As the Roman Empire collapsed and slowly became obsolete, its components became increasingly independent of each other and fractured. In the large scheme of things, the exit of Britain from the European Union is beginning to look like one of the final blows to the old British Empire, which had regained some momentum as English became a dominant second language in Europe in recent decades. Brexit now leaves Europe with less than one percent of English speakers, and feels like a huge chuck of ice breaking off and leaving Greenland or Antarctica: it’s an event that triggers a long-term paradigm shift that is not immediately evident.
Northern Ireland and Scotland, two of the constituent countries of what is now the United Kingdom, voted to remain within the European Union and now have a tough decision to make. Independence movements in both countries are beginning to prepare platforms that would lead to their secession. Nativism and isolationism appear to be winning again in Europe. As in the days of the late Roman Empire.
Together with the possibility of a Trump presidency–which, if it materializes, would in all likelihood make the world far more dangerous and hostile than it’s ever been for Americans, their culture, their language, and the neoliberal ideology that is associated with both Wall Street and London–these events may signal the decadence of the English language in coming years.
Like tectonic plates, cultural changes come slowly, but the tendencies are clear: over the long term, English will be slowly replaced by a new cyber-Babel, and in the lands conquered by England–where English is spoken mainly as a second language–many speak dialects so unintelligible that they’re likely to evolve into entirely new languages. Singaporean English is one example.
It is true that mass media aids in standardization and preservation of English (and other languages). However, the prediction by Nicholas Ostler and echoed by the Economist seems to ring true:
English is expanding as a lingua-franca but not as a mother tongue. More than 1 billion people speak English worldwide but only about 330m of them as a first language, and this population is not spreading. The future of English is in the hands of countries outside the core Anglophone group. Will they always learn English?
… Several of Britain’s ex-colonies once did so but only because English was a neutral language among competing native tongues. English has been rejected in other ex-colonies, such as Sri Lanka and Tanzania, where Anglophone elites gave way to Sinhala- and Swahili-speaking nationalists.
English will fade as a lingua-franca, Mr Ostler argues, but not because some other language will take its place … Rather, English will have no successor because none will be needed. Technology, Mr Ostler believes, will fill the need.
This argument relies on huge advances in computer translation and speech recognition … If he is right about the technology too, future generations will come to see English as something like calligraphy or Latin: prestigious and traditional, but increasingly dispensable.
The mythical Tower of Babel is becoming a relevant narrative of globalization. But there is a man who challenged Babel: Doctor Zamenhof, who invented the artificial international language Esperanto in the 1800s. Translation devices are not the only threat to the comfortable hegemony of the English language.
Lately, Esperanto has become a cool learning adventure, now that it has been turned into a game-like experience by duolingo. Within months of being made available on duolingo for English speakers, the Esperanto language course has hundreds of thousands of learners and has gone viral online, also multiplying traffic to sites like lernu.net. Esperanto for Spanish speakers will become available soon. There are an estimated less than five million speakers worldwide of Esperanto, and countries like Poland and Hungary (which are near the epicenter of where Esperanto was born) have each tens of thousands of speakers. Poland is the birthplace of the language and has hundreds of monuments to Doctor Zamenhof. The headquarters of the Universala Esperanto Asocio is in the Netherlands, which also has a sizable community of speakers, and where the language even once had its own currency known as the stelo.
Immediately after Brexit, Esperanto speakers in Europe became activists. The announcement was made on the inauguration of Eŭropa konversacio (an European conversation), a webpage in the international language featuring news and cultural notes related to the continent and helping to forge a continental identity in the neutral, auxiliary language. A group of Esperantists have purchased the site europano.info and are raising funds on patreon so that their project may materialize. Unlike all other “official” European Union webpages, which spend millions of dollars and employ hundreds of translators in order to make their content available in dozens of languages, europano.info will test the usefulness of Esperanto as the single, auxiliary, second language for an increasing number of people, removing the many middle-persons in the process of translation between people from dozens of countries and ethnicities, and simplifying international communication for everyone. What better place than the European Union to test Esperanto?
Esperanto was scientifically created in order to serve as the easiest to learn language on Earth, as a politically neutral, auxiliary second language. It only has sixteen grammar rules, there are never any irregularities or exceptions to the rules, and most of the root words come from Romance languages and English. The number of Esperanto-speaking youtubers has increased recently, and some (like the moderator of the Language Stuff channel) learned conversational Esperanto within a matter of weeks. Considering how fast it can be learned and how easy it is for content to go viral on the internet, for the first time in history, Esperanto is beginning to have a real chance to slowly become the tool for international communication it was meant to be, not as a result of governmental policy, but as a grassroots egalitarian movement. Do, konsideru lerni la internacian lingvon! (So consider learning the international language!)