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Why The English Language Rules The World - No Really, Why?

Repeat after me: "I speak English, you speak English, he speaks English..."
Repeat after me: "I speak English, you speak English, he speaks English..."
Alan Posener

BERLIN - In the musical “My Fair Lady,” Professor Henry Higgins expresses outrage at the "cold-blooded murder of the English tongue." The guilty parties are the Scots, the Irish, the Welsh – and of course Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower girl from London with whom the linguistic purist falls in love. If Americans escape his scathing verdict it’s because "in America, they haven't used English for years!"

What would Higgins say today? Even on the BBC, once a bastion of the "Queen's English," the way presenters speak immediately identifies them not only as Irish, Scottish and Welsh but as American, Australian, South African, Indian, Kenyan, not to mention as hailing from South London or the wilds of northern England.

When the world’s top business folks and politicians meet up in the Swiss ski resort of Davos, whether on the podium, a hotel bar or somebody else’s bed, chances are they will be speaking English – slurred, broken, groaned perhaps, but English nonetheless.

Photo: Pargon

English has become a universal language. There are many reasons for its dominance: the heritage of the British Empire, and the post-world-war economic hegemony and cultural influence – ranging from Mickey Mouse and Marilyn Monroe to Elvis Presley and Snoop Dogg – of the United States.

But the main reason is the elasticity of the language and the broad-mindedness it communicates. If English grammar is rudimentary, the linguistic equivalent of rock’ n’ roll, the English vocabulary is huge. There are very few things that can’t be expressed in English, and if it can’t be said in English then a word is lifted from another language – like "kindergarten," for example. If it doesn’t exist in English and a word isn’t lifted from another language it’s because what it represents doesn’t make sense to thinking shaped by the English language: a case in point, "Schicksalsgemeinschaft" (companions in fate).

The predominance of English in sciences, economy, culture and politics is overwhelming. In Palestine, in the days of Jesus of Nazareth, Latin was the language of the military and government. But to be considered educated you had to speak Greek; if you were Jewish you also had to speak Hebrew; and the language of the masses was Aramaic. In the Europe of the late Middle Ages, Latin was the language of the erudite, Italian the language of trade, and blossoming cultures used their own respective languages.

An “antifragile” language

Karl Marx had an inkling of where things were headed. In his 1848 “Communist Manifesto” he wrote: “National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature."

Perhaps the universal language didn’t have to be English. In his soon-to-be-published utopian novel “Der Komet” (“The Comet)” German writer Hannes Stein imagines a world in which the assassination in Sarajevo of the Archduke of Austria – which sparked World War I – had not taken place. As a result, there were no First and Second World Wars; there was no Russian Revolution; and there was no Holocaust. The Austro-Hungarian Empire is the cultural reference, and the Deutsche Reich is the economic and scientific driving force. It goes without saying that American scientists publish in German, the language that is also spoken in the Turkish province of Palestine among Zionist settlers living under the protection of the Sultan. Stein’s Utopia is compelling precisely because it isn’t all that improbable.

Yet one dares make the assertion that the world is lucky that it is English – that whore among languages –that has become the global lingua franca. From its inception English showed the multicultural flexibility and openness that are the secret to success. Originally a Scandinavian-Low German dialect, it was – after the invasion of England by the French-speaking Normans –enriched by a romance-language vocabulary to the extent that there are two words for virtually all objects.

What’s more, the Germanic endings and similar nonsense were dropped, so that – as every translator knows – English texts can convey the same thing as a German text that is one-third longer. End rhymes without inflectional endings are easier, something that is no less crucial to Shakespeare’s sonnets than it is to pop music lyrics.

So the triumph of the English language may not be so accidental after all. English-speaking financial guru and philosopher Nassim Taleb, who was born in Lebanon and lives in the United States, has said that the survival of institutions depends on a quality he calls the “antifragile.” Things are antifragile when they don’t fall apart under stress, but adapt instead. English is antifragile. It is opportunistic. Unlike French, for example, it doesn’t stand on rules and correct pronunciation. It can even accommodate a Henry Kissinger – and that says a lot.

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Art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 你好*

Welcome to Tuesday, where violence erupts after Sudan's military coup, Australia finally gets onboard with climate change goals, and Harrison Ford stars in Raiders of the Lost Credit Card. From Bogota, we also see what the capture of drug kingpin Otoniel means for Colombia, a country long stained by cocaine trafficking.

[*Nĭhǎo - Mandarin Chinese]

💡  SPOTLIGHT

Saving the planet is really a question of dopamine

The elite of the ecologically minded are set to descend on Glasgow next week for the Cop 26 conference on climate change. But beyond debating policy prescriptions, French daily Les Echos explores the role our own brains have on making the right choices for the planet:

Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the "pleasure hormone."

