Year XXVI, 1984, Number 1 - Page 42

 

 

 

ON ENGLISH AS A UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE
 
 
 
The decision of the editorial board of Il Federalista to start an English edition of the review has been under consideration for a long time.
Federalism has a cultural history in Italy since the Ventotene Manifesto of 1941. It is not our task to assess the value of this tradition, since we are the ones who have kept it alive for the last twenty-five years. But as long as it remains in the suffocating confines of the Italian linguistic area, the body of ideas that has been developed so far by Italian federalism, and that is still being developed, whatever its value be, cannot even begin to find a place in world culture, initiate anything more than a parochial debate, confront criticism and enrich itself by it.
Federalism is a message addressed to the world: hence it must furnish itself with a linguistic instrument capable of conveying it to its audience. This instrument can only be English.
We know that we face a difficult challenge. The predominance of English in world communication is one of the many facets of the growing interdependence of human action, thought and ways of life produced by the advancing scientific and technological revolution. A world marching towards unification needs a lingua franca. Until the Second World Way, when the world balance of power took shape, or at the latest until 1954, when the European Defence Community project failed, it could have made sense to ask which of the existing tongues would take on this function. French had a real chance. But no such doubt is legitimate to-day, since the drive of English towards the standing of a universal language has by now reached the point of no return.
W hat needs to be underlined, however, are the consequences of this process not having yet been completed. Setting aside the case of the world community of natural scientists and, partly, of economists (even if in this particular realm the process is not yet as advanced as many people believe), the world domination of English has enormously enhanced the receptivity of the non-English-speaking world to messages coming from the Anglo-Saxon area. But it has not equally increased the capacity of the former to address messages to the latter. The result is Anglo-Saxon cultural imperialism, which is highly detrimental to the cultural life both of the English-speaking and of the non-English-speaking parts of the world.
In a perceptive contribution to a symposium on translation published by the Times Literary Supplement of October 14, 1983, George Steiner remarks that «to write one’s play or novel in one or another branch of Anglo-American is to have a potential of an almost global readership. Writers in “smaller” languages (ontologically there is, of course, no “small” language) look more and more pressingly to the chance of having their work transferred into English. Where the literate public does not yet read English, or only haltingly, the Anglo-American literary output is extensively translated. From Stockholm to Valparaiso and Tokyo, but also from Paris to Cairo and, censorship permitting, to Budapest, bookstore windows are crowded with translations into the native tongue of what New York and London have published.
Every facet of the economics, sociology and techniques of literary translation has been affected by this linguistic power-play. Much of the current canon of “important” fiction, drama, poetry, is the result not of any considered apprehension of intrinsic quality, but of the Anglo-American predominance. Untranslated, or poorly translated, available in English only fragmentarily, a writer of the very first rank – I am thinking of specific cases in German, in Italian, in Portuguese, in Hungarian, but also in French – will remain in the shadow-zone of a purely national or an academic-esoteric recognition. The consequent distortion of values is the more ironic as neither the English nor the American novel, to take the most visible genre, are, at present, in any major phase».
This means that the real source of Anglo-Saxon cultural imperialism lies in the fact that the process of establishing English as a world language is only half completed. A passive knowledge of it is by now widely enough diffused to make the rest of the world highly receptive to every manifestation of Anglo-Saxon culture (and pseudo-culture) but its active knowledge is far too inadequate to enable non-Anglo-Saxon culture to penetrate the Anglo-Saxon world. Both cultural areas can only suffer from this fact. The reason is obvious with respect to the rest of the world, since any cultural production in a language other than English is by now deprived of any chance to reach an international public, thus being excluded from the world circuit, and that in an age in which the national framework – and France is no exception – is far too narrow to sustain more than a provincial cultural life. But the same is true for Anglo-Saxon culture as well, for in the present situation it is doomed to play a world role it is not equipped to take on, and is deprived of the possibility of enriching itself thanks to a permanent confrontation with a whole panoply of alien contributions. Indeed, cultural imperialism, like any other unequal human relationship, impoverishes both master and servant.
The adequate response to this paradoxical phenomenon is not to shut one’s eyes to the reality of a process which is going ahead whatever attitude we may adopt. It is no good clinging obstinately to national languages, or, still worse, engaging in the reactionary (and culturally suicidal) endeavour to revive regional languages long fallen to the rank of dialects, which are good only to convey poor ideas to a poor public.
The only progressive response is to take up the challenge and to use English not only as a vehicle to receive, but also to transmit ideas. This means giving up the foolish attempt to stop an inevitable course of events, which is, moreover, a sign that mankind is becoming, for the first time, one cultural community.
To be sure English will not escape some tensions and distortions in the process. The lingua franca which is taking shape at the world level will diverge more and more from the languages actually spoken in any of the English-speaking countries, the more so as the process goes on, and as more and more people outside the Anglo-Saxon world use English to express contents stemming from other cultural sources. Thus it can be foreseen that, in due course, with the developing world language increasingly absorbing the most diverse suggestions from everywhere, the idioms actually spoken in the US, Great Britain, etc. will become almost as distinct from international English as French, or German, now are.
This said, it must be remembered that English shows a particular disposition to take on the role of the Latin of our age (though in actual fact the grounds for its having acquired a dominant position are not intrinsic to the language as such, but are of a political and economic order). Its double layer of roots (Anglo-Saxon and Latin) gives it a sort of polymorphism that makes it capable of fitting into the most diverse cultural niches. Thanks to its loose grammatical and syntactic structure) it can be twisted and strained far beyond what would be considered the threshold of acceptability for any other language. It is not indeed by chance that people in the Anglo-Saxon world generally show more linguistic tolerance than anywhere else.
One must not fear that the drive towards world predominance of the English lingua franca will endanger national and regional cultures. Culture expresses itself at many levels – world-wide, national and local – each of which needs a vehicle of its own. It can be foreseen that, in a not too distant future, the whole of mankind will be bi-or trilingual, thus realizing a sort of linguistic world federalism. It must not be forgotten, besides, that such a situation has been already foreshadowed in the past, when Latin was the universal language of the learned and provided the common soil out of which the national tongues could draw the nourishment that enabled them to attain the dignity of great vehicles of cultural communication.
At that stage, all men will be culturally equal. But the most effective contribution to reaching it will be made by those who can overcome the stupid linguistic nationalism which tries to make cultures impermeable and to perpetuate the current disastrous babel of languages.
 
Francesco Rossolillo
 

 

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