Thursday, February 05, 2009

What is the world coming to?

I have wondered for a while what the increasing connectivity and mobility will mean for historically local aspects of our lives, such as language and traditions.

In 1996, The Economist wrote “English might now be impregnably established as the world standard language: an intrinsic part of the global communications revolution” [1]. In the same year, an article titled “World Wide Web: Three English Words” in the New York Times let us know that “if you want to take full advantage of the Internet, there is only one way to do it: learn English.” And indeed, in the late 90s, 80% of online information was in English, a large fraction given that only an estimated 8% of the people in the world are native English speakers. However, by 2002, the fraction of English websites had dropped to less than 50%, by 2005 to about 1/3 [2], and in 2008 English had dropped to 29.4%, followed by 18.9% Chinese and 8.5% Spanish. Today the web thus reflects the diversity of languages in the world much more accurately than a decade ago.

The idea that English would overtake the world through its dominance on the Internet therefore was wrong. Nevertheless, small countries whose languages are not very widely used have a too small market share to synchronize movies or translate books into the local language (eg the Netherlands), which means that growing up in such a country people will learn foreign languages very early or miss a big part of what the world is talking about. It isn't particularly representative, but I know several couples with differing native languages who mostly communicate in English, meaning their children do (or will) grow up trilingual. And how I envy them for the ease with which they will be able to travel around the globe.

All in all, despite the fact that people do prefer their mother tongue, different languages pose a difficulty for communication, an obstacle that requires effort to overcome. Wouldn't it just be so much easier if we'd all speak the same language? If I crank forwards the clock for some thousands years - provided that mankind still exists and the level of connectivity remains or increases - I thus think we will settle down into one common language, which will very likely be none of the languages we speak today but some aggregate of present languages. Certainly, there will be interest groups for the preservation of language diversity. If they have spent all their donations setting up their website in 50 different languages, they will realize fighting against a trend towards simplicity is futile.

When it comes to traditions however, the situation is different. May that be rituals, festivities or recipes - though these do compete with each other for our time and taste, I see no strong reason for this diversity to dwindle. You might prefer to stick to people who share your traditions, but this is much more your private business than a language you need to get through your daily live. Again jumping ahead some thousand years, I thus don't think these differences will be erased, for much the same reason that interior design differs from one house to the next. I am undecided about cultural differences, as these fall somewhere between communication and tradition.

What do you think?

I have to admit though, there are advantages to not being a native speaker. If I want to get rid of solicitors, I conveniently forget I speak English.

[1] “The Coming Global Tongue,” The Economist, 21 December 1996.
[2] Numbers from
“Who Controls the Internet?” by Goldstein and Wu


  1. I just returned from a trip so let me be the first say a few words re the web.

    During the first decade it is natural that 80% of web is English - because that's how it was started.

    Given time, number of websites must reflect world population. It is only natural that Chinese now dominates. And so on.

    Above trend is true on usage and domestic content, but will not be true on international communications and control (technical and administrative).

    I.e. the core power of the Net - technical infrastructure, international commerce, financial transactions, technological and scientific content, collaborations, will continue to be dominated by English for the foreseeable future.

    Do you know all software of the Net - the stuff that runs all the plumbing and routers, all the computers, web creation, web information control, all require English? Don't know English and one becomes a pretty passive user. You cannot participate in shaping the Net.

    What's the world coming to? Simple. Net info replaces just about all traditional media, and that will include much of TV. TV and print becomes niche while web becomes general purpose.

  2. If there are people 1000 years from now, I suppose they will speak whatever language(s) their robot masters want them to.

  3. Bee

    * gave an introduction to anti-gravitation. about 6 hours ago

    What the world is coming to is that I want to know what anti-gravitation Bee is introducing. :)

  4. I answer library reference questions in English and Spanish, so I frequently use the Google languages tool that lets you search within a specific language for website. I also search Google Scholar in Spanish. It's a heck of a thing, but many times the best answer to a question comes from translating an English-language website into Spanish. There's a depth of content in English that I don't find in Spanish. Would I ever want to be monolingual? Heck no. Besides, studies a couple of years ago said that people who are at least bilingual and use both languages each day can delay the onset of dementia--in other words, perhaps using multiple languages keeps us sharp.

