1. Gloria Anzaldúa’s essay How to Tame a Wild Tongue highlights the various forms of English and


1. Gloria Anzaldúa’s essay How to Tame a Wild Tongue highlights the various forms of English and Spanish the author is comfortable with. Describe these forms of language and their importance to the author. Why are the author’s views on language so strong? Use at least three examples from the text.
2. John McWhorter’s essay The Cosmopolitan Tongue discusses the disappearance of languages while English continues to spread and grow. Describe McWhorter’s attitude toward this process. Does McWhorter wish to preserve indigenous languages? Defend your response with at least three examples from the text.
3. Dennis Baron’s essay Who Owns Global English? discusses the use of English in non-English speaking societies. Provide two examples that Baron gives that illustrate other countries’ perspective on the spread of English. Describe the debate between “bad” English and “new” English. Use at least three examples from the text.


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The Cosmopolitan Tongue: The Universality of English
Published on World Affairs Journal (http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org)
Home > The Cosmopolitan Tongue: The Universality of English
The Cosmopolitan Tongue: The Universality of English
John McWhorter
In depicting the emergence of the world’s languages as
a curse of gibberish, the biblical tale of the Tower of
Babel makes us moderns smile. Yet, considering the
headache that 6,000 languages can induce in real life,
the story makes a certain sense.
Not long ago, 33 of the FBI’s 12,000 employees spoke
Arabic, as did 6 of the 1,000 employees at the American
Embassy in Iraq. How can we significantly improve that
situation is a good question. It’s hard to learn Arabic,
and not only because it’s hard to pick up any new
language. Iraqi Arabic is actually one of several “dialects” of Arabic that is as different from
the others as one Romance language is from another. Using Iraqi Arabic even in a country as
close as Egypt would be like sitting down at a trattoria in Milan and ordering lunch in
Bookstore shelves groan under the weight of countless foreign­language self­teaching sets
that are about as useful as the tonics and elixirs that passed as medicine a century ago and
leave their students with anemic vocabularies and paltry grammar that are of little use in real
Even with good instruction, it is fiendishly difficult to learn any new language well, at least
after about the age of 15. While vilified in certain quarters as threatening the future of the
English language in America, most immigrants who actually try to improve their English skills
here in the United States find that they have trouble communicating effectively even with
doctors or their children’s schoolteachers.
Yet the going idea among linguists and anthropologists is that we must keep as many
languages alive as possible, and that the death of each one is another step on a treadmill
toward humankind’s cultural oblivion. This accounted for the melancholy tone, for example, of
the obituaries for the Eyak language of southern Alaska last year when its last speaker died.
That death did mean, to be sure, that no one will again use the word demexch, which refers
to a soft spot in the ice where it is good to fish. Never again will we hear the word ‘ał for an
evergreen branch, a word whose final sound is a whistling past the sides of the tongue that
sounds like wind passing through just such a branch. And behind this small death is a larger
context. Linguistic death is proceeding more rapidly even than species attrition. According to
one estimate, a hundred years from now the 6,000 languages in use today will likely dwindle
to 600. The question, though, is whether this is a problem.
The Cosmopolitan Tongue: The Universality of English
As someone who has taught himself languages as a hobby since childhood and is an
academic linguist, I hardly rejoice when a language dies. Other languages can put concepts
together in ways that make them more fascinatingly different from English than most of us
are aware they can be. In the Berik language in New Guinea, for example, verbs have to
mark the sex of the person you are affecting, the size of the object you are wielding, and
whether it is light outside. (Kitobana means “gives three large objects to a male in the
sunlight.”) Berik is doing fine for now, but is probably one of the languages we won’t see
around in 2109.
Assuming that we can keep 6,000 languages alive is the rough equivalent of supposing that
we can stop, say, ice from developing soft spots. Here’s why. As people speaking indigenous
languages migrate to cities, inevitably they learn globally dominant languages like English
and use them in their interactions with one another. The immigrants’ children may use their
parents’ indigenous languages at home. But they never know those languages as part of
their public life, and will therefore be more comfortable with the official language of the world
they grow up in. For the most part, they will speak this language to their own children. These
children will not know the indigenous languages of their grandparents, and thus pretty soon
they will not be spoken. This is language death.
