English is the only language that can claim to have a truly global reach. Of the other languages, only the various forms of Chinese can be understood by as many people. And Chinese does not have nearly the global reach of English. English is the official language of at least one country on five continents, as well as many Caribbean and Pacific islands. In many non-English-speaking countries, knowledge of English is still considered essential to success. It is the language of business and technology, science and diplomacy.
This phenomenon is not without historical precedent. In ancient times, Greek and Latin were essential second languages for people throughout the vast Roman Empire. A Roman could travel from England to the Middle East to North Africa using Latin. Latin was so deeply associated with education, literature and culture that it continued to be taught in schools thousands of years after the language died. That is the kind of impact English is having on the modern world.
In many ways, the spread of English mirrors the spread of Latin. It was spread through the conquests of the British Empire to places like Canada and the United States, India and the Caribbean. Though the former English colonies have long since gained their independence, many countries found it useful to keep English for a variety of reasons. Countries such as the U.S. and Australia were dominated by former English settlers. Countries such as Jamaica were populated with former slaves from a variety of places who were forced to use English until it was all their people knew. Other countries, such as India, speak a variety of languages and held onto English as a lingua franca.
As England and the United States became the world&acute;s dominant industrial powers, use of English became synonymous with education and progress. English is nearly essential in the business world, and more than half of the world&acute;s scientific and technical periodicals are published in English. In many poorer countries, many of which were former English colonies, knowledge of English is considered even more important to success. As Robert McCrum wrote, "English, the legacy of empire, is the de facto international language of the third world." (McCrum, The Story of English, p. 338)
So what does the future hold for global English? Will it suffer the same fate as Latin? Former chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary Dr. Robert Burchfield seems to think so. He has put forth the theory that the English language will someday split and evolve into various unintelligible languages, the way Latin evolved into Romance languages such as French, Italian and Spanish. (McCrum, The Story of English, p. 339)
Dr. Robert is correct in the fact that many countries have taken the English language further away from traditional British English. While some variations, such as Canadian and Australian English are still fairly similar, some Caribbean and African variations of spoken English differ so radically from British English that they can no longer be mutually understood. However, English has an advantage over Latin that is impossible to overlook. The speed of modern communication means that the various English dialects are not nearly as isolated as ancient languages. This should allow English to continue to blossom as a global language, playing an essential part in business, technology and politics for many years to come.
Author: Joseph Flynn
Date of post: 2007-04-18