  5. I am not too sure that all languages will merge. I don't know too much about linguistics, but I do know that there is a strong tendency for languages to fragment - hence all the jargons of diverse groups popping up. It may very well be that our society now intermingles enough that this will prevent the appearance of new languages, but I wouldn't bet on it!

  6. Hi Bee,

    First, let me say that I’m embarrassed by the fact I only speak one language and at times it could be said not very well in the one. My feeling on the matter is that all people should be encouraged to know one universal language, besides the one they already know; which shouldn’t have its roots in any of the current ones. If this was ever done and committed to seriously by all nations I’m confident over time the native languages would vanish as being seen as redundant with in the context of our ever shrinking world.

    After this we should work on our color, which again would have to be universal and not being of any current origin, so perhaps something like green would be best. Come to think of it perhaps this is why all extraterrestrial visitors are reported to look like this, as it may simply indicate and be resultant of them having long since realized the need to dispense with their petty differences.

    Now if you were to ask me about gender, I would still insist “Viva la difference! ” :-)



  7. India has/had a reasonably successful three language formula - mother tongue, Hindi (national language), English (international language).

    Rather than converging with international English, I think a distinct Indian dialect will emerge.

  8. Re the last line only: One doesn't necessarily need to be a nonnative speaker to conveniently "forget" a language, as long as you have some other language to fall back to. Speaking German and feigning ignorance of my native English once saved me from a conversation with Jehova's Witnesses in Italy. (Although they did leave me with a copy of "Der Wachturm".)

  9. Human beings will not need robots knowing that the first stages of the universal translator is already in the works.

    Google has this feature by combining Dragon speaking into making the translator this will deter people from feigning "no comprehendo.":)Bee:)


  10. Phil:My feeling on the matter is that all people should be encouraged to know one universal language

    Might one not speculate that this already exists?:)Image production seems relevant somehow at all levels somehow?

    Why are all aliens suppose to be green? Why can they not look like Bee or Stefan, or, even you or I?:)

    Do you think "they can mask the experiences of encounter" using a semblance of the "universal language." What one image can mean using interpretative skills, can mean another physically.

    Why not produce a "mass hallucination" while working on another level. Like the bankers do?:)


  11. Hi CIP,

    I have never found the idea that we'll be enslaved by robots particularly convincing, I think biological evolution has way more potential. I find it more likely we will create a lifeform that is so superior to us we'll become their pets. Best,


  12. Dear Bee,

    Master works with sloave as well as pet.

    ....I suppose they will speak whatever language(s) their robot masters want them to....


  13. Hi Bee

    This is not new. I see a pattern here. The dominant civilization determines the dominant language:

    Greeks: Greek was the universal language during the Hellenistic era.

    Roman Empire: Latin

    Anglo-American dominance: English

    We leave in just another Historical period. I won't be surprised if in 50 years Chinese becomes the universal language.

    Thus I don't see a universal permanent language as you describe it.

  14. Hi Giotis,

    The world has changed a bit in the last 2000 years. As I wrote, I think global mobility and connectivity play a role in how local a dominance may be. Best,


  15. Yes I agree. What I'm saying is that this universal language will not be artificial or permanent. In each Historical period (more or less) the language of the dominant economical and cultural power prevails.

  16. Dear Bee,

    about the trend of increasingly many languages used in the WWW - this could be just a result of the growing numbers of users.

    I mean, once some critical mass of internet users with one language is reached, so that all kinds of "needs" - sharing gossip, news, information, selling and buying stuff, entertainment, special interests, etc - can be satisfied in this community, it makes sense it that exists on its own.

    But this is perhaps unrelated to the fact that a single language may prove convenient for communication across the borders of these communitites with one language. A maybe English is quite suited for this, as grammar and syntax are quite easy to learn (though, the correlation of pronounciation and spelling is awful ...).

    I think as soon as people try (or have to) to communicate beyond their language group, they see quite fast that one language that is understood everywhere is very convenient. But on the other hand, there is no need that everyone speaks one language - and only this language. Languages are just to robust, I think, as long as there enough speakers.

    Cheers, Stefan

  17. Hi Giotis,

    Oh, I see. Yes, I agree. Best,


  18. I more or less agree with CIP, but I don't think robots will enslave us. A few centuries from now our brains will have become obsolete technology, and then we'll just be replaced by pure machines.

    The people who at that time still decide to have children will doom their children to no longer be part of the dominant life form on Earth. So, they'll be like today's chimpanzees.

