by David Franklin
The fact that all varieties of English now dominate the world of international communications is practically indisputable. Whether we are involved with international trade, diplomacy, aviation, technology, transportation, or almost any field of human endeavor, English will most likely be the major medium of information exchange for the foreseeable future.
Is this due to the fact that the English tongue has inherently superior features and qualities that have elevated it to this lofty position? That contention cannot be supported by any objective linguistic criteria. This modern descendant of ancient Anglo-Saxon has nothing unique in its structure, vocabulary or syntax as a language that would distinguish it from any other natural language. Granted the grammar has been greatly simplified from the time when it possessed noun declensions, grammatical gender, adjectival agreement with associative nouns and other features which made the acquisition of Anglo-Saxon a formidable task for the non-native learner. Still, English as a language presents similar contradictions in its grammar, syntax, phonology and morphology that seems destined for all natural languages.
As with any phenomenon, the advent of the predominance of English has multiple sources. We may list the far-flung but moribund British Empire as the reason, but the world’s largest land empire ever was the Mongol empire. Yet the use of the Mongolian language is basically restricted to the confines of the Republic of Mongolia, the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia and pockets of speakers near these areas.
Alexander the Great of Macedonia once conquered large swathes of Europe, the former Persian Empire in Asia and North Africa. This did leave for some time the lingua franca known as Koine, a variety of Greek, throughout western Asia, northeastern Africa and southeastern Europe for several centuries (circa 300 BCE to 300 CE). Greek replaced Latin as the official language of the Byzantine Empire in 620 CE, but was replaced with Turkish with the fall of Constantinople in 1453. It has mostly disappeared and plays no significant role in modern Middle Eastern and North African society, although it has left its legacy on Modern Greek. (1) (2)
The greatest extent of Alexander the Great’s Empire which did not survive his rule.
The Roman Empire is the one that perhaps is the greatest purveyor of linguistic hegemony next to English. Although Latin itself was the medium of communication throughout Europe for over a thousand years and has left an impressive legacy, it no longer occupies a meaningful position. Even at its height, after the fall of the Roman Empire, Latin was only the resource of a miniscule minority of educated people. Latin, however, left its progeny in the form of modern so-called Romance languages that, from a lexical perspective, could conceivably include our own Modern English. However, English is conventionally categorized as a Germanic language. But the spread of Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian cannot be lightly dismissed as insignificant. These Romance languages dominate South America, a whole continent, as well as large tracts of Europe and Africa. Sadly, these magnificent languages which project huge artistic, literary, scientific, architectural and technological accomplishments are not mutually intelligible.
A map of the Roman Empire at its height. The linguistic legacy of Latin is mostly preserved in the Italian and Iberian Peninsulas, Gaul (modern France and Belgium), and influential in English and other peripheral languages.
Although Mandarin Chinese has the most native speakers of any language in the world, and has produced the world’s oldest continuing civilization, its arcane writing system precludes quick learning to the uninitiated. Without a significant orthographic innovation, the possibility of Mandarin Chinese becoming a linguistic force in world-wide communication remains highly remote. The foreign learner is presented with a seemingly overwhelming task in memorizing an extremely convoluted system of symbols that defy simplification.
From this linguistic map of the People’s Republic of China, it is obvious that there is an array of dialects, which are more properly labeled as Sinitic (Han) languages. Besides these Sinitic languages are the languages of ethnic minorities, including Uighurs, Mongols and Tibetans.
Finally, the sublime Arabic tongue, the language of the Holy Qur’an, for many centuries played the most important role in international intercourse and development. The highest levels of human learning emerged and were promulgated from Baghdad in the east, across the whole Middle East, the North African Maghreb, across the Straits of Gibraltar to the soaring heights of the Pyrenees Mountains in the west for nearly a millennium. Arabic learning enriched mankind in medicine, astronomy, chemistry, navigation, engineering, architecture, literature, etc.
Why is Arabic not the world’s language now? This is partly explained by the fragmentation of the Arabian polities and the rise of non-Arab forces in the Muslim world, e.g., the Ottoman and Mughal empires. The sacking of Baghdad by Mongol hordes and the division and occupation of Arab lands by European imperialists debilitated for many centuries any possibility for renaissance of Arab greatness. This fragmentation of the Arab peoples produced a wide range of confusing dialects that have been united only by a quasi-artificial Modern Standard Arabic, which is rarely spoken conversationally. A non-native is presented with a choice of learning a language rarely spoken but universally understood in the Arab world, or a local dialect that will limit that learner to narrow areas of this region. (5)
Within the area of many of these dialects are sub dialects. The divergence among these dialects is so great that mutual intelligibility is tremendously hampered or non-existent.
English, on the other hand, has a fairly phonetic script, a descriptive grammar that largely reflects the usage in the English-speaking world and dialects that are easily comprehensible throughout the speech community. Thus, English affords accessibility to the proficient learner of functional communication with all other proficient speakers of English.
All regions of the world have at least one country where English has an official or semi-official status. Therefore, we can say that English is a world language. Here, in the Arabian Peninsula and Gulf area, English plays an essential role in commerce. Saudi Aramco, the premier oil company of Saudi Arabia, uses English as its own official language. This is also true of a wide range of enterprises in this region. There are millions of workers and business people who have flocked to this area of the world. Mostly, they come from former British colonies, such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka or from the Philippines, a former U.S. possession. All of these countries that these workers represent have strong ties to the English language. Their presence here intensifies their use of English, since they must communicate with a wide range of other nationalities of other speech communities.
Throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, most former British colonies have adopted English as their official language. Even Rwanda, a former Belgian colony, adopted English in 1996. Almost all Sub-Saharan countries are multi-ethnic, exhibiting a number of local languages. English unites them all, and as an outside language, it can be seen as an equalizing force, since it represents the same challenge to all local citizens. It does not, therefore, give a linguistic advantage to one ethnic group over another. (2)
These reasons mentioned above are not the sole reasons or even the most salient reasons that English has come to dominate the linguistic landscape. The most compelling contemporary forces for the expansion of English supremacy lies mostly in three particular areas: economics, culture and technology. After the diminution of the British Empire at the end of World War II, there was only one real economic powerhouse: the United States of America. The U.S. was faced with a Cold War opponent, the Soviet Union, which, although a military and political power, lacked the economic power to truly compete with the U.S.
The other Allied and defeated Axis powers were completely engrossed in the rebuilding of their infrastructures and economies, devastated by the war. The U.S., on the other hand, was enriched by that recent conflict and used this economic muscle to exert its nascent superpower status on the world stage. The U.S. was highly active in rebuilding Europe and Japan, which garnered prestige and influence in this new world order.
This map of the world shows the areas where English is either the official and major language, as in the United States and the United Kingdom. However, there are a number of countries where English is either widely spoken or official to unite a range of other language speakers.
Hollywood also was producing a cornucopia of films that were the envy of the world. American pop culture along with its industrial strength quickly filled the void left by the collapse of the old pre-war powers. American consumer products, from toasters to televisions to automobiles, were made available to the rebounding societies from the end of World War Two until the late 1960s. Gradually, American consumer production started to expand out of the United States to developing nations. U.S. factories began to close as consumer products were outsourced to Japan, South Korea and other new venues. With this expansion, the language was shipped to these new industrial producers, as well as to their customers. This was the beginning of globalization on a massive scale. (2)
American and British pop culture became overwhelming in the 1960s and 1970s with the burgeoning youth culture and the emergence of the old powers from the ashes of war and the liberation of African and Asian colonies from their European masters. There was an amalgamation of more and more affluent societies around the world into a new youth (“hip”) culture of music, dance and cinema. Television and radio waves were broadcasting the new youth themes to every corner of the globe. This was coupled with the advent of relatively cheap jet air travel that mixed youthful vagabonds around the world. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, the Supremes, Abba and other musical groups were fashionable on every continent.
In the summer of 1971, my brother and I travelled overland from London to New Delhi by train, bus, and occasional taxi. Across Europe, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan into India, all along the road we continually met other travelers from a large number of countries, mostly youthful, like ourselves. We never lacked for conversation about the current cultural scene. Almost all of our fellow travelers were as conversant on the contemporary cultural scene as we, no matter whether they came from Japan, Brazil, Italy, Iran, Jordan, Denmark or the then-Yugoslavia. My brother is a writer of stories and songs and, at that time, a great proponent of the human fusion in a new universal youth culture. We never lacked the possibility to speak English with these travelers, most of whom were students, like ourselves.
The overland route undertaken by the two intrepid brothers from London to New Delhi in 1971
Our postwar, boomer generation laid the foundation for our children to develop in the most earth-shaking of all technological revolutions that has occurred in this millennium: the advent of the personal computer and the internet. The effect of these two accoutrements to the advancement of our new civilization cannot be in any way trivialized. The use of technology in our daily lives for practically all of our activities is facilitated by the use of the smartphone, personal computer and the internet. Information can be acquired on the most arcane of subjects just by “googling” it. The explosion of information exchange can only be compared with the invention of Guttenberg’s moveable type printing press, which availed the world of knowledge and led to the industrial and scientific revolution, to which we are all the heirs. (3) (4)
Now, with international travel a commonplace activity open to a broad range of the world’s citizenry and the even more accessible internet, English has the place of preeminence among the world’s languages. One language must be chosen, and, as we have discussed, it seems to be English. This has happened not because of any particular feature of the language itself, but merely the confluence of many factors in our history. English is just one of the humble tongues spoken by humanity, but by a twist of fate now dominates world communication.
There is much to be done to make English even more accessible, for example orthographic reform and systemization of irregular grammatical features. But, that which we have today, seems to be responding to the Earth’s need for a common linguistic denominator (2). English quite probably will continue to play the role of the world’s language, despite the demise of the British Empire and the dimming of the preeminence of the United States on the world stage.
Eventually, the United States itself could fall victim to the fate of previous empires and morph into other political entities, as the Soviet Union, the Ottoman Empire, and others have done. However, the centrifugal political forces that would pull this mighty behemoth apart would not obviate the need in this highly interactive and technologically expanding global cohesiveness for a common language. That is the strategic advantage for English.
David Franklin currently lives and teaches in Saudi Arabia. He is a Linguist with a background in Slavic Linguistics and has an MA from the University of Pennsylvania.
In this essay, the text is by David Franklin. There are no direct quotes. However, there is wide paraphrasing in the text, which is referenced by a number in parenthesis. The number is associated with the references given in the Bibliography below.
- Joseph, Brian (1999) article on Ancient Greek from the Encyclopedia of the World’s Major Languages: H. W. Wilson Publishers.
- Crystal, David (1997, 2003) English as a Global Language: Cambridge University Press
- El-Shibiny, Mohammed (2005) Dynamics of World Peace: Dorrance Publishing Co., Philadelphia, PA, USA