Leo Mirani is getting tweeted around this morning for his piece in quartz that points out that 80% of the Web is dominated by just 10 languages:
Internet access doesn’t fully explain the imbalance. The Middle East scores much lower than you would expect, given how many people in that part of the world are are online, says Graham. There are some 7,000 languages spoken around the world today. Yet Facebook is available in just 70, with another 40 in translation, writes Facebook’s Iris Orriss, who runs its localization efforts. Even fewer are supported on mobile devices. Hindi, spoken by more than 250 million people, wasn’t available on Google’s Android operating system until last year, as Quartz has reported.
Today, some 80% of the web remains dominated by just 10 languages. Facebook, Google, and GSMA are serious about their professed goals to connect vast numbers of people to the internet (everyone in the case of Facebook and Google, another billion by 2020 in the case of GSMA), a good starting point is to give the speakers of the other 6,990 languages something to do when they come online.
In focusing on the consumers of the Web and who is connected to it (in a piece that appears to have interviewed… no one?), Leo misses the forest for the trees.
The reason why the web is mostly in English is because it was created in England and the United States, it is established and mature. But much more importantly, all of the programming languages, server software, protocols and frameworks are all based in English.
There has been an overwhelming trend in programming languages to use the English language to inspire the choice of keywords and code libraries. According to the HOPL online database of languages, out of the 8500+ programming languages recorded, roughly 2400 of them were developed in the United States, 600 in the United Kingdom, 160 in Canada, and 75 in Australia. – Wikipedia
English is the lingua franca of the Web at the maker level. From the perspective of Anthropological linguistics, this is kind of a big deal. Ruby was developed in Japan, Python comes from the Netherlands… they chose English as the language to get a wider international adoption. The power of creation, the power of influence, the power of control all lie in the English language.
This infographic in the qz article shows “user generated content” by language:
These people are making content for free on on other people’s platforms. Their act of production is the product that people with money and technical knowledge use to profit. Marx (not as a politician, but as an anthropological and socio-cultural framework) identifies this type of behavior as “false consciousness.” The users think they are in control and aspire to be in the ruling class, but in doing so, they enable the ruling class. In doing so, they bolster the power structure.
This is the other big reason – English is where the money is in software and technology… at least right now. The market is power, and it’s this market that’s expanding (as capitalism does) into the emerging foreign markets with the large populations that are just now coming online. The people who have been online and are established and have the money to invest in these emerging markets speak English. Google and Facebook, American companies that have bent, shaped and changed the Web through it’s products like no other influencer, and in doing so influenced how we all communicate, are expanding into foreign markets and their product is built out of the raw material of the English language.
Essentially, the digital linguistic landscape is not unlike the global colonial expansion of the British Empire, where the language was carried to all corners of the world and kept alive through the establishment of the commonwealth. It’s the underlying language of governance, architecture and engineering, and it is the language of commerce. For better or worse, it is what it is: English is the power language of the Internet.
In the meantime, better and better language translation software is being written, so Leo’s premise that you won’t be able to understand the Web of the future might be a little off – and, those translator programs are probably being written in… English.