English as International Language in Geography: Development and Limitations
Harris, Chauncy D., The Geographical Review
Geographers wish to know about the world. Geographical knowledge is place specific, and most of it is possessed by persons who live in a rich fabric of cultures, in numerous linguistic communities. They write geographical studies for the most part in their own languages. A comprehensive survey in 1980 found that, over the years 1723-1979, 3,445 geographical periodicals and serials had been published in 107 countries in 55 languages (Harris and Fellmann 1980). Rare indeed is the geographer who can read or utilize more than a few of these languages. Languages of wider communication are needed to promote intercommunication among our communities. As a consequence, papers delivered at the quadrennial International Geographical Congresses sponsored by the International Geographical Union (IGU) have been limited to six principal languages. Since 1960 this number has been reduced to two. In recent decades English has increasingly become the medium of communication, both in international congresses and in geographical periodicals and serials published in many countries and distributed over all continents.
The use of English is first assessed in the twenty-nine International Geographical Congresses held since 1871, excepting interruptions during the two world wars. The supplementary use of English in abstracts or texts of geographical periodicals or serials is then examined.
INTERNATIONAL GEOGRAPHICAL CONGRESSES
The number of languages used for communication at International Geographical Congresses has varied over time from six to two. Four principal languages--French, English, German, and Italian--were used in the first fifteen congresses (1871-1938).
These four, plus Portuguese and Spanish, constituted the six languages of record in the next three congresses (1949, 1952, and 1956). But after 1960 only English and French were officially featured in International Geographical Congresses. Democracy of participation might suggest the use of many languages, but efficiency of intercommunication encourages the use of only a few. Indeed, efficiency of international communication is inversely related to the number of languages a geographer must master to understand the papers presented.
Although six languages were used, French and later English generally predominated. At the first such congress, held in 1871 in Antwerp, Belgium, 79 percent of the communications were in French; 12 percent, in German; and only 6 percent, in English. In the century and a quarter since then, French has declined relatively and English has risen to become the global language of international communication (Volle 1996; Harris 1998).
The early congresses had a markedly national or regional character, with a high proportion of the participants coming from the host country or nearby areas. The language of the host country was dominant. In the Paris congresses of 1875 and 1880, 100 percent of the papers were in French, whereas in the London and Washington congresses, held in 1895 and 1904, 55 percent and 82 percent were in English, and in the Berlin congress, held in 1899,56 percent were in German. Omitting congresses held in Francophone or English-speaking countries, the proportion of papers in English before World War I ranged from 5 to 19 percent. This increased to 13-31 percent between the two world wars (Table I).
After World War II, with the rapid improvement in air transportation and in communications that facilitated worldwide participation and with the reduction of congress languages to two to improve intercommunication, English rose rapidly to a dominant position, from 76 percent in 1960 to more than 90 percent since 1980 (except for the 1984 congress, held in Paris).
English and French have been the languages used for IGU business since its founding in 1922, with French the main language used by the Executive Committee and the secretary from 1931 through 1949 and English predominant since 1949.
The host country at an International Geographical Congress may issue special publications. For the 29th congress, held in Seoul, for example, from non-English-speaking countries the following publications from Korea in English are noteworthy: Korea: The Land and People (IGC 2000b), and Korean Geography and Geographers (IGC 2000c). At least fourteen other special monographs in English were prepared for the congress in countries in which English is not the mother tongue (IGU 2000). From the previous congress, held in the Netherlands, came special publications in the English-language periodical Journal of Economic and Social Geography on European ports (TESG 1996) and, in the Dutch-language periodical Geografie, "A Dutch Mosaic," in English (Geografie 1996). Pioneers of this type were A Geography of Norden (Somme 1960), published on the occasion of the 19th International Geographical Congress, held in Stockholm, and Geography of Japan, published for the 24th International Geographical Congress, held in Tokyo (A JG 1980).
Countries other than the host country may publish substantial monographs for a congress. Some outstanding examples are: Italian Contributions to the 23rd International Geographical Congress, 1976 (Pecora and Pracchi 1976); Italy, A Geographical Survey (Pinna and Ruocco 1980); Geography in Belgium (Denis 1984); "Human Geography in Belgium," a special issue of the Revue belge de geographie (RBG 1988); and, for the 27th International Geographical Congress, held in Washington, D.C., three notable publications from Germany, German Geographical Research Overseas (Wirth 1988), German Geographical Research on North America: A Bibliography with Comments and Annotations (Dittmann and Laux 1992), and 40 Years After: German Geography (Ehiers 1992).
Publications of the IGU commissions and working groups, largely in English for the last forty years, are far too numerous to list here. An influential and seminal early publication of this type was Proceedings of the IGU Symposium in Urban Geography (Norborg 1962).
GEOGRAPHICAL PERIODICALS AND SERIALS
Geographical periodicals are an important means of international communication. For most periodicals the main readership are members of the same linguistic community, and most editors hope that their journal will also be more widely read. But many readers may not have facility in the language of a journal, especially if it is in a language not widely used internationally, such as Hungarian. To reach the global community many geographical periodicals now make some use of a supplementary language of wider communication. In general, the higher the scholarly level of an article or journal, and consequently the greater interest it may have for a worldwide scientific community, the greater the probability that it will contain an abstract in an international language.
The supplementary use of an international language in a geographical periodical dates back to 1882 in the Hungarian Geographical Society's Foldrajzi Kozlemenyek (Geographical Review): "La Societe Hongroise de Geographie ... en pensant ceux qui s'interessent aussi bien a la societe qu'a la science geographique et qui ne …
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Publication information: Article title: English as International Language in Geography: Development and Limitations. Contributors: Harris, Chauncy D. - Author. Journal title: The Geographical Review. Volume: 91. Issue: 4 Publication date: October 2001. Page number: 675+. © 1998 American Geographical Society. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group.
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