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. …