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 world’s 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 Graddol’s 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.

Increasingly, non native speakers use English as a

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:

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 d’etat 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. What’s wrong with courriel? And don’t 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 it’s the devil’s 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

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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