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Gazing the Linguistic Crystal Ball

Murari Prasad

By David Crystal
Polity Press, Cambridge, 2005, pp. 142, Rs. 195.00

VOLUME XXX NUMBER 1-2 January-February 2006

This slim volume is a significant expression of concern for the future of minority languages and the attendant cultural casualties in the age of electronic communication. The author, who is one of the foremost authorities on the English language today, also watches the direction and profile of English as a global language, or an international lingua franca, and predicts the possible scenario in the event of the likely marginalization of native English speakers by an overhelming number of the language’s non-native users. The key language theme for the 21st century, in his view, is the preservation of language ecology.   The three chapters of the book summarize his arguments advanced earlier in his three books: English as a Global Language( 1997), Language Death ( 2000) and Language and the Internet (2001), with some modifications; in the remaining two chapters he views the linguistic world further “by standing on the shoulders” of these books. A quick run-through of the language trends outlined in the three chapters is quite revealing, even more so the author’s less sanguine, and more circumspect, tone. Crystal maintains that for the first time in history the world is witnessing a truly global language. Before the rise of English to this status in the 1990s, no language could permeate so many important domains of human life and civilization. Not that English has any special qualities to contribute to its success or it is intrinsically lovable, but it has had the good fortune to experience favourable circumstances during the last five hundred years or so. Its growth has been essentially fuelled by four factors, political (euphemism for colonial), technological, economic and cultural.   What does Crystal mean by a global language? It is not that everyone around the world has started speaking English. The number of mother-tongue speakers of English (372 million) is still far fewer than that of Chinese (1,113 million). Spanish, Arabic and Hindi are not far behind English. As regards the number of countries with a dominant mother tongue, Arabic heads the list. And probably Spanish is also ahead of English. Crystal’s point that “no language has ever been spoken by a mother-tongue majority in more than a dozen or so countries “(p.7) is debatable, in that Arabic is spoken as a mother tongue in over 20 countries. But these figures do not go far enough to determine the global role of a language. It is the official and institutional presence of ...

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