Report from a Bloodless War

We all know of the many wars and revolts in Southeast Asia that have resulted in millions of innocent victims. The war that I intend to tell you about is ruthless, too, even if it causes no bloodshed.

The war we are now witnessing is between two languages, French and English. The language of Shakespeare and Churchill is the aggressor, needless to say, whereas French, comfortably established in the region for many years, fights to survive against the odds.

The world has not always consisted, as it does now, of over two hundred countries independently deciding on their political system, economy and everyday life of their citizens. For hundreds of years the situation was different. The world was ruled by colonial powers who imposed their own administrative institutions and customs - and their own language - on the countries they had invaded.

Until after the Second World War, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia - known as French Indochina - were ruled by the French. In this part of Indochina (or the Indochinese Peninsular), French prevailed, and, therefore, as the official language, was taught in schools. Throughout the rest of Indochina, in Burma, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, English was the colonial language. Thailand successfully resisted colonisation, but English was the main Western language.

It is neither the time nor place to recall the long history of the region, but, to cut a long story short, the French eventually withdrew from there, and independent nations re-emerged on the Peninsular after WWII.

Today English is steadily overtaking the French language in former French Indochina. As in many African and Asian countries this process is one of the aftershocks of the colonial era. People in Indochina have their cards printed in English, they read English newspapers: The Cambodia Daily, The Vientiane Times, The Vietnam News. In Vietnam, they even have weeklies like The Vietnam Economic Times, The Guide, The Saigon Times, Vietnam Today. If you managed to spot a French magazine it would probably be quite unobtrusive and published in small print. An English newspaper, The Bangkok Post, is very popular in Laos, whilst in Vietnam and Cambodia there are many English information, entertainment and educational programmes on radio and television.

Another aspect of this World War (since it is, after all, fought all over the world) is the changing of the official names of countries, cities and rivers. Thus, instead of Burma we have Myanmar, instead of Ceylon there is Sri Lanka. Some of the new names are not readily accepted (such as Ho Chi Minh instead of Saigon), but some are more acceptable, as they have some historical background or are rooted in the national language. Foreigners cannot remember the new name of the capital of Burma - Yangon - which was once Rangoon, and doubt whether there was any point in changing Bombay to Mombay. There are often bad feelings and conflicting emotions, since sometimes the language of the enemy becomes the enemy itself (as happened with the German language in post-war Poland).

However, it very often happens that the language that is resented because of its historical significance becomes a very useful means of communication between various nations, tribes or ethnic groups within the country and within whole regions. The authorities of the newly emerged countries very wisely maintain English, French, Spanish or Portuguese as the strongest binding agent of the nation. English is spoken in India and many parts of Africa and Southeast Asia, French in both French and Belgian colonies in Central and North Africa, Portuguese in Mozambique and Brazil, and Spanish in other Latin American countries.

English, nevertheless, is more and more predominant and spreading its wings beyond the old British Empire. French - as beautiful and rich as it is - is slowly fading from the international scene, and only French Institutes abroad still try to promote it. The winner of the war between these two languages has already been decided. This is evident in scientific and technical literature, contemporary music, electronics, the Internet and many more areas.

Eventually there will be a time for peace and stability, and the Language War will fade away into history. As Emerson said, "Language is the archives of history".

Olgried Budrewicz