(HOST) Has English won the race to become the global language? Commentator Nancy Nahra says that if you counted only the people who speak the language on their birth certificates – the Chinese would win hands-down. But in a new twist – most people who speak English today never learned it at their mother’s knee.
(NAHRA) While the United States House of Representatives ponders whether to declare English our official language, it’s really playing catch-up. A few numbers help show what’s going on. Worldwide, more than four hundred million people weigh in as native English speakers. Add another three hundred million who count English as a skill and use it to live life in a second language. Then there are seven hundred million or so we can call the working language learners, who can access their English at various levels. All together, that adds up to nearly a billion and a half people. In other words, more people know English than know any other single language. When they’re home, they cover a huge geographic area. On the Internet they are everywhere.
The language itself tells a big part of the story. In a word, it’s easy. I don’t mean it’s easy to learn. It’s not too hard to learn enough English to be able to get a fast food job. But beyond that, to work behind the counter at an airport, say, that takes some sweat, especially if you compare English to other languages.
As languages go, though, English is easy in another way: it’s a pushover. From the time it got started up in the North Atlantic around the fifth century, English has never fought off invading words with much muscle. Vikings showed up, made some raids, went home and left stray words behind (words we all know and love, like sky and want) and English let them bump off some older Celtic words.
Take the pulse a few centuries later when Norman French comes to dinner – and names it “dinner” – and brings to the table a whole vocabulary for running things, the way an ascendancy class had to. The French left after about a hundred fifty years, but lots of their words kept possession of the turf. Once the City of London got into business, the business of English was English: at about the same time that central banks started to form capital in the 18th century, English systematized itself in its first serious and comprehensive dictionary, beaten into shape by the cranky and crusty Dr. Samuel Johnson, who went through life calling everyone “Sir” to begin his outrageous and memorable utterances.
Britannia, as the Romans called that island when they owned it, forged a worldwide language and made of it a tool for making empire work. The Romans had managed to use Latin to civilize people who painted their faces blue long before Braveheart. The British left their language behind their empire, notably on the subcontinent that is so often mentioned along with a new word in English, “outsourcing.” And English lets that word come on in too.
Nancy Nahra is Professor of Humanities at Champlain College.