To understand the widespread influence that English has in today’s world, let us take a look at the evolution of the language, its cosmopolitan character, and its outreach.
A Gift of the Anglo-Saxons
The evolution of the English language can be traced back to the mid-fifth century AD. With the wane of Roman dominance, the Britons of England were left vulnerable to the attacks of various tribes from across the North Sea. The arrival of the Anglo-Saxon tribes in England brought with it a language that was heavily influenced by the dialects native to West Germanic tribes – English. The language became popular with the native Britons. While Latin had failed to make a mark during the Roman invasion of England, the Christian missionaries of the late sixth century AD were successful in introducing Latin words into the growing English vocabulary.
The French Connection
With the arrival of the Northmen, the Vikings from Denmark, in about 800 AD, over 2,000 Old Norse words were adopted by the Anglo-Saxons of England. William the Conqueror and the Norman invaders came in 1066. Norman French was spoken as the language of the elite, while the common man still used English to communicate. The growing English language absorbed over 10,000 words from French. With the end of the Hundred Year War, English once again became the dominant language in the region.
William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) is credited with the invention of over 2,000 new English words and phrases such as addiction, auspicious, circumstantial, courtship, dishearten, fashionable, jaded, mimic, sacrificial, and tongue-tied. Linguists believe that while all of these words and phrases may not have been Shakespeare’s own inventions, they were popularized by the bard in his plays, thus playing an important role in their dissemination. The mass appeal of Shakespearean plays ensured that these words were brought into the common man’s language very quickly.
The Biblical and the Scientific
In about 1604, the Puritans of the Church of England had started to complain about the complexities of translation resulting in a poor understanding of the Great Bible and the Bishop’s Bible. The King James Version of the Bible was written between 1604 and 1611. Forty-seven clergymen and scholars translated the Bible and introduced a number of new phrases and words. The growing popularity of the King James Bible with the Church and the masses resulted in the absorption of phrases such as ‘Labor of love’, ‘going the extra mile’, ‘God Forbid’, ‘the powers that be’, and ‘feet of clay’.
With religion influencing English, scientists were not to be left far behind. The English language was struggling to keep pace with the rapidly growing number of discoveries and inventions of the late seventeenth century. Latin was inadequately equipped to handle the needs of the average physicist’s and the physiologist’s lexicons. Words such as Acid, Gravity, Pendulum, Telescope, Tonsils, and Cardiac were quickly developed and absorbed by the English language.
The Spread of Colonialism – And English
The spread of the English language to the far reaches of the globe commenced with the imperial conquests of the British. From the late sixteenth century until the early twentieth century, the British Empire followed a policy of aggressive colonial expansion, exploration, and maritime trade. The official language, English, spread across continents and in turn was enriched by the absorption of words from the native languages of these lands. Caribbean languages, languages from the Indian subcontinent, the African tribal tongues, and the aboriginal languages of Australia contributed to the English language. When the British Empire was at its greatest extent, it covered over 13 million square miles and was home to over 460 million people. While the natives adopted English, English began to evolve into new forms in different parts of the world. Meanwhile, back in England a number of efforts were made to study and organize the language. Dictionaries and thesauruses took shape even as the need to add more words was recognized with each edition.
The British first arrived in America in the early seventeenth century. Their interactions with the Native Americans gave them a whole new set of words to learn. From the moment English language landed in America, it was no longer just the language of Britain. A number of European immigrants including Italians, Dutch, and Germans landed in America, and English again grew to absorb other European languages. The Gold Rush and the staggering immigration brought many cultural influences from all parts of the world. Capitalism and the growth of industries and enterprise brought its own vocabulary. American English soon diverged from the English spoken in Britain. “Lifts” became “elevators;” “autumn” became “fall;” and “flat’ became “apartment.” Currently, over two-thirds of the entire global population of native English speakers lives in the United States. English is the official language of twenty-eight of the fifty states.
The Web of Words
Modern English as we know it has outgrown its Germanic roots. Words from over 350 languages find a place in every-day English vocabulary. The advent of the Internet has been the most singular event in the past six decades to have influenced the evolution of the English language. While commonly used English words such as web, surf, bookmark, chat, virus, and mouse, have taken on very different connotations, the advent of the World Wide Web brought on a host of new words including email, blog, website, webcam, messenger, geek, and nerd, were added to the lexicon. An increasingly high number Internet slang words including the ubiquitous LOL, infographic, lappy, unfollow, and NSFW, have been added to the Oxford English Dictionary.
