POST-PRANDIAL PHILOSOPHY -|- Educational Philosophy Theory


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A distinguished Positivist friend of mine, who is in most matters a practical man of the world, astonished me greatly the other day at Venice, by the grave remark that Italian was destined to be the language of the future. I found on inquiry he had inherited the notion direct from Auguste Comte, who justified it on the purely sentimental and unpractical ground that the tongue of Dante had never yet been associated with any great national defeat or disgrace. The idea surprised me not a little; because it displays such a profound misconception of what language is, and why people use it. The speech of the world will not be decided on mere grounds of sentiment: the tongue that survives will not survive because it is so admirably adapted for the manufacture of rhymes or epigrams. Stern need compels. Frenchmen and Germans, in congress assembled, and looking about them for a means of intercommunication, might indeed agree to accept Italian then and there as an international compromise. But congresses don't make or unmake the habits of everyday life; and the growth or spread of a language is a thing as much beyond our deliberate human control as the rise or fall of the barometer.

My friend's remark, however, set me thinking and watching what are really the languages now gaining and spreading over the civilised world; it set me speculating what will be the outcome of this gain and spread in another half century. And the results are these: Vastly the most growing and absorbing of all languages at the present moment is the English, which is almost everywhere swallowing up the overflow of German, Scandinavian, Dutch, and Russian. Next to it, probably, in point of vitality, comes Spanish, which is swallowing up the overflow of French, Italian, and the other Latin races. Third, perhaps, ranks Russian, destined to become in time the spoken tongue of a vast tract in Northern and Central Asia. Among non-European languages, three seem to be gaining fast: Chinese, Malay, Arabic. Of the doomed tongues, on the other hand, the most hopeless is French, which is losing all round; while Italian, German, and Dutch are either quite at a standstill or slightly retrograding. The world is now round. By the middle of the twentieth century, in all probability, English will be its dominant speech; and the English-speaking peoples, a heterogeneous conglomerate of all nationalities, will control between them the destinies of mankind. Spanish will be the language of half the populous southern hemisphere. Russian will spread over a moiety of Asia. Chinese, Malay, Arabic, will divide among themselves the less civilised parts of Africa and the East. But French, German, and Italian will be insignificant and dwindling European dialects, as numerically unimportant as Flemish or Danish in our own day.

And why? Not because Shakespeare wrote in English, but because the English language has already got a firm hold of all those portions of the earth's surface which are most absorbing the overflow of European populations. Germans and Scandinavians and Russians emigrate by the thousand now to all parts of the United States and the north-west of Canada. In the first generation they may still retain their ancestral speech; but their children have all to learn English. In Australia and New Zealand the same thing is happening. In South Africa Dutch had got a footing, it is true; but it is fast losing it. The newcomers learn English, and though the elder Boers stick with Boer conservatism to their native tongue, young Piet and young Paul find it pays them better to know and speak the language of commerce—the language of Cape Town, of Kimberley, of the future. The reason is the same throughout. Whenever two tongues come to be spoken in the same area one of them is sure to be more useful in business than the other. Every French-Canadian who wishes to do things on a large scale is obliged to speak English. So is the Creole in Louisiana; so earlier were the Knickerbocker Dutch in New York. Once let English get in, and it beats all competing languages fairly out of the field in a couple of generations.

Like influences favour Spanish in South America and elsewhere. English has annexed most of North America, Australia, South Africa, the Pacific; Spanish has annexed South America, Central America, the Philippines, Cuba, and a few other places. For the most part these areas are less suited than the English-speaking districts for colonisation by North Europeans; but they absorb a large number of Italians and other Mediterranean races, who all learn Spanish in the second generation. As to the other dominant languages, the points in their favour are different. Conquest and administrative needs are spreading Russian over the steppes of Asia; the Arab merchant and the growth of Mahommedanism are importing Arabic far into the heart of Africa; the Chinaman is carrying his own monosyllables with him to California, Australia, Singapore. These tongues in future will divide the world between them.

The German who leaves Germany becomes an Anglo-American. The Italian who leaves Italy becomes a Spanish-American.

There is another and still more striking way of looking at the rapid increase of English. No other language will carry you through so many ports in the world. It suffices for London, Liverpool, Glasgow, Belfast, Southampton, Cardiff; for New York, Boston, Montreal, Charleston, New Orleans, San Francisco; for Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland, Hong Kong, Yokohama, Honolulu; for Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, Kurrachi, Singapore, Colombo, Cape Town, Mauritius. Spanish with Cadiz, Barcelona, Havana, Callao, Valparaiso, cannot touch that record; nor can French with Marseilles, Bordeaux, Havre, Algiers, Antwerp, Tahiti. The most commercially useful language in the world, thus widely diffused in so many great mercantile and shipping centres, is certain to win in the struggle for existence among the tongues of the future.

The old Mediterranean civilisation teaches us a useful lesson in this respect. Two languages dominated the Mediterranean basin. The East spoke Greek, not because Plato and Æschylus spoke Greek, but because Greek was the tongue of the great commercial centres—of Athens, Syracuse, Alexandria, Antioch, Byzantium. The West spoke Latin, not because Catullus and Virgil spoke Latin, but because Latin was the administrative tongue, the tongue of Rome, of Italy, and later of Gaul, of Spain, of the great towns in Dacia, Pannonia, Britain. Whoever wanted to do anything on the big scale then, had to speak Greek or Latin; so much so that the native languages of Gaul and Spain died utterly out, and Latin dialects are now the spoken tongue in all southern Europe. In our own time, again, educated Hindoos from different parts of India have to use English as a means of intercommunication; and native merchants must write their business correspondence with distant houses in English. To put an extreme contrast: in the last century French was spoken by far more people than English; at the present day French is only just keeping up its numbers in France, is losing in Canada and the United States, is not advancing to any extent in Africa. English is spoken by a hundred million people in Europe and America; is over-running Africa; has annexed Australasia and the Pacific Isles; has ousted, or is ousting, Dutch at the Cape, French in Louisiana, even Spanish itself in Florida, California, New Mexico. In Egyptian mud villages, the aspiring Copt, who once learnt French, now learns English. In Scandinavia, our tongue gains ground daily. Everywhere in the world it takes the lead among the European languages, and by the middle of the next century will no doubt be spoken over half the globe by a cosmopolitan mass of five hundred million people.

And all on purely Darwinian principles! It is the best adapted tongue, and therefore it survives in the struggle for existence. It is the easiest to learn, at least orally. It has got rid of the effete rubbish of genders; simplified immensely its declensions and conjugations; thrown overboard most of the nonsensical ballast we know as grammar. It is only weighted now by its grotesque and ridiculous spelling—one of the absurdest among all the absurd English attempts at compromise. The pressure of the newer speakers will compel it to make jetsam of that lumber also; and then the tongue of Shelley and Newton will march onward unopposed to the conquest of humanity.

I pen these remarks, I hope, "without prejudice." Patriotism is a vulgar vice of which I have never been guilty.

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