The Rise and Fall of the English Language — Part 1: Rain and Trade
In this three-part series, we’re going to look at how the balance of language — especially online — is changing, and what that means for business.
If you’re reading this in the original English it was written (rather than our translations in Chinese, German, French, Portuguese, Spanish or Italian), perhaps it’s not your first language, but here we are.
How did that happen?
English is the world’s most nuanced language by a mile (or 1.60934 km if you’re an English speaker outside of the USA and UK…). It has between 250,000 and 1,000,000 words, many of which mean broadly the same thing.
For this, we must thank the fact that English is a Germanic/Saxon language which borrows from not just Germany but an area that stretches from Eastern Europe (what was once Prussia) to the western tips of Belgium and the Netherlands. , a language group spoken in parts of Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany.
But that’s not all. Latin — both the language itself and the group of languages that includes French, Italian and Spanish — made themselves at home within English thanks to religion and the many Courts of power that influenced the medieval spoken word.
Constant invasions, successful and unsuccessful, meant that English has also absorbed elements of several other languages. Icelandic and other Scandinavian tongues have contributed much (the ‘th’ sound in words like ‘three’ and ‘thought’, in particular) and the French invasion of 1066 that defined the UK’s modern history meant that, far from supplanting the Saxon influence, English is largely a function of three different languages comfortably coexisting for over a millennium.
And whilst we tiptoe around the less pleasant (read: barbarous) aspects of colonialism and imperialism, as is the case for the French, Dutch and Portuguese, the colonial aspirations of the past 200 years have seen a rich transfer of words from the subjects of colonial rule into the English language. Take ‘pyjamas’, ‘bungalow’, and even the very tech-savvy ‘avatar’: they are .
English is therefore a mishmash of languages with some familiarity to hundreds of millions of people, despite the fact that this mix also makes it dismally hard to learn.
It means that millions of people have a reason to understand bits of English, no matter how tenuous their connection with its native home of Britain. And most of all, it means that English has the right word for just about any situation (except for ‘the right word’, for which the French ‘mot juste’ is often used), which has made it a versatile language for everything from trade and creative endeavour, to law and warfare.
Moving to more recent history, colonialism is also one reason why English has propagated so dramatically — it is well spoken across not just India but much of Africa and the Arabian peninsula and of course is the #1 language in the US. The success of the US as a commercial powerhouse just as modern mass media emerged (from film to fashion to the internet) cemented the position of English as the dominant language of the 20th Century.
You can also blame the rain – or trade
Everyone knows that it rains constantly in Britain.
This isn’t entirely true, but Britain is firmly temperate. And there is a school of thought that trade has historically come first to temperate climates. Whether trade brought wealth and created cities, or whether cities created wealth and brought trade is another discussion; but it cannot be denied that throughout our modern history, cities in temperate zones (London and Liverpool, Amsterdam and Antwerp, New York and Tokyo) have been particularly outward-facing. Between 1820 and 1992, GNP per capita in temperate regions has grown at a rate .
English is a by-product of historical circumstance, but it was energised by trade. And whilst it is pure luck that the US should be the dominant culture for the period of the birth of the internet, Britain has always been a trading nation. From the Crusades to the , buoyed by supremacy in naval skills, English in its many forms has a long commercial heritage.
And in a beautiful symbiosis, commercial use has also shaped English itself. English is effective but compact; it has none of the floridity of the Romance languages or Arabic — despite the beauty of Shakespeare, in day-to-day use it is a language of facts, designed for clarity in commerce.
History and trade are the two reasons for the ascendancy of English. And with both (colonialism rears its ugly head here again) have come a comfort, possibly even an arrogance, that English will always triumph. But the world is changing. The axis of political, social and economic power is shifting, and with it, the position of English in the world.
In the next blog post in this series, we’ll see why, and examine the consequences for business.