I WAS GOING to wish you a Happy New Year, but why bother? For a huge and growing number of people around the world, today simply isn't the start of a new year.
As far as the world's approximately 1.3 billion Muslims are concerned, New Year's Day is the first day of Muharram, the first month in the lunar Hijri calendar, which dates from the year Muhammad left Mecca for Medina. The year 1428 won't get going until Jan. 20.
So that's at least 40% of the world's population who didn't sing "Auld Lang Syne" at midnight last night. Come to think of it, only a tiny and dwindling minority of Earth's inhabitants know even the first verse of Robert Burns' song, and only a fraction of them have a clue what it means, since it's written in Old Scots (literal translation: "old long since"). "Old times' sake" is the most idiomatic Anglicization I can manage, since the whole point of the song is (as the chorus says) to "tak a cup o' kindness yet" (i.e., consume another alcoholic beverage) "for auld lang syne"(i.e., for old times' sake).
Ironically, this Scottish song will mainly have been heard last night in English-speaking countries — in those places the American writer James C. Bennett has called "the Anglosphere." This is a concept worth pondering as a new year dawns. Bennett defines it as a "network civilization" whose "densest nodes" are the United States and Britain but that also extends to "the Anglophone regions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and South Africa." He also acknowledges, as honorary members, educated English-speaking populations of the Caribbean, Oceania, Africa and India.
The historian Andrew Roberts, by contrast, regards only Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Britain and the U.S. as the true homes of the "English-speaking peoples," casting the Irish into outer darkness for their neutrality in World War II and flatly ignoring the rest.
Perhaps it would be more correct to speak of an Anglo diaspora rather than an Anglosphere. More than three centuries of commerce, conquest, migration and missionary work by the inhabitants of the British Isles have, after all, left few regions of the world untouched.
The key point, however, is that this Anglo diaspora's glory days lie precisely in "old long since." It would be cheering to believe, with Bennett and Roberts, that there is still a future for its distinctive culture (as opposed to its conveniently easy language). But I doubt it.
Demography isn't always destiny. For the English-speaking peoples, however, it looks a lot like doom. At their zenith in the 1950s, even using Roberts' narrow definition, they accounted for roughly 1 in 11 of mankind. Today the figure is closer to 1 in 15. By 2050, it may be as low as 1 in 17.
Moreover, such calculations leave out of account the enormous effects of migration on Britain and its former colonies. If immigration continues at current levels, according to one recent estimate, the immigrant and foreign-born percentage of the British population will rise from under 10% today to more than 20% by 2050.
U.S. Census Bureau data make it impossible to say how many American residents are of British descent. What we do know is that by 2050, the proportion of non-Latino whites in the population will likely drop from 70% to 50%.
In 1947, just under 90% of the population of Australia was identified as "Anglo-Celt" (of English, Irish or Scottish ethnic origin). Today, that figure is 70%, and by 2025, it could be as low as 62%. The story is similar in New Zealand, where "Europeans" are projected to decline from 79% of the population today to 72% by 2016. And in Canada, the percentage of the population identifying themselves as belonging to a "visible minority group" is forecast to rise from 13% to between 19% and 23% by 2017.
Some people get dyspeptic about this kind of thing, just as they get nostalgic about the days when the English speakers ruled the world. But the study of history has made me a fatalist. To me, the Anglosphere and Anglo diaspora resemble the ruins of Nineveh and Tyre: exhibits in the great Museum of Defunct Empires.
It was in that solemn spirit that I joined in the singing last night. Yes, let's have a drink "for auld lang syne" this New Year's — for we English speakers have our best years behind us.