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Stefano Lupieri / Les Echos

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Sudan in chaos following military coup: After Sudan's military seized power from the transitional government, defiant anti-coup protesters have returned to the streets of the capital city Khartoum, for a second consecutive day. At least seven people have been killed and 140 injured. Coup leader General Al-Burhan has announced a state of emergency across the country, while the military cut off access to the internet and closed roads, bridges, and Khartoum's airport. Washington condemned the coup and suspended aid, and the U.N. Security Council was expected to discuss Sudan behind closed doors later today.

• Egypt lifts state of emergency in force since 2017: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, announced the end of a four-year-old state of emergency, undoing powers that had given the government sweeping authority to quash protests, make arrests, search people's homes without warrants, and control everyday life in the most populous Arab country.

• Platforms take down Bolsonaro video linking vaccine and AIDS: Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have removed an anti-vaccine video from their respective platforms posted by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Beyond blocking the video, in which Bolsonaro falsely linked the COVID-19 vaccine with developing AIDS, YouTube went further and suspended the far-right leader for a week.

• COVID update: The U.S. will launch a new travel system on November 8, imposing new vaccine requirements for most foreign national travellers and lifting severe travel restrictions over China, India and much of Europe. Meanwhile, authorities in northern China are reimposing lockdown, and other emergency measures as COVID-19 infections spread to 11 provinces.

• Australia pledges net zero emissions by 2050: As one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases per capita and a major exporter of fossil fuels such as coal, Australia has finally committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. This is a target already adopted by most nations heading to next week's COP26 international climate conference, but that Australia had so far refused to pledge.

• Japanese princess loses royal status over wedding: Japan's Princess Mako married her boyfriend Kei Komuro, giving up her royal status. Under Japanese law, female imperial family members lose their status upon marriage to a "commoner" although male members do not.

Raiders of the Lost Credit Card: A tourist returned the credit card of American actor Harrison Ford, who had lost it in Sicily while shooting scenes for the latest Indiana Jones movie.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Out of control," titles German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, reporting on the release of a series of articles by a consortium of 17 U.S. news outlets, called the "Facebook Papers," that reinforce whistleblower Frances Haugen's claims that the social media giant is prioritizing profits over the well being of its users and society.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

$1.01 trillion

After striking a deal to sell 100,000 electric vehicles to car rental firm Hertz, Elon Musk's Tesla has joined Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Google's Alphabet in the club of companies that have reached a $1 trillion valuation.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

What the capture of a drug kingpin means for Colombia

While the capture of Otoniel, Colombia's most wanted drug trafficker, made global headlines, Bogotá daily El Espectador writes about the significance of the news for a country that has battled narcotrafficking for decades.

👮 The arrest of the Colombian mobster Dairo Antonio Úsuga David, a.k.a. "Otoniel," is a victory for Colombian intelligence, law-and-order forces and the broader fight against crime. Details of the eight-year-long pursuit of the head of the Gulf Clan, of the tireless and meticulous work, testify to the capabilities that the police and army have managed to develop in the fight against the narco-trafficking that has long been a stain on Colombia.

🇨🇴🇲🇽 Otoniel is responsible for a criminal organization with more than 3,800 members and influence on 12 departments and 128 districts in Colombia (though data from the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation counts 211 districts). The Gulf Clan sends half the drugs going out of Colombia, and is the main exporter to Mexico. Its ties to the Mexican cartel chief Joaquín "el Chapo" Guzmán are well-documented — and Otoniel had aspired to fill the power vacuum left by Guzmán's capture.

⚖️ Some have observed that the ensuing power vacuum will engender more violence, which is true. But we are, in any case, far from eliminating drug trafficking in Colombia or cutting its tentacles across public life. That shows the limitations of the hard-line response to drugs, when we have seen it is not enough. Still, it is essential in any fight against crime for the state to show its operational capabilities. The message is clear: not even drug overlords are above the law in Colombia.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I love Mako. I would like to spend my one life with the person I love."

— Kei Komuro said during a news conference after his wedding with Japan's Princess Mako, the niece of the current emperor and the sister of the likely future sovereign. The princess lost her royal status as a result of her marriage with Komuro, a "commoner."

📸  PHOTO DU JOUR

An art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt, as part of the 2021 exhibition "'Forever Is Now," the first international art exhibition to take place there — Photo: Balkis Press/Abaca/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Send all commoner and royal well wishes to Mako and Kei — and let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com

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