One of the perks of being on the board of the Edinburgh International Book Festival is that I get an early look at the programme and the chance to put my name down for the events I would like to chair.
This morning, as I was looking through the list, two books in particular caught my eye. Without giving away secrets (the programme is embargoed until the day of the launch, June 17), I can say that although their subjects are separated by four hundred years, both deal with events that, according to their authors, have been hugely significant in shaping the English language.
The first is the publication of the King James Bible, whose elegance, lyricism and sheer linguistic brio set a wholly new standard of English which still, to this day, is seldom bettered. The other is the emergence of a 1500-word version of English that is now, thanks to Microsoft, becoming the lingua franca of the world’s two billion non-native English speakers.
The sublime and the ridiculous, one might think. How can one weigh post-Shakespearian, early Jacobean mastery of our uniquely rich language with some weird post-modern hybrid – a kind of pidgin cyberese? Aesthetically, of course, one can’t. It would be like comparing the work of Trollope with a Tweet.
But usage, in the evolution of language, is everything. And where the literate classes in the early 17th century were probably numbered by those households that possessed a bible, today computers are well within the grasp of the semi- or even barely literate; and anyway, literacy, or rather lack of it, has never been an obstacle to the spread of new linguistic mutations.
Furthermore, there are now more non-native than native speakers of English in the world – something, I believe, that is to be celebrated. Languages thrive through being spoken, and our own is lucky to have become almost universal, while also being deep-rooted and robust enough to survive any number of mutations.
What is much more to be feared is the loss of language, and here the numbers are terrifying. Apparently, of slightly more than 7,000 living languages on earth, just over 500 (seven per cent) are now nearly extinct, meaning they have only a few elderly speakers still living. But nearly half of those 7,000 have less than 3,000 speakers, which means, some suggest, that there are more than 3,000 vulnerable languages which are very unlikely to survive the next hundred years.
With these will go a sense of self and belonging, of history and culture, of personal and communal identity – as oppressors down the ages have known only too well. So we should be grateful for the incursions of Microsoft and others into our beloved English. It signifies that the language we speak is still very much alive.