Mr. Chairman, adjudicators, ladies and gentlemen,
The arrival of the year 1999 has brought with a near perfect opportunity to take a look back at the last one thousand years, assess man’s successes and failures, and look forward with our predictions of the third millennium.
Already this afternoon you’ve heard many assessments and you’ve heard a variety of predictions. A variety so vast, ranging from Lewis Carol’s depiction of celebratory life, to the Irish celebration of death. So vast a variety that it’s difficult to find any common ground amongst the contestants here today. Perhaps the only thing that we all share is that we are indeed discussing millennia, the old and the new and the turn of the millennium, and we’re all discussing it in the same language.
A few hundred years ago to have held an event like this it would have been imperative that we were all fluent in a number of different tongues, for the approach of combating the language barrier was simply to learn many different languages. Of course people back then had an ulterior motive: that was to ensure that different languages held their different societies or positions, or as King Charles V of Spain put it, “ I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men and German to my horse.”
Today our approach is somewhat different. Instead of trying to vastly spread our verbal ability across the board, we’ve chosen rather to focus it, concentrating on our ability to master one particular language, the English language. Time magazine recently suggested that by the turn of the millennium, English will be the Lingua Franca for one quarter of the world’s population. Already today sixty percents of the world’s television and radio broadcasts are produced and delivered in English. Seventy percents of the world’s mail addressed in English. And it is the language of choice for almost every bite of computer data sent across the globe.
But why English? There are no clear linguistic reasons for its suggested global dominance, certainly the grammar is complicated, the spelling peculiar and the pronunciation eccentric, to say the very least. One would need only look through the dictionary to find the vast list of amusing paradoxes in the English language—quicksand that works slowly, a boxing ring that is in fact square and a guinea pig that’s really neither from Guinea nor is it a pig. Doesn’t it seem odd that one can make amends but not one amend. Or go through the annals of history but not one annal. The reason, ladies and gentlemen, is simple. English is strange, but no where near as strange as some of our alternatives.
Perhaps I should give you a few idiomatic examples. In English we say “once in a blue moon”. The Italian choose instead “every death of a Pope”. Irish doesn’t like our “drop dead”, replacing it rather with the slightly more obscure “you should lie in the earth.” And if you wanted to tell someone off in Spanish our relatively obvious “go fly a kite” would be better served by the phrase “go fry asparagus”. English’s primary advantage is that of flexibility. On the one hand it has the largest vocabulary of all modern languages, allowing us, as its users, to say exactly what we want in exactly the words we choose to use. On the other, globalization has insured the introduction of a business English, a sort of trimmed down variety of the language we’ve all come to know and love.
It’s interesting to know that the simple list of just ten words, words like “a”, “and”, “have” and “the”, combined to form one quarter of all those ever used in modern communication. Perhaps the real test is: will the global adoption of English as a master language insure the eradication of any misunderstandings that happen today? The answer is not as simple. Russell Hoven once asked: “How many people speak the same language even when they speak the same language?” But one can only hope that our only aim and our only chance of insuring that we communicate effectively with each other is to make sure that we do speak one universal language. In a thousand years time Western clocks will hopefully have ticked onto the year 2999 and we can be assured that scientists, academics and futurists will convene, much like we’ve done today to look back at the third millenium and offer their predictions for the successes of the forth.
It’s impossible to imagine what they might say, impossible to imagine what technology they’ll have available or even which planet they’ll hold the meeting on. In fact, quite possibly the only thing we can say for sure is that they’ll be discussing the issues in one common universal language. And that will be the language of the third millennium. And that language without any doubt looks set to be English. Thank you.