Your "Huh?" moment-of-the-day

>> Wednesday, June 10, 2009

But for those who claim that the post-American world is a fait accompli, there is one big problem: The English language is winning hearts and minds faster than politics ever can. With the June 10 addition of "noob" (a pejorative description of a newcomer to a particular task or group) to its lexicon, English will boast one million words - twice as many as Cantonese, four times as many as Spanish, and 10 times as many as French. Half the world's people are projected to be speaking English by 2015. And so long as English is on track to become the world's unofficial language, the United States will likely be center stage.

-Ali Wyne, "The language of empire"
Foreign Policy, June 8, 2009


Hence the undisputed dominance of Great Britain, where English was, if I recall correctly, invented (someone may want to fact-check me on that) in international affairs to this very day....

I have no idea whether or not the United States will remain the pre-eminent world power into the Twenty-First Century; historically it seems improbable insofar as world powers from the classical age to the modern have come and gone, and there was a time not-really-so-long-ago-as-we-tend-to-think when the notion that the United States and Russia might supplant and surpass Great Britain, France and Germany as Great Powers would have rightfully seemed absurd on its face. Then again, the United States has some rather rare attributes as a state. So I'm really not going to anticipate our imminent downfall or bet on our continuing dominance. The most I'll do is hedge the bet by pointing out that we should make a point of having as many close friends as possible just in case we're ever number two or five or eighteen. (This has always struck me as one of the biggest flaws, if not the biggest, in unilateral foreign policy thinking of the sort that characterized the last Bush Administration: one of the biggest reasons for working within the international community is the hope that you can bank goodwill in case you have to cash in on it down the road, as in really cash in because, like Great Britain or Spain, you're no longer top dog.)

If the United States defies the odds, however, I doubt it will be because everybody is speaking the tongue we borrowed from our English cousins 'cross the pond. That's not because English isn't becoming a dominant language of trade and diplomacy--that's a fifty-year old trend that can reasonably be expected to continue. But there was a time when French served that role in world affairs, and who looks to France as a world leader now?

Ali Wyne concludes, "while the unipolar moment may be over, the growing influence of English will ensure that the United States doesn't fade into the sunset anytime soon," which is a bit silly since I don't think even the most pessimistic Cassandras think America will vanish into the good night, not to mention yet again the silliness of pegging that to language. The United States, in debt to the gills or not, has an enormous economic mass shadow; it's the size and weight of the American economy and access to resources that is at the foundation of our military might and contributes greatly to our cultural influence, indeed it's the gravitational influence of the American economy that has pulled so many non-native English speakers to learn the language. Even if America does eventually take a step down to a second tier on the world stage, it will be a second-tier power that produces and consumes at a staggering level, and whoever is on the first tier (if anyone; it's quite conceivable that "superpower" and "Great Power" are outmoded concepts and everyone important will basically be tied for second place) will have to reckon with buying from and selling to Americans.

1 comments:

Janiece Murphy Wednesday, June 10, 2009 at 2:58:00 PM EDT  

I thoroughly enjoyed Fareed Zakaria's The Post-American World on this topic. He makes a decent case for the "tied for second place" world-view.

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