One hot day in 1498, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama waded ashore on a sunny beach in southern India. His was the first European expedition to reach the Indies by sea, having completed the long voyage down the African coast, around the Cape of Good Hope, and across the Indian Ocean to the storied land of jewels and spices.
Da Gama was followed by a wave of ambitious merchants and explorers who set up forts and trading factories from Aden to Manila. For centuries, European languages did not spread outside insular expat communities. Europeans usually learned local languages- many were so enthusiastic about their new homes that their countrymen back home criticised them for going native. But as they swiftly strode across the Orient, growing their colonies from commercial outposts to vast empires, the new princes of the East decided it was their duty to spread their evidently superior civilisation to their benighted subjects.
Attitudes varied by nation. The commerce-minded Dutch made almost no effort to teach their language in the East Indies, nor to do anything else that would distract the locals from growing crops and trading with them. The Portuguese and Spanish were generally similarly disposed, though on a recent visit to Macao I was surprised how predominant the Portuguese language still is there.
After converting India from the private property of the East India Company into a new empire, the British government started trying to spread their language there. A flourishing new caste of Western-educated mandarins helped English put down deep roots. Still, the illiterate rural majority knew no tongue but their local dialect. Right down to the end of British rule in 1947, aspiring Oxbridge graduates had to learn various Indian languages as a vital component of the Indian Civil Service exams. Ironically, English became a common tongue at all levels of society after independence- after seeing the British off, everyone aspired to be more British.
The most zealous linguistic evangelists were the French. In their unique mission civilizatrice to make Frenchmen of all their subjects, they aggressively promoted French in schools, culture, and government. They had mixed success. Like other East Asians, the Vietnamese had a hard time with the barbarian tongue. They did, however, switch over to the Latin alphabet (as did the people of the East Indies, who similarly never learned Dutch; the development of writing is often quite divorced from that of spoken language). The French enjoyed surprising success in their Indian enclaves and the Arab world- I have only ever visited Morocco, but the staying power of the language is impressive. French decisively lost the battle to become the world’s lingua franca, but thanks in part to linguistic missionary vigour, it is really the only language that holds its own anywhere against English as an international language.
Far to the north, a parallel, though somewhat different, process was unfolding. The horseback warriors of the Central Asian steppe, so long the terror of civilised peoples, found that their bows could do little against Russian guns. By the 18th Century, Russia had conquered the northern half of Asia from the Urals to the Pacific, though the sheer expanse of the land meant that their language made slower progress.
A map of the Russian language serves as an excellent proxy for hospitable places to live in Siberia. Ethnic Russians settled the river valleys, coasts, and relatively temperate southern plains, while leaving the peoples of the barren tundra and impenetrable forests to their own devices. The Soviet regime made more of a concerted effort to make their subjects learn Russian, but what little progress they made has largely evaporated in the post-Soviet republics. Penetration into northern Kazakhstan is due to colonisation rather than assimilation.
In the Americas and Australasia, European languages, civilisation, and in many cases people entirely supplanted native ones. Africa’s countries were made up by white men in European drawing rooms, so even after independence their leaders had no choice but to go on speaking the old colonial languages because they were the only things their subjects had in common. But even as Western political and economic systems took over the world, European languages never really threatened the venerable tongues of the Orient. Outside some cosmopolitan port cities, few outside the elite had any knowledge of them. The experience of European domination did, however, exert a fundamental influence.
It was felt most strongly in India, the most linguistically diverse and amorphous of lands. Winston Churchill once asserted that “India” was a purely geographic term, with neither cultural (thus linguistic) nor national bearing. He was not unjustified. When Churchill’s successor gave India independence, its new leaders faced the difficult task of knitting together a nation.
Their first challenge was establishing a national language. Each state had its own; in the whole country, there were literally thousands. The Mughal and British imperial governments had promoted Hindustani, a somewhat artificial language based on the dialects of the north-central plains. The new governments of India and Pakistan chose different versions of the language as their standards: in India it is Hindi, written in the Indic Devanagari script, while in Pakistan it is Urdu, which has more Persian influence and is written in a flourishing Persian script.
