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May 30, 2004
David Warsh, Proprietor


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A Subtle National Obsession

BERLIN — Hidden in plain sight here is the splendor and vigor of die deutsche Sprache. It seems fair to say that the German language is a subtle national obsession.

Newspapers flourish, even when they are not profitable. Magazines thrive. The market for books is one of the most dense in the world. Television stations broadcast plenty of Hollywood movies, but always they are expertly dubbed — Cary Grant, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts speak flawless German. Friends monitor newcomers’ progress in acquiring the language. Germany loves language, and the Germans actively want you to speak German, too.

Indeed, spoken and written German used to be a major export. Composer Samuel Adler recalls that, because Germany in the 19th century was the center of the musical world, German was the dominant language of every good orchestra in the United States well into the 20th century, except for the Boston Symphony, which spoke French. Scientific communities in many fields were the much same. Leipzig was a world scientific publishing center, on a par with Cambridge, England and New York.

But Germany’s two world wars changed all that.

Today, the German language faces real problems, arising from the fact that its market isn’t growing, while the market for English is expanding swiftly. The government last week warned German publishers to begin to merge their operations or face the risk of takeover by foreign firms Among the institutions designed to nurture a global appreciation of spoken and written German, the 153-city Goethe Institute network is apparently doing well enough, as is the German Academic Exchange Service, but Deutsche Welle, the equivalent of the BBC, is facing an uncertain future. As good as are Der Spiegel and Die Zeit, they doesn’t sell around the world like The Economist or Time. Nor do German films travel especially well in global markets (though there are of course exceptions — “Das Boot,” “Run Lola Run,” “Goodbye Lenin,” and, most recently, “Schultze Gets the Blues”).

Opinion differs as to why the English language achieved its current dominance as an international lingua franca. To some it was simply an historical accident, the outgrowth of the 19th century British Empire giving way to American hegemony in the 20th century, even though, they say, conditions in the United States 150 years ago were almost as favorable to German becoming the standard as to English

Others cite the greater flexibility of English, dating back perhaps as far as the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, after which French became the official language of the English court. At that point common folk took custody of the English tongue and began to innovate, borrowing French words when they needed them, and otherwise creating the bottom-up, open language that has served them well over since.

Concern among language scholars over diminishing linguistic diversity has been growing for quite some time. Most of it has to do with languages evolved by small minorities over thousands of years. Some 6000 languages now spoken around the world are expected to shrink to around 600 in the next century. In North America, the expectation, according to one expert, is that some 155 of 175 remaining languages will become extinct within the present generation, as their last speakers die.

What’s the appropriate strategy for the speakers of the many languages that are robust today? In Europe, these are the proprietors, as it were, of German, French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, not to mention Greek and Turkish, never mind the many smaller national languages. None of them are in any danger of wasting away. But in a world in which English is rapidly becoming the generally preferred second choice nearly everywhere, governments of all nations should possess a clear language policy, and most do. Only last week, the government of China directed television broadcasters to develop an extensive new television network for children over the next few years in order to counteract growing Western influence in the culture.

Economists have been slow to turn their attention to the economics of language, not because they are inattentive, but because models only recently have been developed that depict the kind of positive feedback which is the essence of expanding language networks. Not surprisingly, some of the more interesting early work on competing standards has appeared in Canada, where English and French speakers have been arguing their respective rights and responsibilities for more than 400 years. No strong findings have yet emerged, but in the years ahead, expect a flurry of interesting work.

The value of a lingua franca is obviously very great, and there probably is no way now that English will be surpassed as the world’s most popular secondary language. But the value of a strong national language is also very great — not the least because a vigorous mother tongue is a subtle means of keeping unwanted cultural influence at bay. What’s wanted, therefore, is a strong bilingual system, in which the national language remains, if not exactly an obsession, at least strongly in the foreground. The Germans are probably right to continue to dub the Hollywood films for broadcast television; even as they teach English as a second language in the schools and go the cinemas to see “Schultze Gets the Blues” mock their complacency.

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