How English Took Over the World

The English Divide

In 1794, while hiding from the Jacobins during the French Revolution, the Marquis de Condorcet wrote his landmark work, The Progress of the Human Mind. Condorcet, an advocate of educational reform and equal rights, believed that the key to social equality was equality in the use and learning of language. Condorcet’s concern was that Latin had held a monopoly over claims to truth until vernacular languages made the sciences “more popular” and widely available. If Latin had continued, he said, it “would have divided men into two classes, would have perpetuated in the people prejudices and errors, [and] would have  placed an insurmountable impediment to true equality […] to an equal knowledge of necessary truths.” Condorcet’s thoughts on language echoed those ex pressed several centuries earlier by Dante Alighieri, the Italian poet and moral philosopher, whose epic poem, La Divina Commedia, set aside the elitism of Latin to create an Italian vernacular more accessible to “the people.”

Inasmuch as Condorcet endorsed vernacular languages, he also believed that “politics in the vernacular” was merely a “transitional phase.” Universal education ultimately would lay the ground for “cosmopolitan democracy” in a very simplified universal language that all could read, like the language of algebra, with “similar facility” as the language of one’s own country. Condorcet obviously underestimated the inability or reluctance that many people have in learning another language. He also could not foresee the nineteenth-century rise of nation-states and the link between language and national identity.

Leap forward to 2001 when an article in Bloomberg Businessweek put a twenty-first-century turn on Condorcet’s cautionary words. The title of the article, “The Great Divide: In Europe, Speaking the Lingua Franca Separates the Haves and the Have-Nots,” is as evocative now as it was in 2001, and as it would have been back in 1794. The accompanying illustration is even more so. It depicts three men in business suits. Two are large, broad-shouldered, and powerful-looking figures, smiling at each other as they forcefully stride ahead apparently on a cloud. One with his arm on the back of the other asks, “Speak English?” The other responds, “Of course!” The third man, a small figure (about a third of their size) is frantically running after them on the ground. He holds an open book in his right hand and clutches another closed book under his left arm. Other books are falling from his grasp. The books have words, pictures, or titles that represent learning English. In the background is a church with a steeple, representing a European town or city. The message is clear. English is the sine qua non of happiness and power (“Of course!”). It gives you entrée to a world of colleagues with a similar state of mind and professional stature. Without it, you’re left behind. You’re insignificant. You’re desperately trying to catch up.

With a string of examples, the article goes on to explain that English had become “firmly entrenched nearly everywhere as the international language of business, finance, and technology.” Even more so, it was becoming the “binding agent for Europe.” English had already become “Europe’s language.” It was an “imperative.” Though British and American managers working in Europe would be wise to develop bilingual skills, “new forces,” including the internet, were “pushing Europe toward a common language.” The article warned that while speaking English was bringing Europe together in some ways, it also was dividing the continent into “haves” and “have-nots.” Only 29 percent of Europeans were able to carry on a conversation in English. That was two decades ago. By 2012, the last date of an official European language survey, a majority of EU citizens (56 percent) spoke English as a first or second language. Setting aside the loss of first language speakers since the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union, and not considering levels of fluency, the figure on second language speakers especially among young people is presumably higher today but certainly nowhere near universal.

In the intervening years, English has become not just the “language of Europe”; it has become the dominant lingua franca of the world. It is an official language of the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the International Criminal Court, and NATO. Yet just as in Europe, English divides the world population in complex ways and creates cultural strains across the globe. As we will see, the ongoing impact in any setting has much to do with history, politics, and economics, which shape decisions over language choices and policies, most notably in education from primary school through the university. Those decisions, in turn, determine “opportunities and access” that socially include or exclude certain groups. English governs the books young people read, the films and television programs they watch, the cultural values they absorb, and their career options. As that reality has intensified in recent years, it has spawned loosely connected debates with decidedly common themes that continue to engage scholars, educators, policymakers, and the courts across continents.

In the postcolonial world, despite distinct histories, the debate typically revolves around the place of local and regional languages in the schools, the unequal allocation of English, and overlapping justifications for officially adopting English—from economic mobility in India and Morocco to the added push toward redress and transformation in South Africa and, to some extent, in Rwanda. In Europe, aside from the growing use of English in European Union institutions, it generally centers on educational quality and access in higher education, the burdens on students and faculty, and the preservation of national languages and identity, with an occasional reference to less privileged students, many of whom are immigrants. The Nordic countries and the Netherlands, which have long embraced English, now question whether they have gone too far, especially in higher education. That rethinking affirms concerns within other European countries including France and Italy. France, above all, resolutely strives to preserve its national language and its international status, particularly in Africa, where English is weakening France’s grip. China has jumped onto the African bandwagon and into the fray of Anglo-French rivalries, assertively using its language to gain an economic foothold on the continent. At the same time, language advocates in the United States and the United Kingdom argue that the unstoppable spread of English is not a win-win for anglophone countries. It’s isolating them in a way that harms their economic and political interests. It’s also denying their children essential linguistic skills and intercultural understandings.

