A Diversified World – Valborg in Uppsala

by Jörgen Eriksson on May 2, 2015

valborg-uppsala1This weekend started with the Walpurgis Night, the eve of the feast day of Saint Walpurga, an 8th-century abbess in Germany. In German folklore Walpurgisnacht is also called Hexennacht (literally "Witches’ Night"). It was believed to be the night of a witches’ meeting on the Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz Mountains, a range of wooded hills in central Germany between the rivers Weser and Elbe.

In my native Sweden the feast is called “Valborg” and it is nowadays a festivity to welcome the spring, where bonfires are burned and students are singing traditional a capella songs to the arrival of the warmer season.

As we currently work with regional innovation strategy development in Uppsala, Sweden (which is a highly multi-cultural student city) I thought it could be appropriate this weekend, to write a brief note about our multi-cultural world.

The Walpurgis celebrations at Uppsala University are truly extraordinary, with student floats running the Fyris River, herring lunches, the donning of the caps at the Carolina Rediviva main university building, parties and much more. Toward the evening bonfires are lit to warm the soul and  to burn winter refuse, whilst a male student choir sings hymns to the spring.

The truths of history are what we make them, in how we interpret historical events. This is a thought that struck me during a memorable life event in Cagnes-Sur-Mer last Sunday. As current events are interpreted and understood in the light of historical experiences, truth itself relies more on interpretation that on an absolute understanding of reality. Whether this is a flaw in our minds or a blessing is best left to individual interpretation.

imageAbout 23 years ago, I studied World History for a year at Stockholm University, and the main course book was A History of World Societies by McKay, Hill and Buckler, third edition published in 1992. In this year I learned more about the world and it provoked more thought, than much of my economics education and the book remains a centrepiece in my library.

The massive 1300 page book describes how civilisations began to emerge as peoples formed organized communities to support stable and secure life. True civilization appeared when these communities developed individual languages and writing to preserve past knowledge and sustain complex economic and political activity. The book explores the stories of the peoples of the world within a political framework. With coverage of non-western topics, the text provides a global approach to world history, and as McKay starts the preface:

“A History of World Societies grew out of the authors´desire to infuse new life into the study of world civilizations. We knew full well that historians were using imaginative questions and innovative research to open up vast new areas of historical interest and knowledge. We also recognized that these advances had dramatically affected the subject of economic, intellectual, and, especially, social history, while new research and fresh interpretations were also revitalizing the study of the traditional mainstream of political, diplomatic and religious development. (…)

With this book (…) we made a determined effort to strike an effective global balance. We were acutely aware of the great drama of our times – the passing of the European era and the simultaneous rise of Asian and African peoples in world affairs. Increasingly the whole world interacts, and to understand that interaction and what it means for today´s citizens we must study the whole world´s history.”

Back in 1992 this writing was prophetic, as the age of Globalisation and the decline of the western world has become obvious to most people only after the recent great recession.

Another favourite source of historical and world society knowledge of mine is Sir Kenneth Clark´s TV series Civilisation – A Personal View from 1969, commissioned by no-less than David Attenborough when he was Controller of BBC2.

The series is focused on western European society and if you have never seen this series before and are interested in art history, you just landed in a honey jar. Through more than eleven hours of film in 13 episodes, Clark takes us on a 1,500 year journey through Western Civilization starting roughly at the end of the Roman Empire and ending in mid 20th century.

Clark tells us straight out that his aim was to follow the history of Western European civilization as seen through the eyes of its artists and with his focus on western art, watching the series today can only emphasise the thinking of the time of western civilisations dominance in the world. A period that has by now, 45 years later, come to an absolute end.

A key metrics of our civilisations diversity are the use of languages, so let us look at some statistics of languages, courtesy of the Washington Post, to illustrate the multi-diversity of the world we live in.

Languages per continent

In 2015, Europe has only 286 living languages compared with a multitude on other continents, as we can see in the graph above. However it should be noted that about 3 percent of the world’s population accounts for 96 percent of all languages spoken today. Out of all languages in the world, 2,000 have fewer than 1,000 native speakers. How long will they remain used, in a borderless world of internet and globalisation?

According to UNESCO estimates, about half of the world’s spoken languages will disappear by the end of the 21st century. Linguistic extinction will hit some countries and regions harder than others. In the United States, endangered languages are primarily located along the West coast, which I noted as I travelled through many minority Indian settlements along the Pacific coast in a Mustang Cabriolet many years ago, as well as in reservations of indigenous people in the Midwest. Globally, the Amazon rain forest, sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania, Australia and Southeast Asia are about to lose the most languages.

As we can see in the next graph, Chinese has more native speakers than any other language, followed by Hindi and Urdu, which have the same linguistic origins in northern India. English comes next with 527 million native speakers. Arabic is used by nearly 100 million more native speakers than Spanish and its usage is growing fast with strong nativity among Arabic speakers, despite the many conflicts in the MENA region.

The numbers are fascinating because they reflect the fact that two-thirds of the world’s population share only 12 native languages. Those numbers were recently published by the University of Düsseldorf’s Ulrich Ammon, who conducted a 15-year-long study.

Major languages

Whereas English lags behind in the number of native speakers, it is by far the world’s most commonly studied language. Overall, more people learn English than French, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, German and Chinese combined.

How many people learn a language

Some languages have only recently gained attention. The number of U.S. colleges that teach Chinese has risen by 110 percent between 1990 and 2013, making the language more accessible. Place Managers should note that local education in Chinese is a no-brainer winning place attraction for economic growth. During the same time, the number of offered Russian college courses decreased by 30 percent, as Washington Post notes.

Some language skills could be more rewarding than others. If you are able to speak German, Americans could earn $128,000 extra throughout their career, according to MIT scientist Albert Saiz. At least financially, German is worth twice as much as French and nearly three times as much as Spanish, for instance. Unfortunately, this is no comfort to me, being a Swede once fluent in German, but having lost most of my fluency as I live since 18 years in France and nowadays rarely work in Germany.

With this thought, and about to make an over day drive to the French speaking parts of Switzerland, I wish our readers a relaxing and enjoyable weekend.

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