According to a study by W3Techs, about 56% of the websites on the Internet have English content. German comes second with 6.6% followed by Japanese and Russian with 4.9% and 4.8% respectively. According to Internet World Stats, a popular website providing internet usage data, over 32.7% of the world population uses the Internet, and the growth over the past decade has been a whopping 528%. About 26.8% of all Internet users communicate in English, according to World Internet Stats. About 24.2% of users prefer Chinese, 7.8% communicate in Spanish, and 4.7% in Japanese. The spread of the English language with the Internet has been pronounced in the Middle East, in Asia, and in Africa.
English Speaking Countries of the World
Ethnologue suggests that there are over 341 million native speakers of English in the world – the second largest language after Chinese. In addition to this, there are an estimated 167 million people in the world who speak English as a second language. English is the official language of over 56 countries of the world.
|Antigua and Barbuda||Kiribati||Saint Vincent and the Grenadines|
|Cameroon||Marshall Islands||Solomon Islands|
|Dominica||Federated States of Micronesia||South Sudan|
|Ghana||Pakistan||Trinidad and Tobago|
|Guyana||Papua New Guinea||Uganda|
|Jamaica||Saint Kitts and Nevis||Zimbabwe|
Besides these nations, English is the common language of the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. A number of countries like India and Pakistan use English extensively for official communication and education, despite being non-natives. Hong Kong alone has over 7 million English speakers. A number of countries like Bangladesh use English as a major language, though it is not the official language of the country.
The Other Contenders
Chinese is naturally the best contender for the title of Official Language of the World. Putonghua Mandarin is spoken in the People’s Republic of China (including Tibet), Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Macau, and Indonesia. Chinese (including all the dialects) is a language spoken by a majority of the world’s population. According to Ethnologue, about 1.14 billion native speakers use Chinese as their primary language, but when it comes to secondary language, it ranks low with just about 197 million speakers. In an overall comparison with English, more people of the world (about 1.34 billion) speak Chinese, while in all about 508 million people speak English. English, however, can boast of a much wider outreach than any other language in the world. It is perhaps the only language that is used extensively on every continent.
Spanish, with about 358 million native speakers, is the next contender. Spanish is spoken by about 59 million non-native speakers across the globe, making the total number of Spanish-speakers about 417 million. Spanish is also not a very popular language in Asia. The growth of services and enterprises in Asian countries such as China, Russia, and India makes Spanish dominance uncertain. French again has the most number of non-native speakers apart from English.
Which are the Official Languages of the UN?
All United Nations documents are written in one of the six official UN languages – Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), English, French, Russian, and Spanish. These are also the languages used in all UN meetings. This means that member nations are free to speak in one of them. All UN documents are published in all of these six languages. On July 19, 2011, the UN General Assembly adopted the resolution on multilingualism providing each of the six languages equal resources and working conditions conducive to their growth. The attempt to equally endorse these six languages is a welcome one but the acceptance of the languages by a global audience still remains to be seen. As George (Eric Orwell) says in Animal Farm, “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”
Does the World Need an Official Language?
Some of the strongest arguments against the imposition of a global official language are raised by critics of cultural imperialism. A growing sentiment in the United States and the United Kingdom is that a presumption that knowledge of English is adequate to travel or communicate across the globe has led to an inadequate cultural exchange and has festered miscommunications on an international level. In 2008, travel blogger Terry Dip wrote, “Our entire concept of everyday reality is shaped around language. If you speak multiple languages, you start to see things in many more shades because some concepts just cannot be translated, directly or indirectly. Language, more than anything else, I think, defines a people. You can’t fully understand a culture without first learning the language.”
The idea of a global official language finds its support in travelers and globetrotters, international businessmen, and in many statesmen who acknowledge that the world is quickly shrinking. With faster Internet, air travel, international partnerships, and cooperation becoming the norm rather than the exception, the world needs a simplified official language to foster healthy economic and political ties and to promote a sense of harmony. With a uniform language, travel would become much easier than it is currently, educational uniformity would seem achievable, and more miscommunications could be avoided.
Is English “The Chosen One?”
Does the world need an official common language? And if it does is English the perfect solution? Can English stake claim to being the language of the world despite more Mandarin Chinese speakers populating the globe? Does the imposition of the English language amount to cultural imperialism? On the other hand, can we ignore the growing popularity of the English language among the people of the world? With English taking the lead in digital media, and with more people in the world learning English than any other foreign language, is the title not well deserved?
Is English the World's Lingua Franca?