In Tripoli, If You Can’t Read Arabic, There’s Nothing to Read

At  breakfast at our hotel I read a review by Graeme Wood of Nicholas Ostler’s new book about language called “The Last Lingua Franca.  He begins with a story about walking through the airport in Tripoli, Libya. It seems that the dictator, Gadhafi, doesn’t like English, so instead of signs in two languages, there is only the Arabic directions to the exit, to the baggage carousels, or to anywhere. “The colonel has declared the country an Arabic-only zone, so if you don’t read Arabic, the only thing to do is to follow those who do.”

It’s a rare example of push-back to what most people realize is the world’s true lingua Franca, English.  I remember commenting on this during a trip to the Azores, and a professor there said that she thought Mandarin would eclipse it in the decades to come. The book, however says that people aren’t rushing to learn Chinese nearly as much as they are rushing to learn English. Yet it hasn’t been that long that our language has been at the top, maybe two centuries or so.

But Latin had a run that lasted 2000 years, and before that it was Greek that ruled the world’s conversations. Ostler says that when Caesar cried out after being betrayed, he actually said “Kai su?” the Greek version of ‘Et tu?  And in Jerusalem at the time of Christ, despite Mel Gibson’s movie, they were speaking Greek, not Aramaic or Latin.

Ostler ponders when English might fall away as the dominant world language, since there is not a religious use, or governments that require that people speak it. English, of course, benefits from its role in computers and the web. As Latin, Phoenician and Persian have gone from dominating to sidelined to dead, what will happen to our language?  He suspects that it might have the shortest of reigns at the top of the language pyramid.