01 February 2009

Powell's question # 5

Here is my unsolicited answer to the fifth question raised by Adam Donaldson Powell:

"How important is it to publish in English today? What advice do you have for a poet who is writing bilingually, or who is considering writing bilingually?"

It is very important to publish in English today, because English has become, like it or not, the world's lingua franca. The 21st century is sometimes touted to be the century of China (with the US rapidly losing its economic edge and China still adding to the number of its inhabitants and to the number of Chinese living and becoming very influential outside China). Chinese (probably Mandarin, among all the Chinese languages) may yet become the world's lingua franca, replacing English. (As students of language know, linguistic power grows out of economic power.) At some point in this century, we will all have to publish in Mandarin Chinese. But right now, most likely until we all die, English is the language of choice not just of merchants like publishers and, because we all have to earn a living dealing with merchant-publishers, of writers.

Fortunately, there is this thing called english (with the small letter E) or International English, which we all speak and could write in. My advice to poets writing in their own mother tongue and also in English is not to think that the English (the British) or the Americans own English, but that English is as much our language as it is theirs.


  1. I live in London and if anyone says to me “everyone speaks English” my answer is “Listen and look around you”. If people in London do not speak English then the whole question of a global language is completely open.

    The promulgation of English as the world’s “lingua franca” is impractical and linguistically undemocratic. I say this as a native English speaker!

    Impractical because communication should be for all and not only for an educational or political elite. That is how English is used internationally at the moment.

    Undemocratic because minority languages are under attack worldwide due to the encroachment of majority ethnic languages. Even Mandarin Chinese is attempting to dominate as well. The long-term solution must be found and a non-national language, which places all ethnic languages on an equal footing is essential.

    An interesting video can be seen at http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8837438938991452670

    A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

  2. You overlooked the crucial matter of script. Simply, Mandarin has *no* chance of becoming a real world language as long as people insist upon writing it in Chinese characters, which are burdensome even for native speakers of the language. If that barrier is breached (through Pinyin), however, then Mandarin could well become used internationally by groups well beyond the Chinese diaspora.