Saturday, 29 October 2011

Language and Art

Thanks to a kind relative, I was given a pass to the Frieze Art Fair, where I listened to some interesting talks, including one about the predominance of English in the art world, which ended by speculating that possibly Chinese would soon take over (a suggestion echoed by Charles Moore in the 15 October issue of the Spectator.  He says this: 'But if, as one keeps expecting to happen any day, the Chinese decide to make blatant their struggle for world domination, surely an obvious tactic would be to try to make life harder for English. The French have failed in this, but they lack the numbers. Drawing on their hundreds of millions and their growing strength in trade, the Chinese could edge the world away from English. If they did so, they would disable most of their western competitors. Anglophone monoglotism - even more extreme in the United States than in Britain - is a symptom of laziness of the top dog, so surely it cannot last much longer.'

I'm not convinced that the power of English is actually fuelled by English native speakers and their laziness. I think its domination is probably due partly to the fact that it is relatively less difficult than other foreign languages for Romance language speakers and Germanic language speakers, because it shares some of their vocabulary, and partly to history, which, via the British Empire, led to English becoming the second language in India, for example. Time will tell who is right.

After going to the Frieze Art Fair and looking at the stuff on display, as opposed to listening to the excellent talks, I was struck by this description of somebody in Edward St Aubyn's new book At Last : 'he collected hideous contemporary art with the haphazard credulity of a man who has friends in the art world.'


  1. 'Anglophone monoglotism - even more extreme in the United States than in Britain - is a symptom of laziness of the top dog, so surely it cannot last much longer.'

    Actually, American monoglotism is a symptom of living in a very large country, call it 3000 by 1000 miles, in which nearly everybody speaks English. Suppose one were to leave from western Rumania, and drive via Budapest and Bratislave to Vienna. Judging from on-line directions, that is safely under 400 miles, and it takes you through four countries with mutually unintelligible, indeed vastly different, languages. Leave from Omaha, Nebraska, driving west on I-80, and at 425 miles you won't be to the state line. Even if you were, what do they speak in Wyoming? English.

  2. But what about the joy of mental exercise, George? No-one, after all, speaks Latin, but it's still awfully good for the brain.

  3. Z: I am not suggesting that one should not learn other languages; I am suggesting that the motivation, and the opportunity are much less in a country such as the United States than they are for a resident of (say) western or central Europe.

    In fact a fair proportion of the adult population is at least nominally polyglot. School districts don't necessarily require a student to take a foreign language, but generally they encourage it, particularly for those wishing to continue on to college. Of course, this instruction may be better or worse, and often has been pretty bad. In private schools, it would be unusual for foreign languages not to be required.

    By the way, I have just found, in a brief & futile effort to find out just what is required in the middle of the country, that the trendy term is "World Languages", not "Foreign Languages".

  4. I live in western Romania, and if I took the route you suggest (George) then English would indeed probably be the best bet for me or any of my Romanian compadres. Veer off slightly to the south, however, and Italian, French and Spanish are intelligible enough for them (and now me) to get a job building their dodgy loft extentions (or indeed begging on their streets should one really have no shame). I'm not really trying to make any clever point, just that one tends to find the path of least of resistence in order to make a living; having said that I wonder whether that Chinese invention Pidgin English will make a comeback.