Factors that led English to its global status based on the history of English in ten minutes

Kieran McGovernFollowMar 19, 2019·4 min readWhy did English become the global language?More people speak Spanish than English as their first language. Nearly three three times as m

Factors that led English to its global status based on the history of English in ten minutes
Kieran McGovern

Kieran McGovernFollow

Mar 19, 2019·4 min read

Why did English become the global language?

More people speak Spanish than English as their first language. Nearly three three times as many speak Mandarin Chinese in their family homes. Yet few would dispute that English is the leading world language.

This is because English is the worlds lingua franca or common second language, as this table shows.

English is the most popular second language (L2)

English is the international language of business, commerce, science, medicine, and many other key areas. Even in diplomacy, where French once ruled supreme, English is now dominant in most regions of the world.

According to David Graddols extensive survey for the British Council, the number of non-native or second language speakers of English now outnumbers those of primary or native speakers.

international tourism is growing, but the proportion of encounters involving a native English speaker is declining (1.9). There were around 763 million international travellers in 2004, but nearly 75% of visits involved visitors from a non-English-speaking country travelling to a non-English-speaking destination. This demonstrates the  growing role for global English.

Increasingly, non native speakers use English as a

practical tool and also as a working language (Crystal 2003: 426), has emerged as a lingua franca used by millions of people to engage in a conversation with each other. (Tünde NAGY, 2016)

Why English?English global language because of the power of the people who speak it

The renowned linguist, David Crystal, suggests that a language becomes a global language because of the power of the people who speak it. The power of English was initially based on political and military factors, most notably the expansion of the British Empire. Later the role of English as the language of the scientific, industrial, financial and economic revolutions further increased its influence.

Crystal stresses that the increasing importance of English is not because of the structure of the language itself. English, he points out, is not particularly accessible to speakers of other languages, with its eccentric spelling and pronunciation patterns  cough, for example. It also has the largest lexicon (number of words) of any European language. There are over a million by some estimates, though 3,000 will cover most situations.


Other linguists feel that Crystal undervalues the special nature of the English language. Robert McCrum argues that English does a good job in allowing non-native speakers to adapt to it. In an interview with the Boston Globe McCrum focuses on its democratic nature:

Q. You make a distinction in the book between the imperial roots of English internationally, but the language not being imperious.

A. The French have always been very imperious. Whenever they have a cultural decision to make its always top down. With English, its always bottom up implicitly  theres a quality to the English language which is different from German or French or Chinese. That quality is approachability, usefulness, adaptability.

English is a Germanic language in its grammar, syntax and key vocabulary. Though only 30% of English words are Anglo Saxon, they make up around 70% of those used in common conversation. The top ten most commonly used verbs  be, have, do, say, make, go, take, come, see, get  are all irregular in that they do not follow the standard pattern of conjugation (paint, painted etc) This because they are survivors from old English.

Central to the flexibility of the English language is that it borrows heavily from other languages  particularly Latin, Greek and French. These loanwords are either integrated through usage or disappear into obscurity.

Adopting loan words appears to have been a useful evolutionary strategy for language survival. Just overthrown the government? Save on translation fees by writing the French coup detat on your application to rejoin the UN. Or perhaps something a little more soothing like from English, like regime change.

Generally the convention for loanwords is to leave them close to their original form. Of course this is not possible with non alphabetic characters, which in any case do not play nice with IT systems. We are happy to borrow your futon but we will use our letters. (布団) is just never going to to sell in the showroom.

Bottom up

The Académie française is a committee made up of forty French writers and artists. These (men mostly, bien sûr) determine what is correct and incorrect French. A part of their mission is to resist linguistic invasion from the old foe, perfidious Albion. Stop using horrible English words like email they insist. Whats wrong with courriel? And dont get us started on le weekend

Good luck with that, monsieur-dame. The payroll vote  sorry, les fonctionnaires  will adhere to your style book. But its the devils own work stopping the kids sur Snap.

The English language does not have august council determining what is or is not permissible. The only official status for a specific word is inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary and the OED sees its task as

recording the entry of todays new words into the {English} language. We use printed evidence of new words from magazines, newspapers, books, song lyrics, practical manuals  any published source. Slang and dialect words are also collected.

This is what McCrum calls the bottom up nature of English. It leads to many quirks and inconsistencies. Why anglicize some loanwords but not others? Why pronounce the city Paris with a hard s but switch to French pronunciation when referring to the football team: Paris Saint Germain?

This glorious linguistic anarchy has been a source of frustration to some orderly minds. In the early twentieth century there was a determined effort to introduce a new world language, one without weird spellings and tricky wayward pronunciation rules. It was called Esperanto.

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