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Language

Written exclusively for Salaam by al-Maktabi

English is the world's dominant language. In Europe while educated Europeans on the whole either speak it fluently or flock to local British Council centres or private language schools in Britain to imbibe English the British show increasingly less interest in learning even the more popular European languages such as French and German. The British are of course lucky that the only imperial power at present is an English-speaking. Indeed, the United States was once a colony of the mighty British Empire. No small role is played in the spread of American English by the sheer fact that one's spell-checker always seems to be set in 'English (US)'! The language of the dominant powers always set the standards. The media and popular culture of the United States reach into the otherwise most isolated spots on the globe increasing the impulse to acquire this language. The Muslim world before colonialism, however, appears to have been largely polyglot and among the educated elite tri-lingualism was widespread. This is expressed in the well-know division of labour between the three major languages of the Muslim world: Arabic the language of religion, Persian the tongue of belles-lettres, and Ottoman left for bureaucratese. It is not hard to trace the mutual influences - in vocabulary and syntax - among these three.

The situation is very different today. Not only the least powerful, especially in the formerly colonial world, try to catch-up by learning the language that may let them into the global economy but even the not-so-powerless Europeans are busy acquiring English skills. In turn, English-as-a-second language is an industry providing jobs for thousands. The Academie Francaise may dictate what can or cannot be permitted into standard Francaise but they cannot stop the French from studying a foreign language, and the tongue of choice has always been English. The converse does not apply across the channel, however.

In Britain, while the country is becoming more and more multi-cultural the linguistic abilities of the population neither reflects this multiculturalism nor its European context. South Asian languages, to take a major regional grouping, have a fairly large presence in Britain but apart from a handful of specialist courses at a selected few universities it is hard to study these languages anywhere in the country. The immigrants however, on the whole, have very good English skills. In the last two decades the whole literary culture of Britain has in fact been dramatically affected by the major impact of novelists and other writers from Asian backgrounds. The same is happening in the US. English literature has been redefined. Indeed, English should be thought of in a completely different light for it is no longer an English language but shaped and inflected by millions outside its country of origin. The English (and even the collective population of the isles) are in fact a minority among English speakers of the world today.

So while the language has been spreading it has and is also getting transformed. But it is happening at great cost for thousands of the world's smaller languages which are forever destroyed and completely lost in the relentless spread of the stronger languages, especially English. One estimate is that 90% of the world's languages face extinction within the next century. The major languages of the Muslim world are in no danger by this estimate but there are smaller languages in the Muslim world that may need protection from the 'cultural nerve gas' as one writer put it, which is the broadcast media. Muslims in the West are almost universally speakers of the languages of the western countries they reside in. English is now a major language of Muslim communication; one Islamic writer even suggested the idea of an 'Islamic English'! Literature about Islam in English is widely available and slowly some of the classics of the Islamic corpus originally composed in medieval times in Arabic are becoming available in English. There are benefits in this development but also dangers for we may soon be in a situation where young self-styled 'ulama wholly fed on these translations are giving us learned opinions without having bothered to learn more than the basics of Arabic sufficient only for salah. This will reflect a very English avoidance of a foreign tongue. Hopefully, there will be no English Islam, for it may just be completely mono-lingual.