Is English a ‘killer language’ or one at threat?

Is English a killer language?Post written by Clive Upton based on his Editorial in the recent issue of English Today

Our editorial in English Today issue 29.3 raised the subject of English as a ‘killer language’.

We pointed to a speech given on 22nd February 2013 in which the German President Joachim Gauck called for English to be seen as the common language of Europe, and especially of the European Union.

This speech resulted in a response published  in The Times from the British Council’s Director of Strategy. John Worne was quick to try to forestall any suggestion that such an idea supported the notion, sometimes put forward, that English is a ‘killer language’ that grows at the expense of other languages.

In the latest issue this debate has been widened to demonstrate that English too might be thought to be threatened at times, as signalled by an entertaining but nevertheless serious linguistic matter that has recently arisen in the Welsh part of the UK, as reported in The Times:

 Residents in the Welsh village of Varteg are not happy with plans to rename it Y Farteg, saying that it will make them the butt of jokes. Welsh language campaigners are calling for the name change, claiming that the current title for the village is incorrect. In  the Welsh language, there is no letter V – although the same sound is pronounced [i.e. written] with the letter F. However locals say that the proposed name sounds like a schoolboy’s playground insult. Sioned Jones, 42, a resident of the village, said: ‘Just imagine how embarrassing it will be to have the word fart in your village’s name…’

The interaction between the Welsh and English languages has not been a happy one in Wales. Historically, English was frequently imposed upon Welsh speakers: in the extreme southwest of the country replacement of Welsh by English occurred through settlement as long ago as the late eleventh century, and in much of the south, where Varteg is situated, it occurred progressively throughout the period of the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Replacement of Welsh by English was not sympathetically done, and created hurt and resentment. As social and political attitudes have changed, especially since the mid-twentieth century, strenuous efforts have been made to give Welsh proper official status.

But as we know, language is tied closely to identity, to the way in which speakers connect with their communities as they are now and as they have been passed on to them by their forebears. Just as the Welsh speakers bridled at having English forced upon them in the past, so many of their English-speaking compatriots now resent having Welsh forced upon them from outside their community. To the very large majority of people in the area in which the village is located, Varteg is not an ‘incorrect’ spelling but a time-honoured one, used for generations. And it seems likely that the anger at its being questioned goes deeper than the merely linguistic, so that what local Varteg residents really object to is not so much the association of the word ‘fart’ with their village, but more that the V- spelling inherited by them from their English-speaking ancestors is being eroded, and that the Welsh language is being boosted at their expense. There is no easy solution to such conflicts of language wherever they occur, but they should be handled intelligently and sympathetically on all sides.

As a postscript to this, we can now report that local objections have been heeded, and the idea of introducing ‘Y Farteg’ as an alternative to ‘Varteg’ has been dropped.

Five of the articles in this issue of English Today concern aspects of the interface between English and other languages.

Enjoy access to the entire issue without charge until 30th June 2014.


Wondrous Welsh, Published in the Times, 28th September 2013


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