Many scholars hope that we can turn back the tide with programs to revive indigenous
languages, but the sad fact is that this will almost never be very effective. Learning small
indigenous languages tends to be a tough business for people raised in European
languages: they tend to be more like Berik than like French.
I saw what this meant when I was assigned to teach some Native Americans their ancestral
language. Filled with sounds it’s hard to make unless you were born to them, it seemed
almost designed to frustrate someone who grew up with English.
In the Central Pomo language of California, if one person sits, the word is—get ready
—’cˇháw. The mark at the beginning signifies a catch in the throat, and what the raised little h
requires shall not detain us here, but rest assured that it’s a distinct challenge to render if you
grew up speaking English. But if more than one person sits, it’s a different word, naphów. If
it’s liquid that is sitting, as in a container, then the word is cˇóm. The whole language is like
Yes, there is the success story of Hebrew, but that unlikely revival came about because of a
happenstantial confluence of religion, the birth of a nation, and the obsession of Eliezer Ben­
Yehuda, who settled in Palestine and insisted on speaking only Hebrew to all Jews. This
extended to reducing his wife to tears when he caught her singing a lullaby to their child in
her native Russian.
Few people not involved with nation building would be inclined to such a violent dedication to
learning a new language, as is proven by the merely genuflective level of Hebrew that
American Jews today typically master in Hebrew school. It also helped Hebrew’s successful
comeback that it had a long tradition of written materials. Only about 200 languages are truly
written: most are only spoken.
What makes the potential death of a language all the more emotionally charged is the belief
that if a language dies, a cultural worldview will die with it. But this idea is fragile. Certainly
language is a key aspect of what distinguishes one group from another. However, a language
itself does not correspond to the particulars of a culture but to a faceless process that creates
The Cosmopolitan Tongue: The Universality of English
new languages as the result of geographical separation. For example, most Americans
pronounce disgusting as “diss­kussting” with a k sound. (Try it—you probably do too.)
However, some people say “dizz­gusting”—it’s easier to pronounce the g after a softer sound
like z. Imagine a language with the word pronounced as it is spelled (and as it was in Latin):
“diss­gusting.” The group speaking the language splits into two groups that go their separate
ways. Come back five hundred years later, and one group is pronouncing the word “diss­
kussting,” while the other is pronouncing it “dizz­gusting.” After even more time, the word
would start shortening, just as we pronounce “let us” as “let’s.” After a thousand years, in one
place it would be something like “skussting,” while in the other it might be “zgustin.” After
another thousand, perhaps “skusty” and “zguss.” By this time, these are no longer even the
same language.
This is exactly why there are different languages—what began in Latin as augustus became
agosto in Spanish and, in French, août, pronounced as just the single vowel sound. Estonian
is what happened when speakers of an earlier language migrated away from other ones; in
one place, Estonian happened, in the other, Finnish did. And so while Finnish for horse is
hevonen, in Estonian it’s hobune.
Notice that this is not about culture, any more than saying “diss­kusting” rather than “diz­
gusting” reflects anything about one’s soul. In fact, all human groups could, somehow, exhibit
the exact same culture—and yet their languages would be as different as they are now,
because the differences are the result of geographical separation, leading to chance linguistic
driftings of the kind that turn augustus into agosto and août. In this we would be like whales,
whose species behave similarly everywhere, but have distinct “songs” as the result of
happenstance. Who argues that we must preserve each pod of whales because of the
particular songs they happen to have developed? The diversity of human languages is
subject to the same evaluation: each one is the result of a roll of the dice.
One school of thought proposes that there is more than mere chance in how a language’s
words emerge, and that if we look closely we see culture peeping through. For example, in its
obituary for Eyak, the Economist proposed that the fact that kultahl meant both leaf and
feather signified a cultural appreciation of the unique spiritual relationship of trees and birds.
