Language follows economy: 150 years of US/English hegemony

The domination of English as a world language probably begins only about 200 years ago and 1820 is as good a starting time as any.

Language influence, I would suggest, follows economic influence. The predominance of English today is merely a consequence of growth and spread of the English speaking economies. And the role of the US has been decisive in the last 150 years. The Latin of 2,000 years ago which had gained dominance in Europe died during the dark ages, evolved into Italian at home and was replaced by a plethora of local dialects in the rest of Europe. Latin was possibly the first ever which could be considered a “world language”. As a language of international communication it was probably preceded by Greek and Egyptian before that. Perhaps Arabic came close to being an international language during the Middle Ages. As European countries colonised the Americas and parts of Asia, they took their local languages with them. But the key for English was that North America adopted English rather than Spanish (or French or German). The US does not formally have an official language but English is the de facto national language. (According to legend German came close to being adopted in Pennsylvania in 1794).

There is no official language at the U.S. federal level. However, 32 states of the United States … have adopted legislation granting official status to English. Out of 50 states, 30 have established English as the only official language, while Hawaii recognizes both English and Hawaiian as official and Alaska has made some 20 Native languages official, along with English.

…… American schools, public as well as private, require English classes at every grade level, even in bilingual or dual-language learning. Semesters of English composition are required in virtually all U.S. colleges and universities to satisfy associate’s and bachelor’s degree requirements. – Wikipedia

Harald Haarmann writes in his Mosaic of Languages:

Europe has far exceeded all other continents regarding the export of languages. There is no other continent from which so many languages have been spread around the world, taking root elsewhere in the world and giving rise to global language communities. Most world languages, i.e. languages with global communicative functions, are European in origin and belong to the Indo-European family of languages. The result of this language export from the 15th century onward is a vast increase in the numbers of speakers. Today, the majority of speakers of languages such as English, Spanish, Portuguese and French live in regions outside of Europe. The proportion of speakers in Europe compared to those in other continents varies considerably between the individual languages:

German and Russian are Europe-centred, with the vast majority of speakers of these languages living in Europe. Languages such as Portuguese, English and Spanish, on the other hand, have far more speakers overseas, and the speakers in the countries of origin constitute a minority of the total number of speakers.

The spread of language cannot be divorced from economic well-being. Angus Maddison’s important work on historical GDP’s is insightful and fascinating. In his Millenial Perspective of the World Economy he begins:

Maddison world economy Vol 1

Over the past millennium, world population rose 22–fold. Per capita income increased 13–fold, world GDP nearly 300–fold. This contrasts sharply with the preceding millennium, when world population grew by only a sixth, and there was no advance in per capita income. From the year 1000 to 1820 the advance in per capita income was a slow crawl — the world average rose about 50 per cent. Most of the growth went to accommodate a fourfold increase in population. Since 1820, world development has been much more dynamic. Per capita income rose more than eightfold, population more than fivefold. Per capita income growth is not the only indicator of welfare. Over the long run, there has been a dramatic increase in life expectation. In the year 1000, the average infant could expect to live about 24 years. A third would die in the first year of life, hunger and epidemic disease would ravage the survivors. There was an almost imperceptible rise up to 1820, mainly in Western Europe. Most of the improvement has occurred since then. Now the average infant can expect to survive 66 years. The growth process was uneven in space as well as time. The rise in life expectation and income has been most rapid in Western Europe, North America, Australasia and Japan. By 1820, this group had forged ahead to an income level twice that in the rest of the world. By 1998, the gap was 7:1. Between the United States (the present world leader) and Africa (the poorest region) the gap is now 20:1. This gap is still widening. Divergence is dominant but not inexorable. In the past half century, resurgent Asian countries have demonstrated that an important degree of catch–up is feasible. Nevertheless world economic growth has slowed substantially since 1973, and the Asian advance has been offset by stagnation or retrogression elsewhere.

What he writes about population and income applies as well to language

Advances in population and income over the past millennium have been sustained by three interactive processes:
a) Conquest or settlement of relatively empty areas which had fertile land, new biological resources, or a potential to accommodate transfers of population, crops and livestock;
b) international trade and capital movements;
c) technological and institutional innovation.

I would suggest that the spread of English during the colonial expansion (say 1650 – 1850), immediately followed by the economic dominance of the English-speaking US (1870 – present), led to English happening to be the dominant language at just the right time during the explosion of Maddison’s period of technological and institutional innovation. It is being adopted as the language of science and engineering and innovation which has given English the decisive penetration it now has.

World GDP by country 1 – 2008AD (Maddison)

The US became the country with the largest GDP in about 1872. By 1918 (after World War 1) the US economy exceeded that of the UK, France and Germany combined. By 1942 the US economy was larger than that of all of Western Europe. China and India are rising though their per capita GDP is diluted by their large populations.

GDP rising

Within 10 – 20 years the Chinese economy will be significantly larger than that of the United States.

GDP 2030 projection

The question is whether another language will replace English, in time, to reflect the economic realities of the age. I suspect it will not happen for another 200 years – if ever. The position of English as the language of innovation and science and now as the language of the internet presents an inertial barrier that even Mandarin Chinese may not be able to overcome. Hindi and Tamil are the only Indian languages that could even be remotely considered, but either becoming a dominating language is in the realm of fantasy. It is the same type of inertial barrier which will also keep English predominant in Europe, even after BREXIT. In fact, English may have an added strength in a Europe without the UK, as a non-French, non-German, “neutral” language. There are those who name Spanish or Arabic as potential world languages but I find the case for them replacing English less than convincing. The adoption of Spanish would require that the economies of South and Central America (without Brazil but including Mexico) become dominant in the global economy and that is a very remote possibility. German and Russian are too Euro-centric to be considered. The case for French rests entirely – and implausibly – on the economic dominance of France and French-speaking Africa.

Unless the world shifts from the economic growth model that has served us for over 8,000 years (at least) – and I cannot imagine what that paradigm shift could be – I cannot see any language replacing an English (which will of course mutate and change and evolve) as the dominant world language for at least a few hundred years.




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