LINGUIST List 5.38

Tue 11 Jan 1994

Disc: Lingua Franca On The Internet

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Hartmut Haberland, A lingua franca on the Internet
  2. , Re: 5.33 Internet Lingua Franca

Message 1: A lingua franca on the Internet

Date: Tue, 11 Jan 1994 11:44:11 A lingua franca on the Internet
From: Hartmut Haberland <>
Subject: A lingua franca on the Internet

The discussion about the role of English as a lingua franca on the Internet
which was started by Joe Raben's posting of a quote from network guru John
Quarterman has brought up a couple of interesting issues, but I think it is
clear already now that there are several sub-problems that can be identified:

1) The largely empirical, highly relevant question of how people react to
having to use an impoverished character set or a transcription in writing
their mother tongue or another language they are familiar with. Peoples'
preferred and dispreferred choices seem to vary greatly. Personally I am not
convinced that the restriction to 7-bit-ASCII is a decisive factor in favor of
English, which I think is proven by the fact that a lot of communication on
the Internet _is_ done in other languages than English, using all kinds of
makeshift devices.

2) The general question of the use of English as a (the?) World Language,
which can be discussed in terms of "Linguistic imperialism" (to quote the
title of Phillipson's 1992 book published by Oxford university Press) or
"Language adaptation" (to quote a chapter heading in Coulmas' "Language and
economy", Blackwell 1992). I think that there can be no doubt that English
_is_ the most widely used lingua franca world-wide in academic disciplines,
technologyu and trade as well as (with some qualifications) politics; and I
don't think that it is true (as one discussant claimed) that most
international communication is carried out in the mother tongue of one of the
participants (except in the trivial sense that in a Internet discussion list
run in English chances are that there will be at least one participant whose
mother tongue is English). I have used English as a lingua franca in my
dealings with speakers of a large number of languages, _including_ English.

3) A sub-issue of this question is the question what it does to a language
that it is used mostly by non-native speakers in some context. The German
sociolinguist Wilfried Sto"lting is credited for having claimed that the
language of international academic discourse is bad English and that a
language in international use deserves all it gets. (If I am allowed to
indulge in an act of unabashed self-promotion, I'd like to refer to my 1989
article in the Journal of Pragmatics, "Whose English? Nobody's business",
J.Prag 13.927-938.)

4) Finally, there is the more specific question raised by Celso
Alvarez-Caccamo how the use of English on the Internet affects language
behavior in general among the computerized elites that have access to the
Internet and similar communication tools. This is in part an empirical
question worth an investigation.

What it all (or what some if it) boils down to is the question of language
choice in a given sociolinguistic context and the determinants of these
choices. If one takes one's point of departure in Khubchandani's (1986)
distinction between 'language for communication' and 'language for
identification', one could (broadly) hypothesize that where communicative
efficiency is at stake, many people will choose a lingua france (and often,
English as a lingua franca) simply because this is the most efficient way to
be understood by the biggest possible audience (given that this audience
belongs to the computerized elites, to quote Alvarez-Caccamo again). (After
all, as Bob Wall once put it, "Far more linguists are able to make out what it
is about in French than actually _read_ it.") The choice of a lingua franca
may be a less obvious choice as far as the symbolic function of self-
expression of identity is concerned, but if there is a trade-off between the
identification function and the communication function, these elites will
usually react pragmatically (or, as some might say, economically) and opt for
communicative effect.
This has a lot of side-effects which may be undesirable - like, making
all other languages invisible or reserving the role of languages of 'narrower'
(as opposed to wider) communication to them. The latter again may have
another, secondary effect: if some things rarely, or never, are said in a
language, the language might not develop sufficiently to adapt to expressing
these things. But we know far too little about these effects (and some people
should do research about this, and they sure will).

I hope that the discussion will go on for some time. For the majority of the
world population (and the majority of computerized elite members) whose native
tongue is _not_ English (although they may be able to make themselves under-
stood by using it) this is a crucial question, after all.

Hartmut Haberland
Department of Languages and Culture
University of Roskilde
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 2: Re: 5.33 Internet Lingua Franca

Date: Mon, 10 Jan 1994 23:13:27 Re: 5.33 Internet Lingua Franca
Subject: Re: 5.33 Internet Lingua Franca

Political and military dominance would not explain the status of Spanish
and English in Puerto Rico.
William King Univ. of Arizona
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue