The Future of English

Today the Chronicle Vitae listserve sent a link to Nina Handler’s article, “Facing My Own Extinction.” In the article she described the dim prospects for English as an academic discipline, and questions the ability (and utility) of her and her colleagues adapting to a changing world in which English disappears as a scholarly discipline.

I am not sure if I can offer encouragement. However, I remember the same grim mood in Geography at Berkeley in the late 1980s, as the University of Chicago program shut down. At my graduation in 1988, Alan Pred questioned the future of Geography as a discipline. A few years later, the rise of online maps and GIS provided a solid economic base for the discipline, and a wider recognition of it. A decade later, the global public became alarmed about climate change, a topic we had been studying as geographers for decades. So: no further worries about Geography as a discipline. It has certainly changed, but the core interests are still taught within the discipline.

What about English?

I do not know the field as an insider, so much of what I see from the outside might seem like very disturbing change. But here are some thoughts:

1. Since the end of the Cold War, the question about which would be the global language was settled: it would be English. In the subsequent 25 years, the number of people who speak English as a second language has become considerably greater than people who speak it as their native tongue. I believe this demographic shift in speakers will also change who defines the language, and how. Already, many of my colleagues remark that the nature of English is that it is easy to make yourself understood, even if your English is very bad. However, total fluency is nearly impossible for someone who did not grow up with the language. This differs from other languages with precise grammatical rules, where it is hard to learn initially, but once you are fluent, you are fluent. How will this characteristic of English affect the way it evolves over the 21st century?

2. Within academia (I am in planning), the role of poesis has become much more important as we try to make sense of difficult problems in race/gender/class injustices, and in the linguistic process of policy formation. We are not following Worf, but we are sensitized to the fact that the phrasing of policy questions, let alone policies, can foreclose certain voices and avenues of inquiry. Words matter very much in public policy.

3. We are figuring out interfaces with machines, and this affects language in several ways. First, a programmer once remarked to me that the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science major at Berkeley was mis-designed. He did not need to learn Electrical Engineering. He needed to learn comparative linguistics, to better understand the nature of syntactical structures in Perl versus Python, and languages such as Fortran and C. This is more linguistics than English per se, but it is related.

None of these comments may provide comfort to Dr. Handler, because they are not about the emotional depth and nuances of English Literature and 19th-century poetry in particular. I must say that I have heard this same lamentation among my Afghan colleagues: to learn Farsi is to learn poetry; and they grieve that young Afghans do not learn Firdawsi, Sa’adi, Rumi. And then they break into recitation and it is mesmerizing. So I have witnessed the same grief, worldwide. Perhaps, if we pay attention to shifts in venue and context, we may continue to find the unexpected places and moments when poesis is truly embraced.

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