Sunday, March 25, 2012

Signs of the Times – The Power of English

There are many ways to measure the dominancy of a language.  These include the number of 1st language speakers, 2nd language speakers, and books published in or translated into that language.  Each benchmark produces different ratings.  For example, while Russian and Chinese speakers number in the tens of millions, neither language is considered to have worldwide impact.
I recently conducted an informal survey of the power of English.  I was eating lunch at a large successful shopping mall in northern Israel, the Kirion. I looked at the shop names around me, at least 30 if not more.  I was surprised and somewhat upset at what I saw.  Of the more than ten clothing stores, almost all of them the shop name appeared only in English.  The gift and novelty stores, around six of them, had their name signs in English only or with a large English sign and a small Hebrew sign.  The eating places, once again at least 10 of them, generally had a larger sign in English than in Hebrew.  I did not see a single establishment with Hebrew only sign or the name in Hebrew larger than that in English.  This mall is not in a tourist area by any means and is frequented exclusively by area residents.
I reached two conclusions.  English has achieved such a status that marketing wisdom is that a name must be English even if the product will never leave the home country.  I don’t believe that such a statement can be said for any language, with the possible exception of the tendency of perfume names to be in French.  From the patriotic point of view, this downgrading of Hebrew is disturbing.  The rebirth of Hebrew into a living language has been a labor of love and a great matter of pride for many people.  I don’t see any shame in a store name in Hebrew.  There are parts of the San Fernando Valley where you see more store signs in Hebrew!  The Quebec law requiring French signing has some logic, which could be applied to Israel and other countries. 
Signing is a matter of linguistic power.  English, at least in Israel, is King.  I am not so sure that I would say Long Live the King.

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