The global supremacy of the English language
July 3, 2010 3 Comments
English is the official language of over 50 countries; the mother tongue of about 400 million in traditionally English-speaking countries such as the UK, Australia and the USA – surpassed in numbers only by various Chinese languages; the second language of over 350 million people in “second-language” English speaking countries such as Nigeria, Singapore and India; and of perhaps a billion people in countries such as China and Japan. For these latter countries, English is as vital as the mother tongue and second-language countries because English has become a global language. As the first truly global language, English has become the language of trade, technology, the Internet and computers, medicine, NGO’s, international institutions such as the UN, NATO, the International Olympic Committee, FIFA and the WHO, and tourism.
The diffusion of the English language has not been all one-way traffic, however. The English language is itself made up of the languages of the various conquerors of the British Isles, Angles, Saxons, Normans, Danish and Norwegian Vikings etc., which is why English has a much wider phraseology than most other languages – English as a language has over 500,000 words, whereas German has about 185,000 and French less than 100,000. English also still receives a constant transfusion of words from other languages, which is important to keep any language vibrant, and the variety of “Englishes” that exist throughout the World is huge.
The English language can be seen as both a positive and a negative influence upon other languages and cultures. On the one hand, some argue that the excessive use of English is to the detriment of other native languages and cultures. On the other hand, English has clearly been a unifying force in e.g. African liberation struggles and postcolonial nations, provides a common language in pan-African forums, and is the de facto international language of the Third World.
In addition to this, the “Englishes” spoken around the world are not simply copycat versions of standard British or American English. English might have been spread rather forcefully by English colonialism and maritime power, and more voluntarily by American culture, amongst other things through its film industry. But this doesn’t mean that the English that is used by people in Sierra Leone or in the Caribbean hasn’t changed, hasn’t incorporated elements of other languages, and hasn’t in turn influenced the language of the “mother countries”.
English functions on two levels, according to Robert McCrum: “International Standard (internationally functional) and Local Alternative (locally functional)”. Language is both an important means of communication and identity and therefore has both an inclusive and an exclusive utility, exemplified by the International Standard English, the language of the trans-national educated elite, and localised versions of Creole or Pidgin English. Here language is used to indicate the gender, education level, age, profession, or place of origin of the speaker and language can also be a powerful symbol or national, religious or ethnic identity. That English has become the de facto international language of the Third World can thus be seen as both an act of class or educational exclusivism by Third World elites towards the masses of their respective countries, or as a way of enabling otherwise heterogeneous languages, nations and cultures to unite in fighting for the common purpose of development and global justice.
It is rather ironic, however, that the language of a former colonial master is playing a major, and perhaps unifying, role in and amongst former (English) colonies. The world surely needs a global, commonly understood, language. For the time being we seem to be stuck with English although it is perhaps not the best choice due to its colonial past…
“The story of English”, Robert McCrum et al.