Behemoth, bully, thief: how the English language is taking over the planet
The long read: No language in history has dominated the world quite like English does today. Is there any point in resisting?
On 16 May, a lawyer named Aaron Schlossberg was in a New York cafe when he heard several members of staff speaking Spanish. He reacted with immediate fury, threatening to call US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and telling one employee: Your staff is speaking Spanish to customers when they should be speaking English This is America. A video of the incident quickly went viral, drawing widespread scorn. The Yelp page for his law firm was flooded with one-star reviews, and Schlossberg was soon confronted with a fiesta protest in front of his Manhattan apartment building, which included a crowd-funded taco truck and mariachi band to serenade him on the way to work.
As the Trump administration intensifies its crackdown on migrants, speaking any language besides English has taken on a certain charge. In some cases, it can even be dangerous. But if something has changed around the politics of English since Donald Trump took office, the anger Schlossberg voiced taps into deeper nativist roots. Elevating English while denigrating all other languages has been a pillar of English and American nationalism for well over a hundred years. Its a strain of linguistic exclusionism heard in Theodore Roosevelts 1919 address to the American Defense Society, in which he proclaimed that we have room for but one language here, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boardinghouse.
As it turned out, Roosevelt had things almost perfectly backwards. A century of immigration has done little to dislodge the status of English in North America. If anything, its position is stronger than it was a hundred years ago. Yet from a global perspective,it is not America that is threatened by foreign languages. It is the world that is threatened by English.
Behemoth, bully, loudmouth, thief: English is everywhere, and everywhere, English dominates. From inauspicious beginnings on the edge of a minor European archipelago, it has grown to vast size and astonishing influence. Almost 400m people speak it as their first language; a billion more know it as a secondary tongue. It is an official language in at least 59 countries, the unofficial lingua franca of dozens more. No language in history has been used by so many people or spanned a greater portion of the globe. It is aspirational: the golden ticket to the worlds of education and international commerce, a parents dream and a students misery, winnower of the haves from the have-nots. It is inescapable: the language of global business, the internet, science, diplomacy, stellar navigation, avian pathology. And everywhere it goes, it leaves behind a trail of dead: dialects crushed, languages forgotten, literatures mangled.
One straightforward way to trace the growing influence of English is in the way its vocabulary has infiltrated so many other languages. For a millennium or more, English was a great importer of words, absorbing vocabulary from Latin, Greek, French, Hindi, Nahuatl and many others. During the 20th century, though, as the US became the dominant superpower and the world grew more connected, English became a net exporter of words. In 2001, Manfred Grlach, a German scholar who studies the dizzying number of regional variants of English he is the author of the collections Englishes, More Englishes, Still More Englishes, and Even More Englishes published the Dictionary of European Anglicisms, which gathers together English terms found in 16 European languages. A few of the most prevalent include last-minute, fitness, group sex, and a number of terms related to seagoing and train travel.
In some countries, such as France and Israel, special linguistic commissions have been working for decades to stem the English tide by creating new coinages of their own to little avail, for the most part. (As the journalist Lauren Collins has wryly noted: Does anyone really think that French teenagers, per the academys diktat, are going to trade out sexting for texto pornographique?) Thanks to the internet, the spread of English has almost certainly sped up.
The gravitational pull that English now exerts on other languages can also be seen in the world of fiction. The writer and translator Tim Parks has argued that European novels are increasingly being written in a kind of denatured, international vernacular, shorn of country-specific references and difficult-to-translate wordplay or grammar. Novels in this mode whether written in Dutch, Italian or Swiss German have not only assimilated the style of English, but perhaps more insidiously limit themselves to describing subjects in a way that would be easily digestible in an anglophone context.
Yet the influence of English now goes beyond simple lexical borrowing or literary influence. Researchers at the IULM University in Milan have noticed that, in the past 50 years, Italian syntax has shifted towards patterns that mimic English models, for instance in the use of possessives instead of reflexives to indicate body parts and the frequency with which adjectives are placed before nouns. German is also increasingly adopting English grammatical forms, while in Swedish its influence has been changing the rules governing word formation and phonology.
Within the anglophone world, that English should be the key to all the worlds knowledge and all the worlds places is rarely questioned. The hegemony of English is so natural as to be invisible. Protesting it feels like yelling at the moon. Outside the anglophone world, living with English is like drifting into the proximity of a supermassive black hole, whose gravity warps everything in its reach. Every day English spreads, the world becomes a little more homogenous and a little more bland.
Until recently, the story of English was broadly similar to that of other global languages: it spread through a combination of conquest, trade and colonisation. (Some languages, such as Arabic and Sanskrit, also caught on through their status as sacred tongues.) But then, at some point between the end of the second world war and the start of the new millenium, English made a jump in primacy that no amount of talk about it as a lingua franca or global language truly captures. It transformed from a dominant language to what the Dutch sociologist Abram de Swaan calls a hypercentral one.
De Swaan divides languages into four categories. Lowest on the pyramid are the peripheral languages, which make up 98% of all languages, but are spoken by less than 10% of mankind. These are largely oral, and rarely have any kind of official status. Next are the central languages, though a more apt term might be national languages. These are written, are taught in schools, and each has a territory to call its own: Lithuania for Lithuanian, North and South Korea for Korean, Paraguay for Guarani, and so on.
Following these are the 12 supercentral languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Hindi, Japanese, Malay, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Swahili each of which (except for Swahili) boast 100 million speakers or more. These are languages you can travel with. They connect people across nations. They are commonly spoken as second languages, often (but not exclusively) as a result of their parent nations colonial past.
Then, finally, we come to the top of the pyramid, to the languages that connect the supercentral ones. There is only one: English, which De Swaan calls the hypercentral language that holds the entire world language system together. The Japanese novelist Minae Mizumura similarly describes English as a universal language . For Mizumura, what makes it universal is not that it has many native speakers Mandarin and Spanish have more but that it is used by the greatest number of non-native speakers in the world. She compares it to a currency used by more and more people until its utility hits a critical mass and it becomes a world currency. The literary critic Jonathan Arac is even more blunt, noting, in a critique of what he calls Anglo-Globalism, that English in culture, like the dollar in economics, serves as the medium through which knowledge may be translated from the local to the global.
In the last few decades, as globalisation has accelerated and the US has remained the worlds most powerful country, the advance of English has taken on a new momentum. In 2008, Rwanda switched its education system from French to English, having already made English an official language in 14 years earlier. Officially, this was part of the governments effort to make Rwanda the tech hub of Africa. Unofficially, its widely believed to be an expression of disgust at Frances role in propping-up the pre-1994 Hutu-dominant government, as well as a reflection that the countrys ruling elite mostly speaks English, having grown up as exiles in anglophone east Africa. When South Sudan became independent in 2011, it made English its official language despite having very few resources or qualified personnel with which to teach it in schools. The Minister of higher education at the time justified the move as being aimed at making the country different and modern, while the news director of South Sudan Radio added that with English, South Sudan could become one nation and communicate with the rest of the world understandable goals in a country home to more than 50 local languages.