English – The Global Language
Around 1500 years ago, Anglo-Saxon English was a minority language in the British Isles. It was spoken by only a few small Germanic tribes that had migrated into the Eastern parts of the ruins of Roman Britain. Today the descendant of their language is the global tongue of the 21st century. How did that happen?By the late 1500’s, English is still a minority tongue spoken only by the inhabitants of England, those in southern and central Scotland, in some parts of Wales and also some pockets of Ireland.
The major international languages of the time, in European terms, are Portuguese, Spanish, French, Latin and even Dutch. English is largely irrelevant as a world language – so what happened?
The First Expansion of English
England (we should remember that the UK did not exist at the time) was slow to join in the exploration and colonisation rush that hit Europe in the 16th century.
Initially Spain, Portugal and Holland lead the way in developing large overseas possessions, colonies and trade networks (e.g. in South America). That changed when English explorers under Queen Elizabeth I started to sail the oceans – most notably to North America and the Caribbean.
The very first colonies in the New World were far from a total success but they did, for the first time, establish native English-speaking populations outside of the British Isles. Even so, English remained an unimportant language of a minor country on the fringes of Europe
The earliest English colonization was relatively small-scale. Unlike in the case of some other countries, commercial and trade factors were often the prime motivation and there is little or no sense of conquest and ‘Empire Building’.
The first English explorers and colonists are not Conquistadores in the sense of the Spanish in South America but often ordinary people looking for somewhere to settle to escape hardship and religious persecution at home.
As the colonies spread and grew in these early areas, the trade they engaged in spread likewise, as did their language, English.
By around 1700, the wars between England and Holland for naval and trade supremacy had resulted in England (latterly Britain) replacing Holland as the main European maritime trading nation. As trade expanded and Dutch competition reduced, English spread further via this ocean trade and makes inroads into parts of coastal Africa, the Indian sub-continent and Asia.
As the 17th/18th centuries switched over, Spain as a great power was in rapid decline and in Europe it was replaced by France as the continental superpower. At this time, due to wealth and prestige, French had become the international language of science, diplomacy, the arts, literature and war. It’s far more important in global terms than English.
Rarely has a single war had such an effect on the distribution of a language though than the Seven Years War (1754-1763). The first truly global war, the result was a massive defeat for France, inflicted by Britain and its allies. As a result, Britain took possession of Canada, Florida, numerous islands and most of the French possessions in India.
Almost overnight in historical terms, Britain became a superpower and its language started to replace French as the global language of choice in some fields but most notably in business and trade.
The Industrial Revolution and Global Business
Another major milestone in the spread of English was the almost unimaginable explosion in science and technology that took place in Britain from around the middle of the 18th century.
For the first time, factories were set up on a mass-production basis and harnessed the power of initially water and latterly coal/steam to create vast industrial enterprises. Between around 1750 and around 1825, Britain became the world’s first industrial nation and it simply out-produced all other nations on earth in most manufactured goods.
There was a vast global demand for British goods and that also helped yet again to push the language around the globe. British articles needed to be shipped to their destinations though and that led to the development of a massive global trading network and yet more acquisition of land to supportthat trade (e.g. Hong Kong and Singapore).
Colonial Spread and Empire
As the 19th century arrived, there’s a subtle and then rapid shift towards ‘Empire’ as trade imperatives start taking second place to a egocentric desire to “paint the map red” in terms of British possessions. The final defeat of France and Napoleon in 1815 made the UK the world’s first global superpower and it remained unchallenged as such for a century.
Massive areas of the planet were annexed directly or indirectly, until such time as roughly 25% of Earth’s surface and about 20% of the planet’s population was ruled from London (around 1920).
Inevitably, English proliferated throughout these lands as the language of imperial administration and trade.Even areas outside the Empire, notably China and parts of the Middle East, were heavily influenced by British trade, imperial power and therefore English. This is also the period of the great explorers and the settlement of countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada and they all later proved very important in also spreading the tongue.
The US colonies won their independence through war in the 18th century. Their expansion westwards and south took the English language ever further.As British military and trade power waned and finally vanished after 1945, the Empire vanished almost as quickly as it had been born.
However, a new wave of expansion of the English language had started in the 19th century with the exportation of British and also increasingly US culture. The works of Jane Austin, the Brontes, Shakespeare, Kipling, Darwin, Shelly, Dickens, Tennyson and many others, flowed around those imperial trade routes and had a large impact.
All the old colonies contributed to this, most notably the USA and the process accelerated massively into the 20th century. Radio, Television and Hollywood movies, all helped spread the language ever further in partnership with trade and business.By the 1930’s, US English and culture became the predominant force here, rather than the UK.
The massive explosion of youth culture and popular entertainment in the 1950’s-60’s had its origins in the US and UK and that created yet another wave of English proliferation around the globe. Rock and Roll proved to be hugely attractive to youth everywhere and they wanted it in the original – i.e. English.
This tendency was matched and boosted again by the development of Information Technology, originally largely in the USA, which led to English being adopted as the common tongue for technology science.
One final factor is important here – the late 20th century business trend towards ‘globalization’. As technology made the world smaller, people needed a common language to do business in and due to the above history plus certain characteristics of the language itself, English was in the right place at the right time.
In history, things change but due to its fundamental links into science, technology and business, it seems as if English will continue to be the ‘international’ language of choice for the foreseeable future with perhaps Chinese and possibly Spanish on the horizon as rivals.