English: the Other Pandemic?
Under the current crisis, minority languages suffer while English goes more viral than ever
What was your most overused word last year? Unprecedented? Doomscrolling? Banana bread? In truth, it was probably Covid, whether you speak English on a regular basis or not. The acronym for Coronavirus disease has language-hopped as far as Afrikaans and Tagalog, and has even been adopted by philological societies like L’Académie Française in France and La Real Academia Española in Spain, who normally avoid English borrowings like the non-respiratory plague.
It’s no accident that the internationally-recognised term for an illness that originated in China is an Anglicism. It was chosen back in February 2020 by the World Health Organisation, which, despite having six working languages, primarily uses only English in its public communications. The WHO’s policy for naming pathologies, updated in 2015, prohibits references to individuals, occupations, and places, in order to avoid creating prejudice by way of association. Using a Mandarin borrowing, as we do for Chinese delicacies and board games, would most definitely be counteractive to this goal (as is the use of the moniker “kung flu”).
English comes in handy here, being a language of neutrality. Of course, this statement would be objectionable under certain contexts—try speaking English in a rural pub in west Wales or a café in Quebec and see how diplomatic you appear—but at least as far as business, aviation, and foreign affairs go, English is the optimal tool for anyone aiming to alienate as few readers or listeners as possible. The same is true for those working in STEM fields. In the first half of the 20th century, German, having become something of a lingua non grata after World War I, lost its role as the “must-have” for scientists, leaving other languages to fill the void. The winning candidate came from the U.S., one of the world’s most rapidly-growing economic powers; today, English is the language of the vast majority of international scientific journals. It’s not a compromise that satisfies everybody. While for a scientist whose mother tongue is English, excellence in their field is (in theory, anyway) enough to achieve recognition outside of their own country, many of their non-Anglophone counterparts must be researchers by day, ESL students by night. Grammatical errors are a common reason for first-round rejections of papers submitted to journals, and it’s been shown that rigid author guidelines can impose unnecessary barriers to non-native submitters. Many journals even plug high-cost editing services, often offered by their own publishers, that play up the importance of “sounding like a native.”
The pandemic has shone a gigantic fluorescent light on this Anglo-centrism. In January of last year, criticism was levelled at Chinese epidemiologists who had chosen to publish their early findings related to the as-yet-unnamed Coronavirus in more prestigious English-language journals, rather than making them available in Mandarin to their compatriots at a time when the virus was still heavily concentrated in China. The British Academy and others have reported that a severe lack of foreign-language skills among Anglophone government officials, researchers, and healthcare workers has become especially evident over the course of the crisis, impeding the transmission of accurate information between those at the frontline. And as jargon trickles down into everyday conversation, the effects of the dominance of English in science have been felt by the general public, too. Medical terms like quarantine and PPE have been borrowed from English into many other languages—“Greenglish”, an Anglicism-riddled spin on Greek, has never been so popular, much to Greek linguists’ dismay. Keeping language purists happy is not really a necessity right now (or ever, in my opinion), but clarity and accessibility most certainly should be. A man in rural India reportedly walked into a pharmacy wielding seafood after being told to bring a mask, which he had misheard as “maas”, the Assamese word for fish—a funny anecdote, but one that foretells more serious consequences of opaque foreign borrowings flooding a vernacular all at once.
And all the while, the languages of minority populations fall to the wayside. The UK government has failed to translate updated safety guidelines for its significant numbers of speakers of Welsh, Urdu, Arabic, and more. Australia’s Department of Home Affairs made the effort, but only barely—in November it was revealed that they had run public health messaging through Google Translate, garbling communiqués intended for the country’s 800,000–1,000,000 people who speak little to no English. The European Centre for Minority Issues reports that, in spite of the increased levels of media consumption during lockdown, minority-language TV channels, radio stations, and periodicals across the EU have seen a drop-off in financial support and, in some cases, audience figures. The importance of these languages and their relevance to underrepresented communities have been undermined—during the initial weeks of the pandemic in the Netherlands, for example, a local official addressed the Frisian-language TV channel Omrop Fryslân in the more widely-spoken Dutch, despite being a native Frisian speaker herself. She defended the choice by saying, “[…] there is something extraordinary going on. Everybody wants to know how things are, so it is more accessible to use Dutch.” But Omrop Fryslân is specifically geared towards mother-tongue users of the Frisian dialects, 60% of whom say they are more confident speaking Frisian than Dutch.
If any global event could sound the death knoll for linguistic diversity, it’s a pandemic. Covid threatens entire populations; it’s even touched the remote Andaman islands, where tiny and vulnerable tribes carry centuries worth of linguistic heritage. Meanwhile, cultural globalisation is in full swing. As more employers, educational institutions, and event organisers go fully remote, for many people an Internet connection has become a ticket to greater opportunities—and a command of the English language is their passport. Many different words have been used to describe English’s current privileged position in the global market—monopoly, hegemony—but in 1994, sociolinguists Robert Phillipson and Tove Skutnabb-Kangas suggested calling it a pandemic. A strong word, as we well know. Maybe prophetic, but maybe overall an inaccurate description of the situation; Covid might be starting to recede, but it doesn’t look like anyone’s looking—or able—to slow the spread of English.