English is not a singular language

Recent flareups over issues of “cultural identity” have brought into sharper relief the question of what it means to be English. Related to this: what does it mean to speak English? Populist purveyors of ill-intentioned identity politics rush to demand that we consider what they see as similarly consequential questions: what does it mean to be not English; and does speaking English confer exceptional or preferential status?

These are just the questions from the political right. Those on the left have a quiver of substantial concerns arising from the legacies of European and English history. As regards the English language in particular, they push back on its dominance in the world as having proceeded from imperialist behaviours. Is English, they ask, the language of colonialism? (Spoiler alert: no.)

What all of these questions have in common is the assumption that what matters in the here and now is a function of the past. Depending upon the political perspective, what is seen to have been triumphant confers exceptional status along with benefits that need defending against people who did not earn them. Alternatively, what is seen to have been evil calls now for punishment and reparations. The question that goes unanswered relates to the future we leave as our legacy: sustainable peace and happiness for as many people as possible, whether they are English or not, or speak English or not.

As with so much of human knowledge, the road to wisdom is best lit by humility, and we must allow that any global language with its history and character will be hard to pin down beyond its sheer weight of numbers.

Those numbers are eye watering. While in third place in terms of first-language speakers, behind Mandarin and Spanish, it is in the number of speakers of English as a second language that the real story emerges. And let’s bear in mind that, as a general rule, we speak our first language by upbringing and our second by choice. In 1500, English languished in sixth place as a minor European noise, well behind German, French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese. Today there are almost one billion speakers of English as a second language, more than double the combined, second language total of those five European languages, and still comfortably more even with second language speakers of Hindi and Mandarin added into the equation.

Nothing in all of this implies a moral judgement or supports a determination of exceptionalism. The fact that such a large minority of the population has chosen to learn English as the language of getting on only means that a disproportionate number of new words will emerge from the wider world of second-language speakers. After all, that’s precisely what happened with all the co-optings of vocabulary and usages that enriched the language as it spread out over just a few centuries and absorbed the world, creating along the way a host of recognised variants including (by no means exhaustively) African, Indian, Caribbean, Singaporean, pidgin, and err, or umm, American.

The Devil Dialogues have always showcased intelligence

We have been pleased to launch a new format of podcast earlier this month, entitled the Devil Dialogues. They are inspired by the dedication to wit and good conversation as stipulated in the rules laid down by Elizabethan playwright Ben Jonson. A contemporary of Shakespeare’s, he launched The Apollo Club in an upper room of the Devil Tavern, a pub subsequently subsumed within the growing premises of Child & Co bankers, still trading today at Temple Bar, at the western end of London’s Fleet Street.

Chief among the Jonson rules was an ambition that has driven much of the coffee house and tavern culture over the centuries since: “And let our only emulation be, Not drinking much, but talking wittily . . .” Posterity confirms that the brightness of the flame kindled by Jonson was maintained over succeeding decades by such luminaries as Pepys, Swift, Pope, Goldsmith and Dr Johnson.

Holding the torch in our age gone digital, and joining me in the launch episode of the Devil Dialogues, was my esteemed colleague Arthur I Miller, creative AI advisor to the Cradle of English, emeritus professor at University College London and one of the leading thinkers working at the intersection of art and technology. Together we addressed a question that will not have occurred in the halcyon days of The Apollo Club, even if the mechanical first principles might have been graspable: “Might Artificial Intelligence ever write a play?”

There will be no spoiler alerts here beyond confirming that our answer was a qualified yes, and not just because the obvious and not necessarily witty answer is that it’s a low bar in these days of self-professed artists that anyone or anything might “write” a “play” without ever exciting the worry of the fire marshals. What became clear early in our podcast is that the implications of the question will require many happy returns to the microphone for us to tease out, and I look forward to sitting down with Arthur again very soon. Not the least of the questions posed relates to distinguishing the play on the page and the performance on the stage, and consequently the host of definitions of the “intelligence” required by either process.

What leapt out of our conversation for me was the realisation that “intelligence” in the context of what computers are designed to display is an entirely different beast from the intelligence that emerged over five centuries in the products of Fleet Street’s printing presses and in the witty conversation of its coffee houses and taverns. From the impressive but specialised achievements of recursively self-improving machines, it cannot yet be inferred that an Artificial General Intelligence can evolve that will match what a few thousand smart people, working and mingling over a few hundred years in a few dozen buildings on one tiny patch of earth in central London have produced.

It’s not that lawyers, poets, scientists, or politicians are any better than computers at boot-strapping their own intelligence. But when they mingle and talk together over time, an impressive but mongrel culture evolves.