensively in his native language, according to Gordin, was Galileo. Galileo wrote in Italian and was then translated into Latin so that more scientists might read his work.
Fast forward back to the 20th century, how did English come to dominate German in the realm of science?
“The first major shock to the system of basically having a third of science published in English, a third in French, and a third in German — although it fluctuated based on field and Latin still held out in some places — was World War I, which had two major impacts,” Gordin said.
After World War I, Belgian, French and British scientists organised a boycott of scientists from Germany and Austria. They were blocked from conferences and weren't able to publish in Western European journals.
“Increasingly, you have two scientific communities, one German, which functions in the defeated Central Powers of Germany and Austria, and another that functions in Western Europe, which is mostly English and French,” Gordin explained.
It’s that moment in history, he added, when international organisations to govern science, like the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, were established. And those newly established organisations begin to function in English and French. German, which was the dominant language of chemistry was written out.Take for example the word “oxygen.” The term was born in the 1770s as French chemists are developing a new theory of burning. In their scientific experiments, they needed a new term for a new notion of an element they were constructing.
“They pick the term ‘oxygen’ from Greek for ‘acid’ and ‘maker’ because they have a theory that oxygen is the substance that makes up acids. They’re wrong about that, but the word acid-maker is what they create and they create it from Greek. That tells you that French scientists and European scientists of that period would have a good classical education,” Gordin said. The English adopted the word “oxygen” wholesale from the French. But the Germans didn't, instead, they made up their own version of the word by translating each part of the word into “sauerstoff” or acid substance.
Today, though, if a scientist is going to coin a new term, it's most likely in English. And if they are going to publish a new discovery, it is most definitely in English. English adaptability and acceptance of global academic elite to publish their papers in English have ensured for predictable future supremacy of English as a lingua franca. ( Lingua franca is a language that is adopted as a common language between speakers whose native languages are different. It was historically a mixture of Italian with French, Greek, Arabic, and Spanish, formerly used in the eastern Mediterranean).
“Bracelets do not embellish man, nor necklaces bright as the moon; bathing, cosmetics, garland, head-dress, none can add a whit. Man’s one true embellishment is language kept perfected: finery must perish, but eternal the refinement of fine language. Bharthari, ii.17–20”