Oriental languages are doomed.
As the world gets smaller — with shorter, faster connections between people and places — and flatter — with horizontal relationships between people and organizations replacing vertical models — the need for effective communication becomes increasingly important.
Effective communication must be both simple and complex. The ability to express complex ideas, to use nuance and subtle shadings that are well understood, is of great value. Many languages can do this (although English may be the most adept, due to its liberal borrowing of words and phrases from other languages).
But the other key factor is simplicity of representation. This is where English writing excels, and where the Oriental languages (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc.) show their fatal flaw.
Since every word requires its own symbol, Chinese script is immensely complicated. It possesses some 50,000 characters, of which about 4,000 are in common use…[i]
[W]hereas Western letters can be represented on computer screens by as few as 35 dots of light, Japanese characters can require up to 576 dots to be clearly distinguishable.[ii]
It was digits — zeroes and ones — that drove the Information Revolution. When a system developed to express and process highly complex algorithms in a profoundly simple way, basically a long string of yes/no choices, the world changed.
Similarly, Western writing — especially English — allows for relatively simple representation of complex expressions.
English has additional advantages, such as its simplicity of inflected forms — “in Latin, the verb has up to 120 inflections; in English, it never has more than five and often gets by with just three”[iii] — near total absence of gender cases, and elimination of diacritical marks (umlauts, cedillas, circumflexes, and so on) that complicate other languages.
American English has become the dominant language in the online world, and not only because American culture is so pervasive. It’s a two-way street. American culture can be pervasive because the language it uses is so good at effective communication; it possesses the killer combination of complex expression and simple representation.
Shrinking and flattening will continue. Effective communication between diverse groups will matter more and more. And ideas — scientific, technical, commercial, political, and cultural ideas — will shape the future.
Today, perhaps 3,000 languages are in significant use (by 10,000 or more speakers), although this number is rapidly declining. It’s estimated that as few as 10% of these will remain by the end of this century. Looking further ahead, it’s not hard to imagine only a handful of languages persisting.
Given the factors I’ve listed above, it’s probably a safe bet to say that some version of English will become humanity’s common language, and that the ancient and beautiful Oriental scripts will become antiquated.