Posts Tagged ‘English’

Language follows economy: 150 years of US/English hegemony

June 25, 2017

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.



EU language war is about to begin

March 22, 2017

After Brexit, English will have no legal status in the EU. But without English, the EU language wars will surely begin. It would be a horrible loss of face for the EU if they continued to use English after Brexit. Maybe the UK could claim a royalty if they did.

Each member state of the EU nominates and registers a primary language. Only the UK has registered English as a primary language. Ireland has registered Gaelic and even Malta chose Maltese.

The European Union has 24 official and working languages. They are:

Bulgarian             French Maltese            
Croatian German             Polish
Czech Greek Portuguese
Danish Hungarian Romanian
Dutch Irish Slovak
English Italian Slovenian
Estonian Latvian Spanish
Finnish Lithuanian Swedish

The first official language policy of what was then the European Community identified Dutch, French, German, and Italian as the official working languages of the EU.

Since then, as more countries have become part of the EU, the number of official and working languages has increased. However, there are fewer official languages than Member States, as some share common languages.

On the other hand, some regional languages, such as Catalan and Welsh, have gained a status as co-official languages of the European Union. The official use of such languages can be authorised on the basis of an administrative arrangement concluded between the Council and the requesting Member State.

Part of the ridiculous bureaucracy in Brussels is a permanent staff of 1,750 linguists, 600 support staff, 600 full-time interpreters, and a further 3,000 freelance interpreters.

French MEP’s are already calling for the removal of English after Brexit. Before the UK joined the EU (1st January 1973) the EU had Dutch French, German and Italian. Spain only joined in 1986. For English to remain a “working language” would require agreement by all member states. French dominated until Sweden, Finland and Austria tilted the balance in the 1990s. With the Eastern European members now established the resistance to French and German will be all the more obvious.

English is the most spoken second language in the EU and even in France, Germany, Spain and Italy. The dominance of English as a second language in Scandinavia and in the low countries is accompanied by a very high level of fluency in English. Without English as a unifying factor, the existing cracks and splits in the EU will not only be all the more visible, they will be positively encouraged.

map by

map by


How English has become the language of science

March 31, 2015

Michael D Gordin is a historian at Princeton University and explains how English has become the language of modern science:

how did science come to speak only english

……. contemporary science is monoglot: everyone uses English almost to the exclusion of other languages. A century ago, the majority of researchers in Western science knew at least some English, but they also read, wrote and spoke in French and German, and sometimes in other ‘minor’ languages, such as the newly emergent Russian or the rapidly fading Italian. …..

Often, scientists or humanists assume that English science replaced monoglot German, preceded by French and then by Latin in a ribbon that unfurls back to the dawn of Western science, which they understand to have been conducted in monoglot Greek. Understanding the history of science as a chain of monolingual transfers has a certain superficial appeal, but it isn’t true. Never was. ….. we can observe two basic linguistic regimes in Western science: the polyglot and the monoglot. The latter is quite new, emerging just in the 1920s and vanquishing the centuries-old multilingual regime only in the 1970s. Science speaks English, but the first generation who grew up within that monoglot system are still alive. ….

In the 15th century in western Europe, natural philosophy and natural history – the two domains of learning that would, by the 19th century, come to be known as ‘science’ – were both fundamentally polyglot enterprises. This is the case despite the fact that the language of learning in the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance was Latin.

But Latin had been preceded by Greek and Arabic.

The translation of works in canonical natural philosophy from Arabic into Latin helped birth the revival of learning in the West. Learning, learned people knew, was a multilingual enterprise. …..

This system started to break down in the 17th century, in the midst of, and as an essential part of, what was once dubbed ‘the scientific revolution’. Galileo Galilei published his discovery of the moons of Jupiter in the Latin Sidereus Nuncius of 1610, but his later major works were in Italian. As he aimed for a more local audience for patronage and support, he switched languages. Newton’s Principia (1687) appeared in Latin, but his Opticks of 1704 was English (Latin translation 1706). ….