    Now, we don't force chimpanzees to talk any language, we don't interfere in their personal disputes in the jungle. So, why would a superintelligent machine civilization bother to interfere in the lives of the ape species called Homo Sapiens?

  19. Dear Stefan,

    Well, I certainly wasn't surprised that English didn't continue to dominate the Internet. What surprised me where the quotations from the New York Times and The Economist that seemed to think so. In the mid to late 90s, I could see people around me setting up their websites - in German. So that trend was quite obvious.

    Regarding the robustness of languages: I'm not saying it will happen fast, but I am sure it will happen because people try (or have to) communicate beyond their language group increasingly more often, and it is of a big advantage if that obstacle is not present. Best,


  20. Hi Count,

    The same comment for you as I offered to CIP above: what makes you believe that we will be replaced by 'machines' in contrast to advanced biological lifeforms that we possibly created ourselves? I think the latter has vastly more potential than the former. Best,


  21. "The idea that English would overtake the world through its dominance on the Internet therefore was wrong."

    Well, this would certainly not the first time that the 'Economist' got something wrong.

    I also conveniently 'forget' about my English skills with solicitors!

    I think that history is so contingency-dependent, and technology is changing so fast nowdays that it would be very hard (if not impossible), to predict what the next 1,000 years would bring (yes, that's my cop-out for avoiding a prediction!).

    CIP, I certainly do hope your prediction about robots is wrong (though I can see how that would be plausible).

  22. I have a question: does the Limerick exist in languages other than English? In German for example? If so, does Bee know any?

    Here is an example of a limerick, chosen purely at random :-) which I found recently on the internet:

    A small boy from the land of good beer
    Has shed, alas, many a tear.
    Sobbed he: “I’m dead meat!
    Facing utter defeat!
    It’s the sting of Queen Bee that I fear!”

  23. Hi Pope Maledict XVI,

    I’m sure there are German Limericks, yet more interestingly physics has them as well, as for example:

    As Noether most keenly observed
    (And for which much acclaim is deserved),
    We can easily see
    That for each symmetry,
    A quantity must be conserved.



  24. Hi Pope Maledict XVI,

    A Limerick that I recently discovered that was a winner in a APS Physics contest I see as being most currently relevant is as follows:

    Quark-Dork Symmetry Group
    by Kay R. Devicci©

    When we physicists talk about quarks,
    And "sleptons," "sneutronos," and "squarks,"
    We shouldn't be stunned
    When the Congress won't fund
    Our big projects - they think that we're dorks!



  25. Bee said: "What is the world coming to?"

    The world is evidently coming to chaos and destruction, so don't bother about languages (which degrade as everything else) :) ... And if you are more optimistic than that, then it's time to tackle Chinese :) ...

  26. As a follow up I offer a limerick of my own:

    Methods to our Madness

    Bacon and Descartes have fought
    As to hence how science should be wrought
    Does induced sensing yield truth?
    Or is sensible reasoning the sleuth?
    Still between them we continue to be caught



    If you find this bad verse
    It could have been worse
    Yet it wasn’t my fault
    And now I mercifully halt
    Claiming caused by Maledict’s curse:-)

  27. Yes,
    there are German limericks.
    look here:

  28. Berlin gave us a pastry sweet,
    Frankfurt, Hamburg - things to eat
    But Limerick
    Had to pick
    A verse with anapestic feet.

  29. Hi Arun,

    As you pointed out I got the cadence wrong with my first attempt, so I offer the following:

    There’s a theoretical physicist named Bee
    Who claims a minimum length as to see
    It’s required to think
    How far it can shrink
    For as something from nothing is free

    Now I wonder if this will make sense in German as well:-)



  30. Phil,

    I don't think I pointed out anything, rather enjoyed the limericks. Somehow it used to be easier to compose them in younger days. It occurred to me that meter and feet coexist happily in poetry, and thought it should be celebrated by a limerick, but nothing works so far.

    BTW, I found this:

  31. Hi Arun,

    Yes perhaps I read a little too much into your comment. As yourself I have always enjoyed limericks since they have both an order and abstraction to them. It’s interesting how as in the piece you pointed to indicates that some languages just don’t have the structure for them. It does make one pause a bit to consider languages on the whole a lot more in terms of how they have us think.

