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A brief history of English part five: World English and the future


We finish the story of the English language as we see it exported around the world and look to its future.


We should remind ourselves that the language of English has its origins in Northern Europe, after which the Norman French invaded England, introduced lot of Norman French words into the language, and then conquered Wales and Ireland, subduing the local populations and introducing this new variation of English where Welsh and Irish Celtic languages were spoken. For Scotland where the language was 'Scots', the English invasion began with the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings. However, refugees into Scotland from the Norman invasions were accepted, and soon new towns were built which were populated with English-speaking merchants.


Jumping ahead now to the late 14th century, and a group known as the 'Pilgrim Fathers', who left England to avoid being persecuted during the Reformation period in Europe, attempted to form a settlement in North America. Other colonies came from the south and west of England, in addition to many being deportees and political refugees. There were additional people entering the colonies at this time though not, sadly, by people who wanted to be there: these were slaves from Africa.


But how did American English develop? The language that arrived from England was the form that we would describe as early modern, and as this form did not develop as rapidly as in Britain, there are claims that the result was a 'colonial lag' in the language. As an example, the /r/ sound in American pronunciation such as car was generally pronounced in Elizabethan English, but while this disappeared in England this was retained in America. There were also influences from the local indigenous languages, with many Indian words being borrowed, sometimes modified. However, over the years the different economies of the country resulted in speech habits being pulled in different directions: indeed, the dialect in many of the southern states today is becoming increasingly difficult to comprehend for many British English speakers. But for such a big country, some saw language uniformity as crucial; Noah Webster brought out his dictionary, but including the simplication of word spellings such as 'center'. 'color' 'ax' and so on. Indeed, American English is different in hundreds of ways, but thankfully the two languages maintain a common grammar and vocabulary that allows us to communicate easily.

The settlement of Australia was some two centuries later, including deported convicts that were mainly from London and the south east. The London Cockney accent is very similar to Australian, and there were also influences from Ireland. Although RP (Received Pronunciation) is considered normal in the education system, many users choose to use the accent to distinguish themselves from any varieties in Britain.

The 19th century saw the growth of the British Empire, and with it the spread of the language throughout its colonies. There were several in West Africa, and of course the spreading on the language in Asia. Also, when the slave trade ended, many who found their freedom resettled in the Caribbean in a group of islands known as the West Indies, some of those islands still having strong English language influences through trading with Britain.

So now we have taken a very brief look at how English spread, what of its future? For this part, I am going to pass on my own thoughts. 

In my opinion, English is a very healthy beast at the moment. It is continually developing, but thanks to modern technology we can keep up with the changes and can still understand each other - Americans, British, Canadians, Australians, no matter where we are around the world. It is very much seen as the language of international commerce and several countries now encourage its learning, with some even making it mandatory at schools. The major variations, British, American, Canadian, Australian and several of the former colonies of Britain will continue to understand each other for some time yet. Although we are all developing our own accents and dialects across the world, the fact is that we still have firm ideas as to what 'Standard English' should be, particularly when it is formally written. Indeed, I would argue that it is the written form that will ensure unity among English language speakers for some considerable time, particularly with it now so widespread thanks to the internet. However, there are many, particularly in the UK, who see British English as 'under threat'; mainly from the English themselves with their poor use of the language through poor spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Indeed, many blame the cyberculture that brought us email and textspeak. But we have survived changes in the language before, and we will continue to do so. 

Interestingly, there is a minor concern that voice recognition technology such as Cortana with Microsoft and Siri with Apple could threaten regional accents as a significant number of users altered the way they speak to ensure being understood.  Indeed, voice-activated technology has become the most popular way of searching. But regional accents are struggling to be understood; there is a very funny BBC sketch about two Glaswegians in a voice-activated lift as the technology struggles to understand 'eller-ven' as 'eleven'!  

Although there may well be implications in the future when it comes to talking to computers and tech companies do not offer support for accents, the chances are we'll still be using them for some time to come when it comes to talking to each other, face-to-face. 

At things stand, English is and remains the language of commerce, and will continue to be so for some time yet. It remains globally dominant. It has brought fantastic benefits to Britain. In fact, the only threat as far as the United Kingdom is concerned, is not the language disappearing, but the fact that many countries now have, as I have already mentioned, English as a mandatory second language at school, and that there may well be two billion people who now use it. Some even see it as a 'basic universal skill'. But that's great isn't it? Er, not so.. if you're a native English speaker, according to some.

The problem they say is this. According to a study commissioned by the British Council, what advantage the UK and its citizens has is disappearing, so it claims. The fact that millions of students abroad are learning English and other languages are leaving Britain at a disadvantage, and that 'UK students should be encouraged to learn Spanish, Mandarin and Arabic, "languages of the future", if they want to keep up with international competitors... When we are in competition economically, educationally or culturally, conversing in English alone is no longer enough.' 


What the Council is saying is that the UK should study more foreign languages, particularly British children. Now for me there are two issues here. The first is that it gives me the impression the British Council wants the UK to be a little more cosmopolitan. Nothing wrong with that. But since the council is active in teaching English abroad, it seems to be shooting itself in the foot a little here by giving the impression that they want British children to learn other languages so then they don't have to prioritise English language abroad so much. The second is that by its very comments, it seems to want to 'put down' English, despite the fact that it is the most commonly spoken second language in the world and people abroad see it as a language that can be used almost everywhere. 

There is a more recent factor to consider, although this would be considered more political. When the UK withdraws from the European Union at the beginning of 2021, it was initially believed that the language's influence on Brussels could be diminished somewhat. Okay, Ireland uses the language nationally, but it is Gaelic, the first language, that is often used by the country in the EU parliament, although the majority of the Irish population do not use it; Malta uses Maltese and Cyprus uses Greek. Currently English, French and German have the status of 'higher' languages, since the UK, France and Germany were seen as the major influences on EU policy. When the UK voted to leave, one particular French mayor, Robert Menard, has already declared on his Twitter page that 'The English language no longer has any legitimacy in Brussels'.


But English may well be even stronger than before as a working language between the nations is that it has effectively become a neutral language, now that its major and most significant user is no longer part of the union. Only two small nations have it as one of their languages, along with the fact that it remains by a long way the most widely spoken second language in both EU countries and among EU officials, and so will remain the working language of the rest of the organisation, much to the annoyance of French language hardliners.


Outside of politics, the impression I get is that recent events have in no way stifled students' enthusiasm in learning the language, but British traditionalists may have to accept that American English could gain a stronger foothold.

Now I do wish I could speak a second language properly (my Polish is still rubbish), and I only retain passive knowledge of French and that I should have been encouraged more to learn it while I was still young. But while the media industry uses the English language for entertainment, it is the language of trade, and it is a global language - the lingua Franca second language of the world, and will remain so for the foreseeable future - there remains little incentive to learn another language. But with Brexit imminent, in the UK there will either be the desire to do so even less, or perhaps learning another language will become an even bigger incentive, particularly if Brits want to live and work in Europe and depending on what is resolved before 2019.

English rules? To be continued...

Introduction    Pre-English    Old English    Middle English    Modern English    World English and the Future

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