The biggest threat to small languages is not English, but the dominant language close by, as in the case of Finnish and Sámi.
The status of English as the most important language in the world is not in danger, even though the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union and President Donald Trump is planning to build a wall at the US-Mexican border.
“The position of English shows no signs of weakening. I do not think that Brexit will have any effect, but of course, some changes might be possible over time,” says Professor Juhani Klemola from the University of Tampere, Finland.
English has been accused of being a killer language that destroys precious, less commonly spoken tongues. According to Klemola, English is not solely to blame.
“The biggest threat to rare languages is not English but the closest dominant language,” Klemola says. “In Finland, the Sámi languages are threatened by Finnish and in Russia many small languages are threatened by Russian.”
About 7,000 languages are currently spoken across the world, and according to conservative estimates, about half of them will become extinct in the next 50–100 years. According to Klemola, it is almost impossible to prevent this.
“A language is a dialect with an army and a navy”
Klemola is one of the editors of The Oxford Handbook of World Englishes, which describes the structures and sociolinguistic variability of the types of English spoken around the world.
Researchers have not counted the varieties because their boundaries are fluid and the task would be impossible.
“You cannot give an exact definition of a language, either,” Klemola points out. The boundary between a language and a dialect is indistinct. “It was said as early as the 1930s that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”
According to Klemola, there is no purely linguistic basis for determining where one dialect ends and another language begins.
It was British military might that paved the way for the current dominance of the English language. British colonialism and the economic and cultural influence of the United States are also significant reasons for the spread of English.
Had historical events played out differently, Spanish, Portuguese, French or Dutch might have been the dominant world language.
A third of the world’s people can speak English
The position of the English language and all its varieties is exceptional in world history.
Despite not being the most frequently spoken first language – Chinese and Spanish have more native speakers – the significance of English is based on it being the most common second or foreign language. It has been estimated that as many as two billion people – one third of the world’s population – can speak English.
The English language may retain its strong position in the European Union in spite of Brexit, given that it is an official language in Ireland, although the country’s first official language is Irish.
An analytic language is a good lingua franca
Financial structures have more impact on the success of languages than linguistics. However, Klemola notes that world languages do have similar features. Latin was a lingua franca, but its structure differs from that of English.
English is an analytic language, meaning that it has hardly any suffixes. Unlike Latin or Finnish, Chinese – another lingua franca – does not have suffixes either.
“Being analytic is typical of languages that adults have learned as their second language. A language can evolve and become more analytic as a consequence of adult second language learning, and it is no coincidence that English has become very analytic over time,” Klemola explains.
One does not need to know British English
The English spoken in Finland has not become its own consistent variety. Klemola rejects the claim that Finns pronounce English badly.
“Finns do not speak bad English. Finns speak English as Finns, and that is quite all right these days. People do not have to have the competence of native speakers. English is no longer just British or American property. It is a world language, with variations, varieties and different pronunciations,” Klemola says.
English used to be studied in Finland with the aim of acquiring language competence at the native level. Now English has reached a stage where different variations and varieties are accepted.
“Studies have shown that in international contexts, when people with different linguistic backgrounds meet, people who do not have English as their first language understand each other better than they understand native speakers of English in such groups,” Klemola points out.
If all the World Englishes were put along the same line, would the people at the extreme ends understand each other?
“To a large extent, they would. However, this is a problematic question. In the British Isles, people living in the south of England may have difficulties understanding the broadest Scottish English or Scots dialect. It depends on the style and register being used,” Klemola says.
Languages cannot be directed
Languages have always been born and died. So-called pidgin and Creole languages may evolve quite quickly if required so that people can interact in a particular situation.
“Financial questions have an impact. It is very hard to direct and change language evolution with political decisions,” Klemola says.
The authoritarian government of Singapore is trying to steer language usage with the Speak Good English Movement, a campaign that has not yielded significant results.
According to Klemola, the Singaporeans speak a very interesting variety of English, one that has been much influenced by Chinese and Malay.
The everyday language spoken by Singaporeans is called ‘Singlish’; a dialect the government does not consider good English.
Hong Kong, on the other hand, might become an example of successful political language manipulation. The spread of English in Hong Kong started to slow down when sovereignty of the island reverted to China in 1997. In addition to enforcing the will of its central government, China is strengthening the position of Mandarin Chinese in Hong Kong, where the residents have traditionally spoken Cantonese and English.
A comprehensive account of the varieties of English
The 800-page Oxford Handbook of World Englishes presents a comprehensive and up-to date account of studies on the varieties of English. The book provides a cross section of World Englishes and global linguistics.
The book was co-authored by over forty researchers, who come not only from the United Kingdom, North America and Australia, but also from India, South Africa, Germany, Sweden and Finland.
“The time was right for this book. Postcolonial Englishes have already been studied for two or three decades. More computerised data is becoming available, which is transforming linguistic research,” Klemola says.
The Oxford Handbook of World Englishes. OUP USA 2017. Filppula Markku, Klemola Juhani and Sharma Devyani (eds.) 2017.
Text and photograph: Heikki Laurinolli
Translation: Laura Tohka