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The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the…

The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel

by Nicholas Ostler

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My interest in languages and lingua-francas should be obvious. I'm a Welsh person who grew up in England and only really discovered my own country's culture when living there, doing a course in Welsh literature, through the medium of English (and it doesn't escape me that I did this module on a course called English Literature). I don't speak my mother-tongue -- and Welsh should've been my mother-tongue: only a generation ago, all my family spoke it and didn't learn English until secondary school; that, and Welsh has words for things I feel for which there is no English translation (hiraeth). Then there's the fact that the person I'm showing every sign of spending my life with is actually speaking to me in her third language, and finds my attempts at speaking French laughable and would probably wince if I tried to pronounce Dutch. Meeting her family, we use English as a lingua-franca in practice, and I even bought this very book, in English, in a bookshop in Brussels.

Unfortunately, despite all that interest and my academic background to boot, I found this book very dense and dry. Statistics and technicalities abound; the influence of colonialism and imperialism acknowledged but not considered as much as I'd like. It's an interesting topic, although I'm not sure about some of the ideas (can machine translation ever really replace human translation? Having done translation work from French, Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic, myself -- hell no!). Execution is just a bit dull if statistics and such aren't your thing. The historical stuff is interesting, though. ( )
  shanaqui | Apr 9, 2013 |
This book's about linguas franca and the ideas about English remaining as an eternal world language, or being overtaken by Chinese or what-haveyou. It's decent enough, but I've got to say I couldn't quite fathom the intended readership. It's really pretty dense as a piece of pop linguistics (I've read my share) but it's clearly not a textbook either. It goes into quite a lot of historical detail, and throws in lots (really, really lots) of linguistic examples throughout, which is excellent scholastic practice but does make it pretty heavy unless you're really into those languages and cultures - there's a very long section about Persian and mid-Eurasia, for example, which most people in the West (like me) are utterly ignorant about, so that was heavy going. I'm not really sure what I think would improve it, though - it's just in a slightly odd niche. I'm glad I've read it, and I agree broadly with the book's conclusions, though I've got to say I didn't really feel like there was a strong thread of argument running through the book - it's more a patchwork most of the time, but then it's social and cultural linguistics, not physics. So, broadly, it's worth a look, but be aware it's slightly genreless and you'd probably do best to just flick through it and focus on the bits you're most interested in, rather than trying to soak in everything. ( )
1 vote Shimmin | Mar 31, 2013 |
Pomposity, pedantry, and an author too in love with himself.

I had read Nicholas Ostler's "Empires of the Word" and enjoyed it and learned from it. Based on that positive experience and the good reviews of "The Last Lingua Franca," I bought his new book.

What a disappointment. I didn't finish the book. I rate the book as high as three stars only because Ostler is a bright and accomplished scholar and his underlying theme is a good one. From the parts I read I feel that a reader could get the most important thoughts contained in the book through reading the jacket copy or from reviews.

Academia has a lot of virtues, but in "Lingua Franca" Ostler parades the worst of the negative stereotypes of academics: smugness, pedantry, pomposity, leaden writing. The book's many errors of fact, spelling and grammar show that he and his editors need to be more attentive. Some simple examples among the many errors: on page xii in the "Acknowlegments" he refers to the English language having been spoken "these last fifteen centuries;" and on pages 11 to 12 he writes, "Secondly, at the center of the Indian Ocean coastline, the polices [sic] of India stand in contrast to those of Sri Lanka ..." -- neither "polices" nor policies are at the center of the coastline. The writing is in the inflated style of an undergraduate seeking to impress the reader. ( )
  JohnPeterAltgeld | Aug 1, 2011 |
Showing 3 of 3
Before Ostler’s own ideology—entailing a fanciful technological determinism—takes hold of his argument, The Last Lingua Franca is wide-ranging and insightful.
added by lorax | editThe New Republic, Laura Marsh (Nov 17, 2010)
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The decline of English, when it begins, will not seem of great moment.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0802717713, Hardcover)

English is the world's lingua franca-the most widely spoken language in human history. And yet, as historian and linguist Nicholas Ostler persuasively argues, English will not only be displaced as the world's language in the not-distant future, it will be the last lingua franca, not replaced by another.

Empire, commerce, and religion have been the primary raisons d'etre for lingua francas--Greek, Latin, Arabic have all held the position--and Ostler explores each through the lens of civilizations spanning the globe and history, from China and India to Russia and Europe. Three trends emerge that suggest the ultimate decline of English and other lingua francas. Movements throughout the world towards equality in society will downgrade the status of elites--and since elites are the prime users of non-native English, the language will gradually retreat to its native-speaking territories. The rising wealth of Brazil, Russia, India, and China will challenge the dominance of native-English-speaking nations--thereby shrinking the international preference for English. Simultaneously, new technologies will allow instant translation among major languages, enhacing the status of mother tongues and lessening the necessity for any future lingua franca.

Ostler predicts a soft landing for English: It will still be widely spoken, if no longer worldwide, sustained by America's continued power on the world stage. But its decline will be both symbolic and significant, evidence of grand shifts in the cultural effects of empire. The Last Lingua Franca is both an insightful examination of the trajectory of our own mother tongue and a fascinating lens through which to view the sweep of history.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:57 -0400)

Examines the rise and fall of English as the most widely spoken language in human history and discusses which language will overtake its dominance as English-speaking nations are challenged by the rising wealth of Brazil, Russia, India and China.

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An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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