Sat 01 Jan 1994

Disc: A lingua franca on the Internet

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  1. Joseph Raben, A lingua franca on the Internet

Message 1: A lingua franca on the Internet

Date: Wed, 29 Dec 1993 16:57:47 A lingua franca on the Internet
From: Joseph Raben <JQRQCCUNYVM.bitnet>
Subject: A lingua franca on the Internet

Latin was once the lingua franca of the West ("plain speech," a
language used between those with different native languages).
Before that there was Greek. In the East, Chinese held a similar
position, and in India, Sanskrit. In the House of Islam, Arabic is
still such a language to some extent. Many of these languages were
actually only widely used or intelligible across geographical or
political distances in writing, and some were primarily liturgical
languages, used almost solely for religion. But we are discussing
a set of written computer media, so written languages are relevant.
 The term lingua franca now usually refers to a family
of pidgin or Creole languages, many originally based on Portuguese,
that were used for trade in the Mediterranean and then elsewhere.
Other trade pidgins were based on other languages, such as Arabic;
Swahili started that way. These were primarily spoken languages
(Dillard, 1975).
 The rise of the vernaculars came around the same time
as the spread of printing in the West. These had been primarily
spoken tongues but became also written languages. Martin Luther,
for example, was very influential not only in spreading his version
of the Bible across Germany, but also in standardizing and making
respectable the German he wrote it in. That language helped bind
the Germany that had been a collection of hundreds of small to
medium-sized states into a nationstate with achievements in the
arts and especially the sciences that spread the language beyond
its borders (Febvre and Martin, 1990).
 As recently as a hundred years ago, German was the
international (or at least Western) language of science and
technology, French of culture, and English of trade. Today, English
serves all three functions for much of the world. But many people
read and write English better than they speak it.
 Melbourne may be only an hour from Tokyo in time
zones, but it is thousands of years distant in language history.
A telephone conversation between Tokyo and Vancouver often
encounters both time and language problems. The languages are still
different with electronic mail, but those who do not have English
as a native tongue can take time to organize and translate
 Most worldwide mailing lists are conducted in English.
Some of them have large majorities of people with other native
languages. Curiously enough, it is usually the nonnative English
speakers who insist the most on the use of English, because they
don't want to have to deal with somebody else's native tongue,
which they almost surely won't know as well as English. Of course,
many people don't know English as well as they think they do. An
interesting custom that has developed on a few lists is to post a
message in one's mother tongue, followed in the same message by
one's translation into English. Thus those who know the original
language can read it, and those who don't can read the English (and
maybe correct it with what they know of the original language).
 There is at least one electronic mail directory that was
compiled in English entirely by people who have different mother
tongues. Languages have been driven in the past by brute force
(Latin), trade (the lingua francas), religion (Arabic and
Sanskrit), and technology (the vernaculars and the printing press;
English and movies and television), among other reasons, such as
sheer number of people in a single nation (Chinese in its various
forms). Will this new set of electronic media make English even
more widespread? Or will it enable more use of national languages?
Or even encourage some new Creole? Thus far, one of the main
reasons for the use of English internationally has been that the
only really widespread character codeset, ASCII, is only capable
of supporting American English and a very few other languages
unaltered. That barrier fell in Japan some years ago for Japa-
nese, and is starting to fall all over the world this year, with
the release of new specifications and implementations of electronic
mail formats (MIME) that extend the most widely used mail format
(RFC-822) to handle most languages. Will the rest of the world,
like Japan, prefer to use its national languages? Perhaps, even
probably, since many countries already have found ways to do that.
But will they use them for international communication?

- John S. Quarterman, "The Global Matrix of Minds," _Global Networks: Computers
and International Communication_, ed. Linda S. Harasim; Cambridge MA and Lon-
don: MIT Press, 1993, pp. 52-53). This quotation raises a point that I have
not yet seen discussed on Linguist (nor anywhere else on the Network that I
look at). His point relates to the general effect of the Internet on linguistic
behavior, an issue that should interest all linguists who use email. I would be
like very much to see responses to this quotation.

Joseph Raben
Queens College/CUNY
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