Something obviously changed. We now live in the Esperantists’ dreamworld, but the universal language of natural science is English, a language that is the native tongue of some very powerful nation states and as a consequence not at all neutral. What happened to the polyglot system of science? It broke. More accurately, it was broken. When the Great War erupted in summer 1914 between the Central Powers (principally, Germany and Austria-Hungary) and the Triple Entente (Britain, France, Russia), among the first casualties were the ideals of beneficent internationalism. German scientists joined other intellectuals in extolling Germany’s war aims. French and British scientists took note.

After the war, the International Research Council, formed under the aegis of the victorious Entente – now including the US but excluding Russia, which had descended into the maelstrom of the Bolshevik Revolution – initiated a boycott of scientists from the Central Powers. New international institutions for science were erected in the early 1920s locking out the defeated Germanophone scientists. This exclusion lit a long-delay fuse that, in the coming decades, would contribute to the death of German as a leading scientific language. Three languages had, for part of Europe, diminished to two. Germans responded to their predicament by reinvigorating their commitment to their native language. The multilingual system was beginning to crack, but it was the Americans who would shatter it. .


Read the entire article.

A monoglot system in a polyglot world may seem unsustainable and Gordin argues that even without the Anglophone nations, inertia would keep English in its pre-eminent position for science.

it takes a lot of energy to maintain a monoglot system on such a scale, with enormous resources poured into language training and translation in non-Anglophone countries. And, second, if the Anglophone nations were to vanish tomorrow, English would still be a significant language of science, simply because of the vast inertia of what already exists.

But I suspect it is not just a simple matter of monoglot versus polyglot. Using India as an example of a polyglot nation, one of the most important unifying factors is that at second language level, India is actually monoglot and the language is an “Indian” English. The internet age has I think led to the world – at second language level – being monoglot – and that language is an internet English which is still evolving and very rapidly at that.

Esperanto failed because it never reached a critical mass of users. Dialects appear because a critical mass of practitioners of a particular usage exists. What is correct grammar and correct spelling and even correct meaning lags, and doesn’t lead, usage. Languages evolve and change as users and usage changes – not because of edicts from the keepers of language. If the French want French to survive for ever, they need to ensure that the number of users expands (with whatever changes that may bring), rather than preventing the assimilation of anglicisms. A “protected”, “correct” language with an ever decreasing number of users will become extinct. Changes appear in spite of the inertia and resistance of the language keepers. And languages die when change stops and users decline and usage withers. Demographics trumps any “goodness” of language.

This new, still-changing, 140-character-focused, English will be with us for a long time yet – and not just in science.

Greetings for the In-between days

December 27, 2013

A God Fortsättning, a God Slut and a Gott Nytt År to you all!

In most instances English has a much richer vocabulary than Swedish does – but when it comes to greetings during the festive season, Swedish wins hands down. The nuances of available greetings are just not available in English. Perhaps because there was a greater need for nuance during the long and cold and dark winters.

In Sweden the days between Christmas and the New Year are called the In-between days (mellandagarna) and immediately after Christmas it is no longer appropriate to use Merry Christmas (God Jul) as the greeting. It shifts to God Fortsättning which can only be translated as A Good Continuation. But it is also quite common to wish people a God Slut during this time. But this is also a nuance of greeting that Swedish has which does not appear in English. The literal translation of God Slut in English would be Have a good ending which may be taken to be somewhat morbid or an invitation to take hemlock!  Have a good ending to the Year is a little too long and doesn’t trip of the tongue as well and as succinctly as God Slut. Of course it is perfectly permissible to use Gott Nytt ÅrGood New Year – during the In-between days.

The In-between days run from December 26th to December 30th.

Clearly God Jul cannot be used after 25th December and God Slut cannot be used after 31st December but God fortsättning can. In theory God fortsättning can be used at any time. I have even heard it used at Advent and during the vacation period in July (when Sweden is closed). But I have heard it most often during the In-between days and then for the first 2 or 3 weeks of January. Gott Nytt År can be used well into February – especially if it is the first meeting of the Year.

And so during these In-between days,

God fortsättning! followed by a

God Slut! and a

Gott Nytt År!

How to write good!

October 21, 2013

Oh, very good. (via This Got My Attention)

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