English: the Global Language
English: the Global Language
A lingua franca is a language that is spoken by people from a variety of cultures in order to facilitate trade and international relations. Different parts of the world have seen many different lingua francas throughout the course of history. Perhaps most famously, Latin was the lingua franca of the Roman Empire, but Greek was also used as a lingua franca among merchants, especially around the Mediterranean, and on the north coast of Africa. Akkadian was an ancient lingua franca that was used by the Babylonians and Egyptians, but with the spread of the Assyrian and later the Persian Empire, it was replaced by Aramaic. Today, Arabic is the lingua franca of the Muslim world, and Chinese is the lingua franca of much of Eastern Asia, but the only truly global language is English. The rise of English as an international language has been meteoric, and today it is the dominant or official language in over 75 countries and territories. There has never been a time in recorded history when one language has been spoken by such a large percentage of the world’s population.
There are a number of reasons for the success of English. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, Latin began to disappear from the world. New nations began to rise from the ruins of the old Empire, and proud of their independence, they began to scorn Latin and favour their own native tongues. English was just one of many languages that evolved during this time, but it was no more popular than German, or French, for example.
English first began to gain precedence in Western Europe with the popularisation of the printing press. The merchant William Caxton set up the first printing press in England in 1476, and began printing Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, as well as books from the Bible. The wild popularity of English literature, including The Canterbury Tales, led to English eclipsing Latin and French as the dominant literary language of Europe. The printing press also helped promote a standardised form of English, which would be necessary for the future success of the language.
Just as the Roman Empire has been the vehicle for the spread of Latin around the world, it wasn’t until the rise of the British Empire that English truly began to flourish. At the height of its power, the British Empire ruled over almost a quarter of the world, and controlled territories in every continent, including Antarctica. For people under English rule, learning the English language was the key to success in professional life, and opened up opportunities in fields such as business and diplomacy. The influence of the British Empire is the reason people in countries as far-flung as India and Nigeria speak English today, and it was largely English-speaking people who colonised Oceania and North America. When English colonies began to gain their independence after World War II, they often selected English as an official language, due to its perceived importance on the world stage.
One English colony that would later eclipse England itself as a world superpower was the United States of America. In the twentieth century, the US established itself as the most dominant economic and cultural force in the world, and became a new vehicle for the spread of the English language. To an extent, the US facilitated the spread of English in the same way the British Empire had, by invading and subjugating other countries, but in the end it was the American media that played the greatest role. People all over the world became familiar with the English language because they were watching American movies, and listening to American music. This process was accelerated with the dawn of the twenty-first century, when the Internet made the Western media even more accessible to people in different countries.
Today, English has replaced Latin as the international language of science and medicine, and French as the international language of diplomacy. People interested in marketing or business often learn English in order to become more successful in their fields, and English is the most useful language for people who want to travel around the world. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, it was inevitable that a new language would evolve to fill the void left by Latin. English became that language, and although history teaches us that lingua francas rise and then fall into obscurity, English is likely to be a dominant global presence for a long time to come.