No one in either country was willing to give up his native language in favour of some arbitrary national one. Hindi/Urdu is at least related to the other Indo-European languages of North India and Pakistan, but to the people of southern India it is no less alien than English. To the chagrin of the older generation of nationalists, people increasingly preferred English, the prestigious international language, as a neutral lingua franca. Today, most Indians speak their own local language, plus some amount of English and Hindi; they generally favour the former.
Unlike English, which is something of a mongrel language, most proud languages try to avoid importing loanwords, instead constructing words for new things of native bases. When post-independence leaders decided to get rid of King George as their head of state, they realized they actually had no word for “republic” (from Latin res publica). Indians devised ganarajya, a Sanskrit compound roughly meaning “rule by an assembly [of the people]” (the raj component, meaning “rule,” shares a root with the English word “rich” and Germanic words for “empire”). The Pakistanis borrowed the Arabic jumhuriyya.
Arabic scholars shared this affinity, but choosing native words to convey thoroughly foreign concepts can be a challenge. For example, for “parliament,” they originally used a word that traditionally referred to a king’s council. But this obviously had a certain connotation, so political reformers ultimately settled on the outright cognate al-barlaman.
The ghosts of sheikhs and sultans must have winced to see the language of the Prophet bastardised with infidel lingo. After their final defeat at the hands of the Western powers, the Turks resolved to wipe the slate clean and become a secular Western nation- in the most visible thrust of this project, they jettisoned the Persian script entirely in favour of the Latin alphabet. But the Arabs were keener to preserve their heritage.
Although the Quran has prevented the language from devolving too much à la Latin, Arabic varies widely among the many nations that speak it. The best reference I know to elucidate this comes from a Jordanian friend of mine, who once explained that understanding Egyptians or people from the Gulf states is relatively easy, but Moroccans not so much. To bridge the gap, scholars in the 19th Century constructed Modern Standard Arabic. The dialect is basically a more mundane register of the Classical Arabic of the Quran, lacking some arcane grammar and lyricism and adding new words for modern concepts- to Arabs, both are fusha, pure Arabic. No one speaks it as a native language, but the idea is that pretty much any Arabic speaker can understand it. It is this form of Arabic that is among the most widely learnt languages in the world, studied for its towering importance in religion and culture, as well as less wholesome fields like oil and terrorism.
In Europe’s age of empire, as all other non-Western nations fell to their knees before the blazing light of modernity, one stood apart. The Japanese fundamentally reformed their society along Western lines. The Japanese kept their unique writing (a combination of Chinese characters with two native syllabaries), but reoriented it to read left to right, rather than top-down and right to left as it had traditionally (the Chinese followed suit; some traditional texts and anime books still read the old way). They admired foreign learning, but rather than directly borrow European words, they preferred to construct their own based on native roots.
These roots were usually of Chinese origin: similar to how English derives its higher lexicon from Latin and Greek, Japanese and its peers look to Chinese. As China struggled to keep up with the Japanese, reversing the flow that had originally brought civilisation to Japan, Chinese was in a strange situation of borrowing Chinese-derived words from Japanese back into Chinese.
For a brief moment, Japanese was poised to become the dominant language in the East. At the apex of their Icarian arc during World War II, Japan ruled an empire stretching from Siberia to Singapore. Japanese population policies in their dominions made Hitler wince. Planners in Tokyo expected to fully “digest” the Eastern Chinese heartland by the 22nd Century. But it was not to be. Even in the long-term colonies of Korea and Taiwan, the impact of Japanisation was short-lived after Japan’s fall.
The cataclysm of the war did spur change in Japan’s laggard neighbours. Korea and China were determined to modernise. To start with the former, both new Korean regimes finally eschewed Chinese characters in favour of Hangul, an extremely intuitive script developed specifically for the Korean language in the 15th Century, but long snubbed as vulgar by scholars. Today Chinese writing is used only in very technical or formal contexts (e.g. building façades), basically analogous to when English speakers would use Latin. In terms of spoken language, apparently the severe division between North and South Korea has exacerbated dialect barriers, to the point that it is hard for North Korean escapees to integrate, but Korean is still one language.
