The Story of English, or the Global Phase Shift

Some years ago, there was a fantastic PBS mini-series on the history and possible future of the English language. Or at least I hear it was fantastic. I never saw it, but my parents did buy the book that accompanied the program, which I found as a kid. Man, the book was far out — particularly the sections on established and emerging creoles. Basically, The Story of English argued that the same historical forces that fragmented the Roman world were driving apart Englishes spoken around the world. We live in a globalizing world (this was before the term globalization was widely used, but they got the drift), yet this doesn’t mean the end of particularisms: far from it. I recall having read that as American English “homogenizes,” we’re actually seeing a proliferation of new accents — strange admixtures caused by geographical churn.

I was thinking about this last week when I read about Australia’s state-building and peacekeeping efforts in the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and elsewhere in the Pacific, and the backlash it has caused. (WSJ.) As Australia admits a vast number of high-skill economic migrants and refugees, its demographic composition is changing rapidly. For example, there are serious tensions between a fast-growing Muslim population and non-Muslims, even in rural areas and small towns, that more closely resembles the scene in France than in the US. Then you have large number of East Asians, who, one suspects, will assimilate and intermarry over time, giving rise to a distinctive Australian type quite different from the Anglo-Irish Australia of the past.

At the same time, New Zealand is, as a friend recently explained, becoming a more Pacific country. New Zealand’s history is very unique in that relations with the indigenous Maori population were governed by a Treaty, and so the Maori have long played a prominent constitutional role. The Maori have a formidable imperial history of their own, which colors relationships with other Pacific islander populations. The has been a large influx of Pacific islanders, in part out of deference to Maori wishes to frame a humane policy toward (sometimes distant) cultural relatives. Meanwhile, large numbers of New Zealanders, generally among the more ambitious, are emigrating to Australia. New Zealand also has a distinctive political tradition that will presumably grow more distinctive over time.

So America isn’t the only exceptional nation — all of the Anglo-Saxon settler states are changing at a fast clip. Something similar is happening in Europe, where elites are increasingly shaped by the Erasmus culture and migrants are interacting with native populations in very different, highly unpredictable ways. In Latin America, we see the continuing political “indigenization” of countries like Bolivia and Paraguay that were always heavily indigenous: what we’re seeing is a more equitable distribution of power, which looks like and feels like a slow-motion revolution. In Brazil, the economic boom and PT populism is fostering a redistribution of power within the country just as Brazil is gaining newfound prominence in the wider world. In India, a lot of different things are happening at once — indigenization is happening; traditional elites are using, or trying to use, their cultural and administrative capital to seize new levers of economic power; and than you have Erasmusian transnational assimilation, etc. China has a small but growing Christian minority. South Korea has a far larger Christian minority, and familiar left-right politics.

All of this is to say that all of the global pieces are moving, even in the familiar precincts of the West. It’s not obvious what the new alignments will be. It’s not obvious that China will continue to have a smooth rise. I sometimes think of GNP as in tune with the “indigenization” of America, which is an idea that’ll take some unpacking. We’re fixated on Iraq and Afghanistan, foreign policy traditionalists are fixated on China’s rise. Latin Americanists are really into Venezuela and to a lesser extent Bolivia. I think the real action is in Parag Khanna’s Second World, and in traditional allies that are simultaneously undergoing weird phase shifts. I’m going to try to think this through.