    In that respect I’m also reminded how many don’t consider math as a language and I suppose it could be argued if there is a second one that we should all be familiar it would be this. The simplest and yet most powerful augment I ever ran across in this regard, was one given in the October 2007 Discover Magazine by Ken Gross in the article “Making the Grade” where he said:

    “In the equation 2 + 3 = 5, the numerals are adjectives that modify nouns, and we’ve agreed that all the numbers modify the same noun,” he explains. “But the equation 1 + 1 = 15 could also be true if the first number modified ‘dime,’ the second modified ‘nickel,’ and the third modified ‘cents.’ We don’t teach that concept, but it’s the key to understanding the language of math.”



  32. Didn't know that limericks could run in stanzas?:)


  33. Ah Phil, the attempt at language then becomes complicated. Yet try to express this to others and they think cacophony.:)

    One is always indeed looking then for the essence of the idea under the most ideal conditions. It's simplicity.

    A continual lingering question as too.... "The Foundations of Mathematics, Invented or Discovered?"

    Mathematical Problems
    Lecture delivered before the International Congress of Mathematicians at Paris in 1900

    By Professor David Hilbert

    While insisting on rigor in the proof as a requirement for a perfect solution of a problem, I should like, on the other hand, to oppose the opinion that only the concepts of analysis, or even those of arithmetic alone, are susceptible of a fully rigorous treatment. This opinion, occasionally advocated by eminent men, I consider entirely erroneous. Such a one-sided interpretation of the requirement of rigor would soon lead to the ignoring of all concepts arising from geometry, mechanics and physics, to a stoppage of the flow of new material from the outside world, and finally, indeed, as a last consequence, to the rejection of the ideas of the continuum and of the irrational number. But what an important nerve, vital to mathematical science, would be cut by the extirpation of geometry and mathematical physics! On the contrary I think that wherever, from the side of the theory of knowledge or in geometry, or from the theories of natural or physical science, mathematical ideas come up, the problem arises for mathematical science to investigate the principles underlying these ideas and so to establish them upon a simple and complete system of axioms, that the exactness of the new ideas and their applicability to deduction shall be in no respect inferior to those of the old arithmetical concepts.

    The original address "Mathematische Probleme" appeared in Göttinger Nachrichten, 1900, pp. 253-297, and in Archiv der Mathematik und Physik, (3) 1 (1901), 44-63 and 213-237. [A fuller title of the journal Göttinger Nachrichten is Nachrichten von der Königl. Gesellschaft der Wiss. zu Göttingen.]

    Some might have seen this attempt at explanation "in relation" further exemplified in Klein's and Poincare's answering each other in letter form?


  34. The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences by Eugene Wigner

    The great mathematician fully, almost ruthlessly, exploits the domain of permissible reasoning and skirts the impermissible. That his recklessness does not lead him into a morass of contradictions is a miracle in itself: certainly it is hard to believe that our reasoning power was brought, by Darwin's process of natural selection, to the perfection which it seems to possess. However, this is not our present subject. The principal point which will have to be recalled later is that the mathematician could formulate only a handful of interesting theorems without defining concepts beyond those contained in the axioms and that the concepts outside those contained in the axioms are defined with a view of permitting ingenious logical operations which appeal to our aesthetic sense both as operations and also in their results of great generality and simplicity.

    [3 M. Polanyi, in his Personal Knowledge (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), says: "All these difficulties are but consequences of our refusal to see that mathematics cannot be defined without acknowledging its most obvious feature: namely, that it is interesting" (p 188).]

    Some Like John Nash tried to penetrate this order on a most fundamental level and saw it hidden in our relations of negotiation( how chaotic it seems). So like the school of fish, or birds the fly together that by turning as group, there is this underlying presence of what constitutes as "a gathering" as if "Einstein crossed the room." But it's really about looking for the mechanism?


  35. Hi Plato,

    This all boils down to asking if math appears as it does because it manifests logic or is resultant of it? Personally I find it to be the latter, by virtue of the fact that the axioms themselves have shown clearly to be limited and at times questionable. So in this respect I consider it only one of the languages that is required for the pursuit of truth. For example, to express how Godel might have looked upon this would be to say, that while all is not number it certainly can be said and demonstrated to form a required part.

    That is why also physics must have expression in math, yet I feel shouldn’t be confused as a consequence of it. Symmetry on one hand mandates equations and simplifying them is truly manifested economy, yet can it be said that they stand in explanation of nature or rather nature’s character lends them the ability to be so considered as to have purpose.

