The rise and fall of the English language

15 min read

If you’re reading this in the original English it was written (rather than our translations in Chinese, German, FrenchPortuguese, Spanish or Italian), perhaps it’s not your first language, but here we are.

How did that happen?

Blame history

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. The closest relative of the English language is Frisian, 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 all words borrowed from the Indian subcontinent.

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 50% higher than non-temperate zones. 

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 Spice Road, 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.

Money and Politics

Earlier, we discovered that English had got lucky. Of the 7000+ languages spoken in the world today — an ever-changing list as dialects flex, grow and die out — English became dominant.

It’s historical good fortune and the practicalities of trade that gave English its position by the late 20th Century, and it’s no surprise that circumstance and practicality are equally responsible for the new world of language we find ourselves in today.

At the turn of the century, there was still complacency in the English-speaking world that the language would continue to dominate. The British Council (a respected organisation and a tremendous source of ‘soft power’ for the UK) was worried enough to release a report in 2006, which warned:

“Even as the number of English speakers expands, there are signs that the global predominance of the language may fade within the foreseeable future… [The] analysis should end any complacency among those who may believe that the global position of English is so unassailable that the young generations of the United Kingdom do not need additional language capabilities.”

Online (where we have most readily available data), UNESCO found a steady year-on-year decline in the percentage of webpages in English from 75% in 1998 to anything from 20%-40% (depending on the metric used) today.

What’s happened?

Follow the money

Most important are the twin engines of population and economic development. For a language to become prevalent, it’s not enough for a state just to be populous.

The Indian subcontinent, for example has always been heavily populated, but the cultural ties of tribalism which take precedence over statehood mean that local dialects and languages retain their meaning and value — which is why English is still the overriding language of business and diplomacy in many Indian contexts.

More important than a united population is economic growth. In 2014, Cambridge University reported on new cultural diversity research which showed that economic development swept away (for better or worse) exactly those tribal dialects and differences:

“As economies develop, one language often comes to dominate a nation’s political and educational spheres. People are forced to adopt the dominant language or risk being left out in the cold — economically and politically,”

Dr Tatsuya Amano, from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology.

As particularly the BRIC countries make economic progress, it’s no surprise, then, that their languages are becoming more prevalent. Today, Simplified Chinese accounts for 19.4% of web content, less than 1% behind English (20.3%).

Everyone’s web

Then there’s technology itself.

You might have thought that all that English online would have pushed the English language further into the culture of other countries, but we only have to look to films to see that that was not going to happen.

Hollywood may be the source of thousands of English-language films which are widely distributed across the world, but the effect has been twofold. Certainly it has helped more people learn English.

But at the same time, it has encouraged local creatives to develop their own film industries, reinforcing local values and storytelling heritage. Hence, we see the musicals of Bollywood, the brash and urbane output of Lagos’ Nollywood or, less obviously, centres of excellence like Hungary’s exceptional skills in animation.

In the same way, the internet has made English familiar to more people around the world, but it has powered local interactions: why speak English when you can speak your own tongue?

Another key technology development is the way mobile infrastructure has allowed developing countries across Africa and Asia to leapfrog the first evolution of the web (wires and desktop) and go straight to a mobile economy. It’s given both regions a ten-year leap forward; for example analysts Common Sense Advisory report:

“In recent years, populations in Africa, Asia, and Oceania surged online with the aid of cheap data plans and government investments. In Myanmar, for example, the mobile grid went up in 2014 and a total population of 53 million now shows 80% smartphone penetration.”

The Asian explosion shows no sign of abating: We Are Social’s annual report for 2017 showed growth in the online subscriber base in Asia of 15% YoY — compared to a saturated 3% in Europe.

Of course, all those new connections mean new interactions in new languages, particularly as the social web means that we are all now content creators.

The politics of language

Finally, language is quite a political issue. Especially with Brexit. Britain is only a small part of the English-speaking world, but just as Britannia punched above her weight in the seafaring 1600s and 1700s, so Britain is creating disproportionately violent waves of anti-English feeling across Europe with Brexit — which is why EC President Claude Juncker is only too happy to advocate that English is replaced as the ‘language of the European Union’.

And because ordinary people understand the importance of the language they speak to their culture, it has become politicised in a way which means English can become a global casualty.

Belgium, for example, has been pretty much at linguistic civil war (including operating several times without a valid government at all) because the country is split between Dutch and French speakers, Flemish and Walloons. Both include many English speakers, but cultural regionalism encourages the use of local dialects.

In fact, you don’t even need conflict for English to suffer. In 2008, the Academie Francaise, guardians of the French language, presented a list of over 500 English imports to the French language which they wanted to ban (including ‘supermodel’ and the thoroughly unlovely ‘low-cost airline’). It didn’t happen — and was as much a PR stunt engineered by the Academie every few years (similarly, last year, the Minister for Culture pushed for a new standardized French keyboard, because QWERTY keyboards were affecting the correct use of French grammar), but the fact remains, we should expect national loyalties to easily beat English in the coming years; and for the internet to be a source of new national pride rather than a sudden adoption of English.

So the British Council’s analysis was spot on. Globalisation, economic rebalancing, new technologies, the fact that creative tools are now in everyone’s hands, and (dare we say it) bloody emojis, have all served to reduce the prevalence of the English language; online and in business.

