< SWITCH ME >

PART 2: Why English?

Hello everyone. I hope you have had many interesting moments thinking about language and that your linguistic appetite has grown. In this column, I will try to give as concise an answer as possible to the all-consuming question: Why is it English that is Europe's (and obviously the world's) lingua franca, and not any other of the 6912 actively used languages, about 6850 of which most of us will hardly ever have heard of?

Let us first think of a typical situation in which we encounter a ‘global' language.

Imagine yourself on a ‘cross-European' flight. Which language will be used when Ewa, the nice Polish stewardess, announces that your flight from Charleroi/Belgium to Faro/Portugal has come to a safe end? "Hmm... there should be about three languages which would stand a good chance of being understood by the passengers." True, but there is just this other language, the one which has a fairly high potential to be understood by virtually all passengers: good old English.

English on the ground, English in the air. English everywhere. Why?

It should first be made clear that language has been globalised, just as politics, economy, wars, television, the "world-wide web", and so on and so forth. Of course, this might sound like a blatant truism. But - think again: the thing is, in our modern world in which flexible communication has become so vital to people's professional and private lives, we actually need one common global language which everybody understands. Everybody everywhere. And this need for a lingua franca grew (exponentially!) along with globalisation.

Our columnist and his English Empire.

So, which language qualifies as lingua franca, as a universal medium of communication? Is it the one with the easiest grammar? Or the one with the vocabulary that shares the most equivalents with the highest number of other languages?

If these two had been the decisive factors, experimental languages like Esperanto would certainly have had a headstart in the race to become the world's lingua franca. Esperanto clearly is functional, but it has not been accepted by any society - except for small Esperanto (=‘hoping') societies, of course. Why?

The answer is simple: language cannot be imposed on people. The process in which people receive, shape and adapt a language to their needs is so complex and so closely linked to their culture that there is no way to say: "From this day onwards, we shall all speak only Esperanto."

English had and has the advantage of being culturally conditioned for wider usage. It became deeply rooted in America, where the "Pilgrim Fathers" from England implanted their language together with their culture which they had brought with them on the "Mayflower" in 1604. English became language No. 1 in North America in the first place because of the power of the early settlers. The same was true for Greek: it became the foremost medium of communication in the Middle East 2000 years ago because of Alexander the Great's military force. And it was the Roman Empire's political power and influence that made Latin the first European lingua franca. For the same reason, Spanish, Portuguese, and French are still spoken today in the Americas, in Africa, and in the Far East.

Language clearly follows cultural and social prestige. Britain was the world's most powerful seafaring nation at the time, and its prestige grew even more as Britain had become the world's leading industrial and trading country by the beginning of the nineteenth century. English had just been there at the right place and at the right time: having been sent around the globe by British imperialism, the language literally exploded together with the outburst of international economic activity and technology up to the present day.

Moreover, many foreign-language learners will also agree that English is relatively (!) easy to learn.

With time, various English grammatical categories such as gender and inflections have seen themselves shrinking. For example, whilst languages such as German boast three grammatical genders (masculine, feminine, and - why not! - neuter: der, die, das), English hardly bothers with gender and only uses our most beloved of definite articles: the.

And the vocabulary is all too familiar, at least for those of us who have a working knowledge of Latin, Greek, French, German etc. If you are a German, you could almost see English as your personal friend when you learn that your kindergarten, your favourite book's leitmotif, and the general zeitgeist also exist in English. And as for statistics: up to 30 percent of English words are actually 'French'. So, as a Frenchman, you might suddenly find English "vocab" much more transparent if you say words such as afraid and then think of your original: effrayé. You might even want to agree with German writer Kurt Tucholsky (1890-1935) who somewhat radically proclaimed: "English is a simple [...] language. It is made up entirely of mispronounced words from other languages."

However, there is also quite a modern phenomenon - something that English has to offer apart from its historically dominant role, its social and cultural prestige, its rather uncomplicated grammar and its internationally mixed vocabulary: English is, quite simply, sexy! Or have you never caught yourself saying "Let's go!" to your mates instead of "Dawai!", "Nincs találat!" or "Vamos!" even if this exclamation took place in your non-English hometown and amongst exclusively non-English people? You probably said it because it just sounded cool and fitting; it sounded most motivating and, perhaps more importantly, it gave you the streak of being a global player, of being international, cosmopolitan, of being - yes, of being sexy.

O.K. This is where the story ends (or in fact, almost certainly doesn't end!). But your linguistic appetite has been fed with the main reasons why E&M is in English, why English is here and there, on the ground and in the air. And 'on air'. Why English is everywhere.

Add comment


NEXT ISSUE
IN 33 DAYS

Subscribe Here