China’s transformation was more radical. When the communists took over in 1949, they were determined to upheave every part of society, beginning with language. All schoolchildren and adults were now expected to learn one national dialect: Mandarin. Mandarin is based on Chinese as it is spoken in the capital, Beijing. The first efforts to impose it on the rest of the country were made under the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), as part of the effort of the emperor who usurped the throne and moved the capital to the far northern city to legitimise his rule. Mandarinisation picked up steam under the subsequent Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) and in the early republican period, but at the dawn of the communist era, it was still little-known outside its home turf.
Mandarin is actually quite distant from most major Chinese dialects. Others like Cantonese are far closer to the Chinese favoured by the scholars and emperors of olde. Scholars long derided Mandarin for its annoying and barbaric features, and the excessive standardisation that wiped out many sounds. Mandarin allows only two terminal consonants, “n” and “ng,” and thus heavily relies on tones to distinguish meaning- one 20th Century poet ridiculed this feature by penning an entire poem using only words pronounced shi (“shur”). But the state got its way. Around a third of Chinese still struggle with Mandarin, but their distant corners of the countryside will inevitably be swept up in the tide of history. Citizens of Shanghai and other proud southern cities eschew particular features like the much-ridiculed Beijing “r” in words like nali (“there/here”), but when we are having the conversation in Mandarin it is hard to take their snobbery seriously. Cantonese still rules in Hong Kong, but who knows how long that slight to Beijing’s rule will last; Chinese in Singapore and elsewhere are gravitating toward Mandarin.
Mao was also determined that his people should become literate, which was going to be extremely difficult with the world’s most arcane writing system. He flirted with the idea of an alphabet, but that was unworkable in a language in which shi means over two hundred different things. He ultimately settled for simplified characters, which quickly became the standard in Mainland China. However, overseas Chinese (virtually all writing in Western Chinatowns is traditional) and the governments of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao (though not Singapore) stood fast by traditional characters. Unlike in the field of spoken language, this battle may not be doomed to failure- as Mainland Chinese embrace their traditional heritage, the old characters are now trendy.
Globalisation will probably be the death of hundreds of Asian languages, from Cappadocian Greek to Manchu. Some, like Kurdish in Turkey and China’s ethnic minority languages, will have to fight for their lives. Here a special mention should go to the mysterious land of New Guinea. The densely-forested isle on the far edge of the Indies is home to over a thousand of the world’s roughly 6,500 languages. Few of them are related. Come what may, it is likely that in 2100 and beyond one headhunter will still be utterly unable to understand his peer the next valley over.
For everyone else, however, knowing at least one world language will be essential. For most, this is English. But even before getting into culture and politics, English faces big obstacles that are purely linguistic. Everyone wants to know some, but it is simply much harder for an Arab or Korean to learn than it is for a German, Russian, or even Indian. Even in major international cities, the vast majority of people speak only the national language. English can reign supreme in the European-founded commercial city-states of Hong Kong and Singapore (ditto French and Portuguese in the funny little enclaves of Pondicherry and Macao), but in Tokyo and Shanghai, not so much.
Schoolchildren in almost all countries are required to take English classes, but in many cases to little avail. The Chinese and Japanese are perhaps the only people in the world worse at learning foreign languages than Americans. Even in China’s great global cities it is difficult to get around without at least some Mandarin.
In the future, it may be less necessary for Chinese people even to try. Interest in learning Mandarin is growing worldwide, particularly in developing nations scrambling to get at the fat teat of Chinese investment. It is unlikely, however, that Mandarin will ever overtake English as an international language. Its tones and characters are simply too difficult for most adults to learn, and its economic clout is not backed by the same vast trove of cultural opportunities (music, television, travel, etc.) that draw people to English. Arabic, as the language of Islam, has a similarly potent but one-dimensional appeal.
All this is not to say that hegemonic languages will not deepen their dominance, even at the expense of English within their home regions. In China and the Islamic world, there is a concerted political and cultural effort to assert independence and purify their civilisations of Western influence. The same is true of Narendra Modi’s India, though English is so baked into modern India’s DNA that it is hard to imagine how it could ever be excised. In a world that is ever less monopolar in terms of economics and culture, it is possible to live a full, cosmopolitan life exclusively in Arabic, Hindi, Japanese, or Mandarin. Besides, learning a new language is hard, and it is so much more fun to spend one’s time on other things. Just ask the people of New Guinea.