Silicon Valley may still be the economic powerhouse of the planet, but paradoxically, because we live in a more connected world than ever, the Valley is helping languages and the regional identities they represent to flourish.

A New World Order

We’ve seen how history and luck put English at the top of the world’s linguistic tree. It might not have been the most spoken language in the world, but if English had a GDP, it would dwarf any other language on the planet.

But, particularly online, the strength of the English language is dwindling. Just 23 languages (out of more than 7000) are the native tongue of over 4 billion people — that’s more than half the world.

This gentle decline in the use of English should be discussed in terms of the economically-driven success of other countries. Whilst China for its sheer size has hogged the headlines, large parts of Asia and Africa are starting to assert themselves on the world stage. This has consequences for business.

David Graddol, in his prescient 2006 analysis for the British Council, concluded that:

“monoglot English graduates face a bleak economic future as qualified multilingual youngsters from other countries are proving to have a competitive advantage over their British counterparts in global companies and organisations.”

The sentiment is important: it recognises that we live in a global world, where competition for jobs and customers comes not from people we went to school with, but people on the other side of the planet.

Here’s why an outward-facing attitude to business matters today:

Traditional business and sales

Denying access to customer communities beyond our borders is obviously a dramatic waste of business opportunity — which is why The Economist Intelligence Unit directly correlates international communication with profitability, saying of its research among senior executives:

“The overwhelming majority… believe that if cross-border communication were to improve at their company, then profit, revenue and market share would all improve as well”.

The Economist Intelligence Unit

Clearly, top performing companies agree:

“Big multinational companies recognise the importance of language skills. McKinsey counts more than 130 languages spoken across the management consultancy, and offers a bursary to those who wish to learn another language before joining. Unilever estimates that up to 80 of the consumer products group’s 100 most senior leaders speak at least two languages. Standard Chartered seeks out bilinguals for its international graduate training scheme.”

Financial Times (paywall)

The SaaS revolution and localization

But plenty of modern businesses have no salespeople or human interactions with their customers at all. The “as a service” revolution deploys technology to turn traditionally capital-intensive or people-intensive businesses into operationally modelled or subscription businesses, generating savings through economies of scale driven by software.

It was Marc Andreessen, the legendary technology investor who said, “software is eating the world”, meaning that no business can escape technology-driven disruption. We will have ever more interactions which involve no human intervention (a good example of this in our daily lives is the self-serve checkout in your local supermarket), and whether it’s for sales or service, these interactions need to be localised.

If you use, say, Google Drive or Slack, you’re using a product — probably every day — which was never explained to you or sold to you by a human being. Would you have signed up for Google Drive; would you have even been capable of signing up for Google Drive, if the process was presented to you in a different language?

Almost every business now has an online component; almost every online business wants to leverage global reach and scale; and to leverage global reach you need localisation of language.

Support and Service

The same goes for providing after-sales service — not only because modern businesses reach across borders, but also because support, like sales, now operates over multiple channels.

The web is now a social tool rather than an information tool — Facebook and Reddit are the web’s most popular sites (by time spent on site) — and we share our experiences, recommendations and gripes on many channels.

Businesses must monitor Twitter for feedback (i.e. complaints!), and accept interactions with customers by email, website contact page, webchat and a vast number of messaging apps from WhatsApp to Snapchat.

All of these are text-based, and most businesses find it hard enough to monitor every channel and triage enquiries or support requests, let alone deal with multiple languages.

The new Glocalisation

Because there’s no cookie-cutter answer, companies have wrestled with the challenges of achieving global scale while appreciating local nuance.

McDonalds, for example, is surely one of the world’s most adept brand and product managers, exporting the principle of its restaurants and food across the globe. Even so, sometimes McDonalds means something different — in China, for example, it is a prestigious location for a date rather than a fast-food solution. Or, the product itself has to change — in France (much to the excitement of visiting school children from the UK), McDonalds serves beer.

The very first McDonald’s of mainland China: Shenzhen, 1990.

In manufacturing, 3D printing is suddenly making it highly economical to manufacture products locally — indeed, consumer products and replacement parts will soon be printed on demand on street corners. Suddenly, it makes sense to print the part for a stranded aircraft at the airport where it sits, rather than flying it in from an international hub. It makes sense to print accessories for consumer goods at the till, in real-time. And for many manufacturers, this will mean fewer hubs, and more commercial activity at the front line — in each territory, retail outlet, and even in customers’ homes.

The balance of global and local is being disrupted by a new trend — again driven by advances in digital manufacturing. The McDonalds example above shows how multinational companies must centralise or decentralise; using “hub and spoke” systems of different sizes to achieve different business objectives. Typically, for example, back-office functions like payroll are national or even global; whereas customer-facing functions can be regionalised to local tastes.

Understand and be understood

Business in the new world isn’t going to demand that your senior team speaks multiple languages (although it would certainly help). It does, however, demand that they are capable of working internationally, sensitively to global cultures.

It demands that you are responsive to customers globally. It will become unacceptably disappointing to sell to consumers in their own language, but then fail to provide support as effectively. The customer experience is not an English-only affair.

Software, hardware, new business models and the interconnection of billions of humans of being are disrupting, rebuilding and eclipsing entire sectors: language cannot remain as the final barrier to capitalising on these opportunities.

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