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Your English Is Showing
Is Literature a power game where different nations set their cultural and political might against each other in bestseller lists and international prizes?

If one suggests that the international literary market is also a power game where different nations set their cultural and political might against each other in bestseller lists and international prizes, one inevitably arouses a certain amount of hostility from those who like to think of literature as operating in a more idealized world of noble aspiration and expression. The hostility intensifies if one seeks to exemplify one’s ideas with reference to individual writers, to the point that I fear that my recent piece on Jonathan Franzen and the Swiss writer Peter Stamm may have generated more heat than light. At the risk, then, of turning down the heat without exactly achieving a blaze of illumination, let me offer a more general word about present developments in the international spaces where contemporary novels from different countries vie for attention.

The recent acceleration in communications and the process we’ve gotten used to calling globalization have renewed debate about the relationship between lingua franca and vernacular. The nations of the European mainland are constantly anxious that the adoption of English words and even syntactical structures may be seriously reshaping their languages. Meanwhile, in many technical fields, scientific papers are now written almost exclusively in English, with the result that certain concepts become difficult to express in the vernacular since no one is at work developing a vocabulary for them.

Back in 2000, in his intriguing article, “Cosmopolitanism and the Vernacular in History” Sheldon Pollock discussed the possible ways a lingua franca can relate to different vernaculars by comparing the fortunes of Latin and other languages in the Roman Empire with those of Sanskrit and local languages in India and the East during the same period (roughly from the beginning of the first millennium to its end). His general claim is that while in the West Latin was ruthlessly imposed on the back of Roman military conquest and tended to obliterate the languages of peoples subdued, in the East there was a more relaxed coexistence between the cosmopolitan lingua franca and the surrounding vernaculars, Sanskrit gaining a general currency more through trade and a desire to be widely understood than through military conquest or political coercion.

The burden of Pollock’s article is clear enough: that we needn’t think about the spread of English as necessarily in conflict with the world’s vernaculars; he wants us to avoid thinking in terms of “either/or” and work towards a relationship that is “both/and.” The advice is good, and eleven years on the article is as intriguing as ever, though perhaps what struck me most on a recent rereading was the contemporaneous nature of these linguistic experiences in East and West: both saw the rise and decline of a lingua franca at more or less the same time, suggesting the working out of an underlying process and the manifestation of a collective will. All of this inevitably leads one to ask: so what are we up to now, what are we collectively, and quite probably unconsciously, willing to happen now?

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New York Review of Books