May 1, 2006  ·  Tim Wu

One theme in the book is that an evolving balkanization of the internet is often driven by consumer preference. A good example is the suprising decline in the use of the English language on the Web.

From Ch. 3

The Economist confidently stated in in 1996 that “English may now be impregnable established as the world standard language: an intrinsic part of the global communications revolution.” A New York Times article written the same year, titled “World Wide Web: Three English Words,” asserted that “if you want to take full advantage of the Internet there is only one real way to do it: learn English.”

That turned out not to be true. English was dominant at first. But it faded fast. By the end of 2002, less than half of the web pages were still in English, and the flights from English just continued — babelization, if not balkanization.

Today, David Sifry and Ethan Zuckerman write on “the surprising possibility that Japanese may have unseated English as the dominant language of the blogosphere.” According to Sifry’s fascinating survey, ”

Something that may come as a surprise (at least to the English-speaking world) is that English isn’t the biggest language of the blogosphere. In fact, English isn’t even the primary language of one third of all posts that Technorati tracks anymore.

If you look at the survey, you’ll notice other oddities too. French accounts for but 2% of technocrati blogging, for example, despite being one of the world’s most widespread languages.

So much for those ten years I spent in French lessons (yet fortunate that I’ve had 3 months of Japanese, kamon).

  • The constant blogger

    Syfri’s survey seems interesting, but we have to keep in mind some important exceptions as the role of English language in the Arab blogosphere where it is used in order to reach a wider “audience”.

    I’ve recently came across in I toot which provides a window into the Arab world by tracking the most interesting blogs. The latter are mostly in English.

    English is still broadly used when the blogger’s goal is to communicate from a country where both it’s challenging to share knowledge and information with others, and it’s difficult to “build up” a bridge between islamic and non-islamic cultures.

  • Russ

    English may still be the ‘standard’ as the Economist stated. We should not confuse the simple number of websites or blogs with a language other than English with the issue of whether or not they may form a standard. For cross-cultural exchanges on the internet — and indeed such exchanges in the real world — English still seems to predominate. But who knows where the future will lead… maybe the precise language won’t be that important anyway because of advanced translation tools. Kind of like purchasing a tri-mode mobile phone – makes me not care what the dominant global mobile telephony standard is… I’m covered no matter what…


    The interesting statistic – in terms of how the internet knits together or divides people in different societies, may well turn out to be what percentage of the web’s international and border crossing traffic appears in English, or any other language.

  • giles

    I don’t think it’s surprising that less than half the web pages are in English. But I would be surprised if less than half the total number of page views on the internet were in English. Is there a statistic for this?

  • Balkan Joe

    > an evolving balkanization of the internet

    I don’t understand – Are you saying the internet once served principally one audience, and now it serves several different audiences? Is this a problem?

  • Kevin Farnham

    I think this may be related to the difference between blogging and business. For business, a common worldwide language has been highly advantageous to participants in the global economy. I do remember articles in the Economist about English becoming the global language of business.

    Then, too, there is the fact that the keywords of computer languages and pretty much all documentation of computer languages are in English. I’ve wondered if there might be a market for computer books written in Indian or Chinese, but none of the major software book vendors seem to wonder about such things, so that market must not exist (or it hasn’t to date).

    Blogging is an entirely different realm. You are not speaking to the entire world. Rather, you are speaking to a collection of individuals who share some similarity with you, shared experience, or a common interest. These individuals are in essence “plucked” out of the ocean of all Internet actors. Bloggers and subscribers find each other through tags and searches.

    There is no real need for bloggers to adopt a common language. For business, I don’t think this has changed, not yet anyway. But perhaps the networks and mini-communities that are being formed by blogging will become a breeding ground for a new kind of entrepreneurship that works with others who speak the same language (I mean “languages” in a broader aspect here, languages of various realms, including the “language” of common interests), engendering new economies that are global in reach, but unlike today’s huge multinational corporations in scale.

    These new network-centric businesses would operate within their own global, but bounded, niche. In such cases, the business transactions might indeed occur in whatever language was favored by the community.

  • Richard Bennett

    With all due respect Woosy, this stuff is boring as hell. Please write something inflammatory about the Telcos stealing the Internet so we can start the fistfight. It’s going to take me several days to set you straight and time’s a wasting.

  • Joe Buck

    Actually, given that the US, the most populous English-speaking country, has such horrible broadband penetration compared to Western Europe, Korea, and Japan, it shouldn’t be surprising to see English dropping. Google’s Orkut service was pretty much taken over by Portuguese-speaking Brazilians, and this evidently happened because Brazilians are so much more social than Americans in ways that work well with Orkut.

    When Koreans and Swedes all have 10 Mbps both ways to the home, and most Americans either have dialup or a crappy 256 Kbps DSL link, it shouldn’t be surprising that other languages start to take off. If you want to communicate internationally, English is the best choice, but if you’re trying to get a date or put your life online, you’ll use your own language.