I watched the Men's final at the French Open tennis tournament yesterday, and I was struck by the dominance of: 1) Roger Federer, who won his 14th Grand Slam tournament handily, and 2) the English language. The announcer at *Roland Garros* Stadium reported the scores en francais and French TV apparently got the first courtside interview with Federer after the match (while NBC took a commercial break), but Federer and Swedish runner-up Robin Soderling gave their acceptance speeches in English (with a French translation for the crowd). One imagines the spirit of Charles de Gaulle whirring rapidly in his tomb, not to mention the "Immortals" in L'Academie francaise.
It’s possible that Robin Soderling (the Swedish runner-up) spoke to the crowd in English because he doesn't speak French. But Federer reportedly speaks fluent French, German, and Swiss-German, as well as English, so why wasn’t he addressing the local crowd in their native tongue?
My guess is that this was dictated by the global TV market, and by the growing position of English as the lingua franca of contemporary globalization. The tournament was being watched all over the world, and English is the language that would be understood by the greatest number of potential viewers world-wide.
Americans sometimes view the dominant position of English as another component of America's "soft power," but that view is simplistic chauvinism. With English becoming a "universal" language, no single country will own it or be able to regulate its content. Instead, it will continue to evolve as most languages do, incorporating new words, spellings, and grammatical practices from an wide variety of sources. If they haven't started already, American xenophobes are going to start complaining soon about the corruption of "standard English" by all these foreign influences. For an interesting collection of views on this topic, check out the "Freakonomics" discussion here.
Of course, this whole discussion may be moot, given the damage that email, text-messaging, and Twitter feeds are already doing to civilized discourse. Or does that comment make me sound like a technophobe?
*P.S.: Bonus points for anyone who knows who Roland Garros was without looking up the link. Answer: Garros was a French aeronautical pioneer, who developed an armored propeller that allowed the use of a forward-firing machine gun for aerial combat during World War I. His system predated the more effective synchronization device later perfected by the Dutch/German Anthony Fokker. Garros was captured by the Germans in 1915, later escaped, and eventually shot down and killed in 1918. The stadium for which he is named occupies the site of a tennis academy that he attended.
JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.