Lingua Franca Old and New

In confronting the rise of English it’s tempting to compare English to Latin, the most prominent though not the only lingua franca of another era. Certainly Greek, Arabic, and even Phoenician had their day. Whether and when English eventually will meet the fate of Latin in particular is the subject of much speculation. Like Latin as both Condorcet and Dante viewed it, English holds a monopoly on knowledge, especially in the sciences. In some cases, it can be an obstacle to democratic participation, particularly for less privileged classes. Yet beyond those unsettling commonalities, the comparison between the two languages breaks down on a number of counts. Latin did not threaten clearly formed national identities tied to a common national language, neither of which then existed. Spoken languages, though related to Latin in different ways, were also fluid and diverse. Writing in the early 1400s, Dante described in his De Vulgari Eloquentia at least fourteen regional Italian vernaculars and perhaps one thousand sub-varieties. And though Latin remained the language of science long after the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, the invention of the printing press in the 1500s made scientific knowledge and literature more widely accessible to the educated classes. At that point, vernacular languages, most prominently French and German, slowly began to replace Latin. English has operated in the reverse, marginalizing those same vernacular languages and overtaking others.

Latin did not have modern technology, and particularly the internet, nor high-speed air travel to more widely spread and solidify its status as a common means of communication. For the Romans to cross over the Alps by foot or by beast was an arduous endeavor, while communicating through live messengers was time consuming beyond current imagination. And so Latin could not encompass the globe and fuel a world economy as English has done. It was rather confined geographically to the Roman Empire, extensive though it was, with Greek dominating its eastern end. Nor did Latin have compulsory education and a system of government schools to calibrate its influence, either promoting or resisting it.

cover English LanguageIt remains to be seen whether English will be the “last lingua franca,” as Nicholas Ostler predicted a decade ago. Even so, it is still not likely to follow the trajectory of Latin into the realm of a “dead” language anytime soon. With mounting urbanization, a growing middle class, and the increase in multinational business, English simply has too much social and economic force behind it to inadvertently lead us back to the Babel of mutually unintelligible languages. Of course, national loyalties will continue to deter countries from adapting English as their “mother tongue” and justifiably so. English may further lose its gloss over time as other languages become globally or regionally more significant. The extent of that loss depends on the vicissitudes of global politics and especially on the direction the United States takes for the short and long term to preserve its dominance and redeem its reputation on the world stage.

All that being said, the term lingua franca itself is not neutral. English is not the “universal” language that Condorcet may have envisioned or an artificial language like Esperanto. Nor is it simply a recent geopolitical phenomenon. It still bears the imprint of its colonial past and its modern-day clout tied to anglophone countries, particularly the United Kingdom and the United States. Its global spread began with the British Empire, which at its height extended over a quarter of the world. English was a powerful sorting mechanism that detached the colonized from their familiar frames of reference. A core strategy of colonialism was to control language, which became a means of establishing “truth,” “order,” and “reality.” Devaluing local languages and knowledge preserved the colonial myth that these languages lacked depth and complexity to function beyond everyday life. The system of government, education, and worldview that English, like other colonial languages, carried left a lasting linguistic and cultural legacy in countries from Asia, to Africa, to the Caribbean, not to forget North America, Australia, and New Zealand. At the point of independence, despite high levels of multilingualism, many of these countries retained English as a national or official language. Accepting the western European notion of one nation, one language, yet politically unable or unwilling to choose among many indigenous languages, the English-speaking elite cast the deciding vote to protect their own status.

Excerpted from The Rise of English: Global Politics and the Power of Language by Rosemary Salomone, published by Oxford University Press. Copyright © Rosemary Salomone 2022.

 English Language

Rosemary Salomone
is the Kenneth Wang Professor of Law at St John’s University in New York, USA. Trained as a linguist and a lawyer, she is an internationally recognized expert and commentator on language rights, education law and policy, and comparative equality. An elected member of the American Law Institute and fellow of the American Bar Foundation, she is a former faculty member of the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University, lecturer in Harvard’s Institute for Educational Management, and trustee of the State University of New York. She was awarded the 2023 Pavese Prize in non-fiction for her most recent book, The Rise of English: Global Politics and the Power of Language (2024, OUP).

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