There are approximately 1.4 Billion speakers of the English language throughout the world today. Around two thirds of these people speak English as a second or foreign language compared with one third native speakers. In our last couple of blogs we have looked at a number of factors influencing the English language to become as it is today, but how did it reach the stage where it is understood by 1 in 7 of the global population?
A good place to start would be the British Empire which at its height in 1922, was the largest in history, covering over a quarter of the Earth’s land area, with a population of over 450 Million people.
Britain fully colonised Ireland by the mid-17th Century before expanding their empire all across the globe. As shown by the illustration, Britain set up colonies in North America and the Caribbean, India and Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand as well as large parts of Africa. In some colonised states such as Australia, European settlers began to outnumber the indigenous people that lived there causing English to become the new native language. In other colonised states like India, the influence was not strong enough to take over as the new native language, although it did manage to become their 2nd language with around a quarter of their population currently able to speak English.
Although the USA established independence in 1776, their radical economic, cultural and political growth certainly influenced the dominance of the English language today. This was particularly evident in the 20th and 21st centuries when these strengthening influences allowed them to reach superpower status. America is also known for its booming business success in recent history which has contributed to the English language being considered the international language of business. One cannot ignore the influence of show business that has emanated from the United States over the past century or so. Many of the world’s greatest musical icons such as Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, Eminem, Bruce Springsteen and Madonna have been produced by America. Furthermore, the global and cultural dominance of Hollywood on the global stage is unrivalled. This dominance continued into the modern information age with nearly half of all websites written in English and 8 of the top 10 most visited websites based in America.
Historically, linguistic world orders do change so it is theoretically possible than English will eventually be succeeded by another language. Now, in the 21st Century, China is positioning itself to rival America for the position of number one economic power, although whether this can be backed up by linguistic dominance remains to be seen. The English language today is not considered to be owned by any one nation – as discussed in our previous blogs, it has so many influences from other languages leading to many different dialects being spoken all over the world. Native speakers of the English language are said to have forfeited the right to exclusive ownership of it, as many now argue that it belongs to anyone who can speak it. Indeed, native speakers are outnumbered 2-to-1 by non-native speakers. For these reasons it appears that the English language will be able to hold its dominance for the foreseeable future.
We hope you have enjoyed this blog series about the history of the English language.
For a humorous take on the history of the English language watch this excellent video, originally created by the The Open University