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The Struggle For Life Among Languages
by [?]

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.