But in English we use hover to refer both to the act of waiting, suspended, in the air and the
act of staying close to a mate at a cocktail party to ward off potential rivals. Notice how much
less interesting that is to us than the bit about the Eyak and leaves and feathers.
For the better part of a century, all attempts to conjure any meaningful indication of thought
patterns or cultural outlook from the vocabularies and
grammars of languages has fallen apart in that sort of way, with researchers picking up only
a few isolated shards of evidence. For example, because “table” has feminine gender in
Spanish (la mesa), a Spanish speaker is more likely—if pressed—to imagine a cartoon table
having a high voice. But this isn’t exactly what most of us would think of as meaningfully
“cultural,” nor as having to do with “thought.” And in fact, Spanish speakers do not go about
routinely imagining tables as cooing in feminine tones.
Thus the oft­heard claim that the death of a language means the death of a culture puts the
cart before the horse. When the culture dies, naturally the language dies along with it. The
reverse, however, is not necessarily true. Groups do not find themselves in the bizarre
circumstance of having all of their traditional cultural accoutrements in hand only to find
themselves incapable of indigenous expression because they no longer speak the
corresponding language. Native American groups would bristle at the idea that they are no
The Cosmopolitan Tongue: The Universality of English
longer meaningfully “Indian” simply because they no longer speak their ancestral tongue.
Note also the obvious and vibrant black American culture in the United States, among people
who speak not Yoruba but English.
The main loss when a language dies is not cultural but aesthetic. The click sounds in certain
African languages are magnificent to hear. In many Amazonian languages, when you say
something you have to specify, with a suffix, where you got the information. The Ket
language of Siberia is so awesomely irregular as to seem a work of art.
But let’s remember that this aesthetic delight is mainly savored by the outside observer, often
a professional savorer like myself. Professional linguists or anthropologists are part of a
distinct human minority. Most people, in the West or anywhere else, find the fact that there
are so many languages in the world no more interesting than I would find a list of all the
makes of Toyota. So our case for preserving the world’s languages cannot be based on how
fascinating their variegation appears to a few people in the world. The question is whether
there is some urgent benefit to humanity from the fact that some people speak click
languages, while others speak Ket or thousands of others, instead of everyone speaking in a
universal tongue.
As 5,500 languages slowly disappear, the aesthetic loss is not to be dismissed. And in fact
dying languages become museum pieces. For this reason it is fortunate and crucial that
modern technology is recording and analyzing them more thoroughly than ever before.
Perhaps a future lies before us in which English will be a sort of global tongue while people
continue to speak about 600 other languages among themselves. English already is a de
facto universal language—yet those who would consider it a blessing if everyone over 15
spoke an artificial language like Esperanto are often somewhat diss­kussted that this is the
status English is moving closer toward decade by decade.
Obviously, the discomfort with English “taking over” is due to associations with imperialism,
first on the part of the English and then, of course, the American behemoth. We cannot erase
from our minds the unsavory aspects of history. Nor should we erase from our minds the fact
that countless languages—such as most of the indigenous languages of North America and
Australia—have become extinct not because of something as abstract and gradual as
globalization, but because of violence, annexation, and cultural extermination. But we cannot
change that history, nor is it currently conceivable how we could arrange for some other
language to replace the growing universality of English. Like the QWERTY keyboard, this
particular horse is out of the barn.
Even if the world’s currencies are someday tied to the renmimbi, English’s head start as the
lingua franca of popular culture, scholarship, and international discourse would ensure its
linguistic dominance. To change this situation would require a great many centuries, certainly
too long a span to figure meaningfully in our assessment of the place of English in world
communications in our present moment.
And notice how daunting the prospect of Chinese as a world language is, with a writing
system that demands mastery of 2,000 characters in order to be able to read even a tabloid
newspaper. For all of its association with Pepsi and the CIA, English is very user­friendly as
the world’s 6,000 languages go. English verb conjugation is spare compared to, say, that of
The Cosmopolitan Tongue: The Universality of English
Italian—just the third­person singular s in the present, for example. There are no pesky
genders to memorize (and no feminine­gendered tables that talk like Penelope Cruz). There
are no sounds under whose dispensation you almost have to be born as a prerequisite for
rendering them anywhere near properly, like the notorious trilly rˇ sound in Czech.