    Finally of course you realize this has taken us quite a distance from Bee’s intention, so I suggest we leave it here before she rightfully reminds us so with some colourful metaphors :-)



  36. Hello,
    seeing Hilberts text here in English and a hint whre to find the German version, made me curioous to compare
    this texts.
    First, it took me some seconds only to find the text and about a minute
    to learn how to count the words and
    letters with the aid of a text program.
    That is something I still admire with
    computers and the www. I sit here far away from a real library,
    but no problem, Hilberts speech is at hand within shortest time.

    Normally the relation of German and English versions is that
    German is about 20 to 30 % longer
    in word count, letter count is even more,
    German words are longer generally.
    But there are exeptions from this rule, the more "philosophical", the texts, the shorter German is compared to English.
    I remember (school time) some text example from
    Bertrand Russel, where German was shorter by a quarter.
    Results for the piece from Hilbert:
    English: 218 words, 1312 Letters
    German : 189 words, 1363 Letters
    Although German is slightly longer in Letters (+ 3.9 %),
    it is significantly shorter in word count,
    (- 13.3 %)
    Heidegger once stated "One can do
    philosopy in German or old Greek only".
    This statement is a bit arrogant, but there is some reason in it.

  37. Hi Georg,

    An interesting hypothesis that philosophy and logic can be expressed more precisely and concisely in German as apposed to English. Perhaps this is true, yet your mention of Bertrand Russell brings to mind that sometimes it’s style rather then format that defines which is best. As for example in straight forward English the famous Russell's Paradox in Wikipedia is expressed as follows:

    “It might be assumed that, for any formal criterion, a set exists whose members are those objects (and only those objects) that satisfy the criterion; but this assumption is disproved by a set containing exactly the sets that are not members of themselves. If such a set qualifies as a member of itself, it would contradict its own definition as a set containing sets that are not members of themselves. On the other hand, if such a set is not a member of itself, it would qualify as a member of itself by the same definition. This contradiction is Russell's paradox.”

    Now Groucho Marx summed it all up this way :

    “ I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”

    So perhaps humor in any language at times has a way of having meaning become clear and concise when all else fails :-)



  38. I think the only thing you're missing in this post is the distinction between written and spoken language.

    While it's quite possible that English could become a de facto world language in the written form, it seems very unlikely that, if even native speakers don't speak it the same as one another (e.g., the bewildering variety of verging-toward-mutually-unintelligible accents in the UK), it's very, very unlikely that the language would take over as the spoken language.

    Even where it did, historically - such as the Romans' Latin replacing various indigenous languages - those versions of Latin soon diverged into entirely separate languages, ranging from Portuguese to Rumanian.

    I find it helps to think of language as a biological process, rather like mitosis: any given language is capable of dividing and forming new languages, and when it does so, those fittest languages will carry on. But each will, in turn, divide and differentiate.

    I've not commented here before, so let me just say by way of identification that I'm a linguist by profession. :)

  39. Hi Cait,

    That is an interesting point you raise. In fact, I was trying to think of it as a selection process. I would agree that there will remain local variations of the language. We have however two processes working against each other: the one is the growth of new dialects, that might eventually lead to a split, the other one is the trend towards conformity by the need to non-locally communicate which I have argued is becoming much stronger. While I do think that people will hold on to their local peculiarities (demonstrating in-group and "in-fashion" behavior), I think that the overall trend is towards one "official" language. Does that conflict with your assessment? Best,


  40. It's hard to say; I just find it unlikely that people's social attachment to a non-standard language (assuming there is One Standard) would fade so much as to have it disappear. It's my personal expectation that we'll continue to see at least several major languages, even if we do see the extinction of 95% of the total inventory. Given there are something on the order of 5-6k languages in the world, losing even 99% would still leave 50-60 major tongues...:)

  41. Let's face it...english (for good or bad) has become the lingua franca for maritime navigation, aviation,etc,etc, ad nauseum. The sign of a "healthy" language (in the sense that it propagates and grows) is measured by the extent that this language is taught to the next generation. For example, consider the decline of the celtic languages, with the possible exception of Welsh and Breton.

  42. "Why not produce a "mass hallucination" while working on another level. Like the bankers do?:)"

    ROFL so true. Let's do it!


COMMENTS ON THIS BLOG ARE PERMANENTLY CLOSED. You can join the discussion on Patreon.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.