Monday, December 01, 2008

The idiom of the capitalist world

Since its humble origins in the forests of Saxony, Denmark and Sweden, this Anglo-Saxon dialect of the Germanic family, the English language, has become the most widely spoken tongue on the planet. As Professor David Crystal has noted, never in the history of mankind has their been one language spoken by so many. There have been various theories regarding the planetary prepotence of English, many of which are obvious : the industrial revolution emanating mainly from Britain, the British Empire and the global dissemination of American popular culture after the second world war. Yet the ascendancy of English has had its dissidents. Anthropologists and cultural ecologists have warned of the dangers presented by global homogenisation generated by an Anglophone hypercapitalism spiralling out of control. America’s current economic crisis has led many to perpend the future of this capitalist social model. Is this really the only way in which a society can function in this technological century ? There can be no doubt about the overwhelming movitation in learning English : money. It is for this reason that the dollar is the most important word in the English language. Yet there is a striking irony here. If one were to teach a class of top executives today by making use of an article from any Anglophone newspaper, one would propably have to teach the following vocabulary : meltdown, disaster, bailout, hedge funds,bankruptcy, cash, outsourcing, unemployment etc etc. These words are already joining the myriad others who have taken their place in foreign languages. English as an international phenomenon is in inextricably tied up with the global capitalist system ; it is, in fact, the very language of capitalism. Yet there is a sense that perhaps that the language, learned for the most part, on the basis of business, is itself becoming bankrupt , or rather the civilisation that formed the cradle of the language is in terminal decline.

When the Roman’s conquered Greece in 180 BCE, they took Greek teachers with them back to Rome. Why ? The Roman’s realised that, although their military and engineering superiority was beyond question, they nevertheless lacked cultivation in the liberal arts, literature, philosophy, art and poetry. Greek intellectuals became slaves for Roman villas, educating the new rulers of the known world. The camparison between Greek and Roman civilisations and Modern Europe and the United States has been made before. Just like Rome, the two principal components of America’s global domination are the economy and the military or the economy propelled by military domination. The is no doubt about the technological superiority of The United States. Yet the paradox here is that, although the Romans ruled the mediterranian, they nevertheless felt a compulsion to copy, immitate and emulate the high culture of those they conquered. The Americans, on the other hand, feel no need to follow this route. Even though Spanish is taught in American schools and native speakers of the language could soon equal English, Americans know that they have no use for other languages. A society which so fervently believes in capitalism, a civilisation that speaks the very language of capitalism has no need of anything else. The Americans know this and does the rest of the world. The teachers of English as a foreign language are today’s Ancient Greek slaves. But there are a couple of significant differences of course. Firstly, their poorly-paid job is to enable a foreigner to to make money ; the TEFL teacher provides access to the market. No philosophy, independent thought, poetry or art is necessary here. Secondly, many of the cultures so eager to learn this gilded-tongue are themselves for more culturally advanced than the Anglophone world, take France and Germany for example. So the planetary prepotence of the English language represents a rather puzzling inversion of the classical world. As the capitalist world proclaims disaster triumphant, perhaps it is time for us to put other verbs, nouns and prepositions together, to create a new means of expression, a post-capitalist language.

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