English - the Story of the Ugly Duckling

How did English become the most important international language? That is actually a rather surprising tale in itself.


The year is AD 2500. The General Secretary of the United Nations is holding his annual speech to the General Assembly. He is speaking in Norwegian. Some delegates are listening to the translation, but most are following his speech without earphones, nodding occasionally in agreement. For many, Norwegian is their mother tongue, although they are from nations spread all over the globe. For others it’s a second language, learned at school from an early age and through the influence of a Norwegian-dominated media.

Not a very likely scenario, you might say. Norwegian, which today is spoken by only five million people who still can’t agree on a standardised grammar or spelling – what chance does it have of becoming the leading language of the world in 500 years’ time?

The same could have been said about English 500 years ago. Around AD 1500 English was spoken by some five or six million people in England. It was a member of the Germanic family of languages. Elsewhere in the British Isles Celtic languages dominated: Irish in Ireland, Welsh in Wales and in Scotland either Gaelic or Scots. Even in England English was not without competition. Latin was the language of the church and the Bible. The few books that were printed were usually in Latin too. Both in official business and private correspondence the King was likely to use French. English was seen as a rather rough language, suitable for the street and the tavern, but for little else. Once you left England, it was of no use to you at all.

This ugly duckling of a language has now grown to be the undisputed king of all birds, spoken in over 100 nations that together make up 49 per cent of the world’s population. This did not happen because it was better, easier or more suitable than the others. Just look at English spelling. On that score alone, Norwegian would have been a better choice!

The British Empire

But it is not spelling or grammar that decides whether a language catches on. There are strong political and economic forces in play. The rise of English as a world language begins with the story of one nation –England– imposing itself on others and spreading its native speakers to distant parts of the globe through colonial expansion. This was often at the expense of existing languages. We need go no further than England’s immediate neighbors –Wales,Scotland and Ireland– to see how the rise of one language can mean the decline of another. English has taken the dominant position that their Celtic languages once held. In more distant outposts of what became the British Empire, the fate of native languages could be even more dramatic. For example, who knows today what language the Aborigines of Tasmania spoke? They are gone, every one of them, hunted and persecuted into extinction.

Between 1500 and 1920 the British Empire expanded to become the largest colonial power the world had ever seen. This was helped along in the 1800s when Britain becomes the technological and military leader of the world because it was the first nation to pass through the industrial revolution. People from all over the world went to Britain to be educated in science, engineering and business. And they took back with them the English language as a tool of communication. It was during this whole period of imperial expansion that the seeds of English spread and took root.

By 1920 the Empire had reached its peak, encompassing some 410,000,000 subjects in almost 100 colonies and territories around the world and making a reality of the phrase “The sun never sets on the British Empire.” A very apt description, indeed. Nonetheless, by that time it had stopped being the world leader in technology, industry or military strength. Other countries had grown to rival or surpass it. Some, like Germany, seemed a threat. Others, like the United States of America, seemed a friend.

American expansion

One of the most important consequences of British colonialism was the result of one of its most spectacular failures. In 1776 thirteen British colonies rebelled against Britain and gained their independence as the United States of America.

America’s growth is the other great cause of the rise of international English. As the United States expanded westwards across the continent, its population increased from some four million in 1790 to 92 million in 1910 (and to 310 million in 2012). The overwhelming majority of these are English speakers. While Britain was spreading the English language throughout its Empire around the world, America was turning the sons and daughters of foreign immigrants from around the world into native English speakers. By 1910 the US was by far the largest English-speaking country in the world (although there was a good deal of disagreement about whether people in the United States spoke “proper” English.) By that time the US had also taken over Britain’s position as the world’s technological and industrial leader. But it was a reluctant leader and it took two world wars to bring it out of its self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world.


The Anglo-American alliance

During the 20th century Britain and America created a strong military and diplomatic alliance that was on the winning side of the great struggles of the century. A curious parallel development occurred between them. As one grew weaker, the other grew stronger. World War Two established America’s new position as the world’s greatest “superpower” while it nearly bankrupted Great Britain. In the post-war era, while the British Empire was being dismantled, American alliances were being extended across the world during the Cold War. Thus, while the power and influence of Great Britain waned, that of the United States grew. Yet between them, the Anglo-American alliance – and the world it represented – became more powerful than ever and the international influence of the English language became even stronger.

Great Britain was the first country to experience the industrial revolution. The United States became the first country to develop a “post-industrial society” – the consumer economy. People from all over the world went to the United States to learn about this new system, just as they had earlier gone to Britain. This time they did more than merely take the English language back with them. This time the English language actively followed them back to wherever they came from in the form of a worldwide system of communication that rapidly knit nations together. This “globalization” started in America and soon swamped the international community through radio, telephones, fax machines, popular music, paperback books, films, TV shows, cable news stations, and most recently the World Wide Web and the internet. This marked the birth of modern international English.


Cappelen Damm

Sist oppdatert: 29.06.2012

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