Each language is hard in its own way. Try explaining to a foreigner why, if you get a busy
signal, you might say, “I’ll try her tomorrow,” but you can also say, “Tomorrow I turn 25,”
without using the will to indicate the future. But as a language all people are required to learn,
would it really be better to have one like Russian, with three genders, fiercely subtle and
irregular verb marking, and numbers so hard to express properly that Russians themselves
have trouble with them?
There are those who worry not only that English will become primus inter pares, but that it will
finally eat up even the last remaining 600 languages as well. But this stretches the
imagination, to be sure. As long as there are Japanese people meeting and raising children
in Japan, amidst a culture in which Japanese
is enshrined as the language of not only speech but education, literature, and journalism, it is
hard to conceive even of the first step toward the day when a child raised in Osaka would
speak English and think of Japanese as a language his parents spoke when they “didn’t want
me to understand.” Eyak is one thing, but the languages spoken by substantial populations
and well entrenched in writing are another.
However, as is increasingly clear today, under the terms of the present order we must
prepare for unforeseen circumstances and treat the surprising as
normal. Suppose global warming patterns forced population relocations of unprecedented
volume and speed: perhaps this could lead to the use of English as a lingua franca among
displaced hordes of assorted extractions, such that children raised in these new settings
would speak English instead of Finnish or Japanese or Croatian.
Or just maybe the process could happen as the result of some less dramatic and more
gradual process. We might conceive of humanity continuing to benefit from the extinct 600
languages as taught ones. People could savor Tolstoy in the original Russian as we today
read Virgil in Latin.
Viscerally, as a great fan of Russian for many years, I am as uncomfortable as anyone else
with the prospect of Russian no longer being passed on to children. However, I am also
aware that mine is not necessarily a logical discomfort. Coming back to the Tower of Babel,
can we say that the benefits of linguistic diversity are more important, in a way that a
representative number of humans could agree upon, than the impediment to communication
that they entail? Especially when their differentiation from one another is, ultimately, a
product of the same kind of accretionary accidents that distinguish a woodchuck from a
At the end of the day, language death is, ironically, a symptom of people coming together.
Globalization means hitherto isolated peoples migrating and sharing space. For them to do
so and still maintain distinct languages across generations happens only amidst unusually
tenacious self­isolation—such as that of the Amish—or brutal segregation. (Jews did not
speak Yiddish in order to revel in their diversity but because they lived in an apartheid
The Cosmopolitan Tongue: The Universality of English
society.) Crucially, it is black Americans, the Americans whose English is most distinct from
that of the mainstream, who are the ones most likely to live separately from whites
geographically and spiritually.
The alternative, it would seem, is indigenous groups left to live in isolation—complete with the
maltreatment of women and lack of access to modern medicine and technology typical of
such societies. Few could countenance this as morally justified, and attempts to find some
happy medium in such cases are frustrated by the simple fact that such peoples, upon
exposure to the West, tend to seek membership in it.
As we assess our linguistic future as a species, a basic question remains. Would it be
inherently evil if there were not 6,000 spoken languages but one? We must consider the
question in its pure, logical essence, apart from particular associations with English and its
history. Notice, for example, how the discomfort with the prospect in itself eases when you
imagine the world’s language being, say, Eyak.
John McWhorter is a linguist, political commentator, and lecturer in the Department of English
and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.
This article has been modified since its appearance in the print version of World Affairs.
OG Image:
More about:
North America [1] ,
Middle East [2] ,
Egypt [3] ,
US [4] ,
Iraq [5] ,
Diplomacy [6]
Source URL: http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/article/cosmopolitan­tongue­universality­english
[1] http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/world­news/region/north­america
[2] http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/world­news/region/middle­east
[3] http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/world­news/country/egypt
[4] http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/world­news/country/us
[5] http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/world­news/country/iraq
[6] http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/world­news/topics/diplomacy
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