APRIL 2002

Why is English the international lingua franca?

As a means of expression of an insular population with specific political and social behaviour, English has become an international communication tool, in the wake of the economic and scientific expansion of Great Britain, and later the United States.

Introduced in the 5th century into southern England by the Angles (whence its name),
English is an Indo-European language. Typical pairs such as father/mother, brother/sister, are evidence of it and the relation between father and the Sanskrit pitar, the Persian pedar, the Latin pater, has long been proven.

In the 15th century the era of modern English had begun: when declensions and grammatical genders disappeared, tenses relaxed, and the list of irregular verbs stabilised, the language registered the blossoming of idiomatic expressions, after the Anglo-Saxon model of phrasal verbs, and thus acquired another definitive and significant characteristic. Finally, in the 16th and 17th centuries, technical vocabulary relied heavily on Latin.

From the 18th century on, English became the language from which other European, then world tongues, borrowed the most. In the 15th century, the English spoken in the United States directly influenced that spoken in England. This North American English was increasingly used as an example and a reference.

How the English language spread

Initially the spreading of English was colonial. Throughout the world, from the United States to Australia, from South Africa to Canada, but also from Nigeria to India, two enormous, densely populated countries, where it enjoys the status of official language, English was brought by British settlers and their descendants, through England's conquests.

Both world wars have reinforced this tendency. The Treaty of Versailles, drafted for the first time in two languages, English and French, was innovative by guaranteeing the diplomatic status of the former. In 1945, American English had the prestige of the liberators, whose material wealth was envied. It kept a similar status in the countries under Soviet control: it was the language of civilisation and freedom.

At the cutting edge of technical progress and scientific research, Anglophone North America naturally created terms matching the new products it developed. Its language evolved at the rhythm of the changes in society and its aspirations, before inspiring the rest of the world. Neologisms grew with the economic expansion and fed the cultural influence.

With more than 320 million speakers, English is today the most widely spoken language in the world after Chinese (Mandarin). The number of people who master English in the world has reached a critical threshold: most of the time, two non-Anglophone strangers will automatically communicate in English, which has become the entire planetÕs lingua franca. It is by far the first foreign language taught. Countries such as Japan and Israel use it first and foremost to teach the outside world about their values and culture.

English globalised

The geo-political dominance of English is henceforth well ensured and is backed by a relatively homogeneous international usage in writing, but often influenced in the spoken language by the linguistic, cultural, and social diversity of the speakers, and even different from the best accepted styles of the big Anglophone countries. International relations of all kinds: media, music, business documents, contribute to its spreading. An increasingly large number of words are becoming international in the field of sports or games (surfing, bowling), science and technology (aviation, tourism: jumbo jet, charter; oil: off shore; audiovisual: tuner, and most of all in information technology). Most scientific communication takes place in English. Numerous products, no matter what their country of origin, have a trademark based on English (Nesquik, Mobistar, Pocari Sweat, GB Quick, etc.).

As for acronyms, they are increasing in numbers. If some get translated, like AIDS (SIDA), others keep the English version: LASER (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation), USB (Universal Serial Bus), etc.

Certain syntaxes are, more subtly, influenced by English: voyagez/reis Pullman; le débat était centré autour du chômage (instead of centré sur; from to centre around). Or tracht uit te vinden wat hij ... (from try to find out, instead of te weten komen).

The study of English thus runs into the problem of norms. In each country, education tends to favour a certain geo-style over another.

But external pressure leans towards tolerance. Among the unification forces are the media, language schools, and the often-efficient double Dutch of tourists or business agents. And this is how international English is making its way, sometimes totally bewildering old school Brits.

Jackie Walters