History of the English Language, Part II: A World Language - Craft Your Content

History of the English Language, Part II: A World Language

In part I of this series, we saw how English evolved from a Germanic language influenced by a Celtic language, and later by Norman French, to become a robust language with a vocabulary containing words borrowed from various languages and cultures and with a well-defined yet simple structure.

Starting in the 18th century, the rise and spread of the British Empire coupled with the Industrial Revolution led to acceptance of English as a dominant language in the world of industry and technology.

And with the economic and technological advances introduced by the United States in the 20th century, English is now accepted and used throughout the world in all areas of communication.

Individuals from different countries who wish to communicate will likely do it in English unless they share a common background and language.

Corporations that communicate with companies in other countries need to have a standard means of communication—a language that people will likely understand anywhere in the world. That language is English.

In virtually every area of communication, whether it be personal, business, or government, the interaction takes place using that common factor—World English, also called Global English.

What Is World English, Exactly?

There are a few different global languages. English just happens to be one of them.

Let’s define a world language, or global language.

Encyclopedia.com defines a world language as “a language used throughout the entire world.” Simple enough. But let’s look a little deeper.

These are some of the characteristics of a global language:

  • Spoken internationally
  • Learned and spoken by a large number of people as a second language
  • Has a large distribution
  • Used by international organizations
  • Used in diplomatic relations
  • Is a common language used by people of different backgrounds and ethnicities to communicate on a more-or-less equal basis

I think we can agree that English is a world language.

Let’s see how English really measures up.

English in Communication

Do you ever communicate with someone who doesn’t speak your language, assuming it’s English?

What’s the first thing that happens? You try some simple words that you think the other person might recognize.

In almost every case, unless the person has lived a very sheltered life, you will see that the person actually knows some English, maybe very rudimentary, but enough for you to be able to communicate with them. (You might also throw in some makeshift sign language to help things along.)

That level of communication would likely not be possible if you spoke a language other than English.

It’s common for people in many countries to learn English as a second language starting in grammar school.

Scandinavian countries have been especially adept at embracing English as their second language. They immerse themselves in it—in school starting an an early age, in media, in business, through radio and television—so English is second nature to them.

The consumption of English-speaking content, either out of a desire to learn English or a need to communicate with English speakers, has likely had a greater influence on the spread of English than we realize.

English in Business

Many multinational companies, including Airbus, Daimler AG, Fast Retailing, Nokia, and Renault, have mandated that their common corporate language be English.

Why? In order to facilitate communication and transactions across national borders and to ensure they will be able to compete in an international environment, companies must have a common means of communication—a means of communication that they can employ wherever they are located.

English in Government

In 2015, there were 67 sovereign states and 27 nonsovereign entities where English was an official language. English is the sole official language of the Commonwealth of Nations and an official language of the United Nations, the European Union, and the International Olympic Committee.

In addition, in many countries where English is not the predominant language, governments have made the study and use of English a top priority in order to bring their countries into the mainstream of the international community.

English in Science and Technology

English is the primary language used in science, technology, and space exploration.

And in order to be recognized in any of those fields, you need to have a command of English.

In the field of research, for instance, 98 percent of scientific research papers published online are in English, according to Harrow House, an international college that claims someone in that field would put themselves at a disadvantage by not learning it.

English for the General Public

When products are sold worldwide, the instructions tend to be in the native language as well as English.

In international airports, it is common to hear announcements and see signage in English, usually alongside the local language. And you can expect broadcasts to be in English as well as the local language.

The Not-So-New Phenomenon Called Simple English

There are different ways to say the same thing in English, which is both a positive and a negative when communicating.

Although English has made its way throughout the world and is spoken by about 1.5 billion people, it is not necessarily easy to learn.

It’s not as difficult as some other languages, like Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, or Japanese. But English does present difficulties for those new to the language.

Imagine trying to explain these things to a new English learner: the complex spelling, nuanced phrasing, contradictions (there’s no ham in hamburger), many rules and irregular verbs, pronunciation. The list goes on.

As a result, over the decades, starting in the 1930s, there have been several attempts to “simplify” English.

Published in 1938, the book Basic English: A General Introduction with Rules and Grammar, by Charles Kay Ogden, presented a simplified system of English grammar with 850 basic English words. The system never became widely used, but it is still taught in certain Asian regions.

There were several other attempts to simplify English: Threshold Level English in 1975, Nuclear English in 1978, Globish in 2004, and Basic Global English in 2006.

Globish, which had some success around the world, uses 1,500 words and some simple grammatical structures, making it easy to learn and use by non-native speakers.

Here’s some text in standard English:

“The twins disagreed as to their selection of outfits for the festival.”

The above text uses some words that are not part of the Globish 1,500-word vocabulary, so if we were speaking in Globish, that same text would look something like this:

“The twins did not agree on what they should wear for the celebration.”

Some would argue that efforts like Globish will ruin the English language or that Globish will result in dumbing down English.

I tend to agree that efforts to make English simpler will “water it down,” but at the same time, English will become easier to learn and more usable by large numbers of people, which is a good thing.

Still, some changes to English are coming whether we like it or not.

Some Efforts to Change English Are Unintentional

world language
The mixing of different cultures and languages has unintentionally influenced the English language.

In addition to the intentional efforts to simplify English, the language has been influenced by other factors.

The United States, as we know, has had a great effect on the popularity and use of English.

In addition to American influences, the world of computers has brought about many changes to the language, including the introduction of new words to deal with the computer age and changes to the way we write and speak to deal with the fast pace of everything we do and encounter.

Americanization

Here’s the definition of Americanization from the Oxford Dictionaries online:

“The action of making a person or thing American in character or nationality.”

If we expand on that definition and try to define “Americanization of English,” we could say:

“The Americanization of English is the influence the United States has had on the English language with regard to its spelling, vocabulary, structure, and usage.”

The Americanization of English started from the time the American Colonies broke away from Britain in the 18th century and became pronounced after World War II, when the United States became the undisputed power in the world and its influence was felt across the globe.

American English is now the norm everywhere the language is spoken, with the exceptions being the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the Commonwealth countries, such as South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.

Do you take a vacation or do you go on holiday? Do you use the spellings color, parlor, and traveler, or do you use colour, parlour, and traveller?

Do you know the words trainers, courgette, and dummy? Try sneakers, zucchini, and pacifier.

And it’s not only spelling and vocabulary that are affected. Americans use expressions that are perplexing to the Brits, and to many Americans themselves.

What does “I could care less” mean? Well, it means that you could not care less about something. So, why don’t Americans say “I couldn’t care less”? Who knows.

When you figure it all out, write me.

The Digital Age

The era of computers has influenced English more than people ever thought possible.

Everyone reading this article on their laptop is probably also keeping an eye on their email in another tab on whatever browser they’re using.

Or they’re writing a quick response on their smartphone to a friend on the other end.

We lead such busy lives that everything we do has to be done quickly so we can move on to the next “important” thing we have to take care of, and the age of computers has made that so simple.

How do we communicate today? We don’t even use words anymore. Sending a message to someone on your smartphone has devolved into using a series of acronyms and using letter combinations to represent what we’re saying (phonetics).

See if you can decipher this: “OFC YOLO. SLAP. TTYL.” Try “Of course, you only live once. Sounds like a plan. Talk to you later.”

And sometimes we don’t even use acronyms; we use those funny little images everyone is hooked on: emojis.

I suspect that much of the abbreviated language (those annoying acronyms) currently in use will disappear. At least I hope they do!

Other changes to the language will endure, however, such as the use of shorter and more direct phrasing common in the United States and the use of new terms and words necessary in the computer age we live in.

And the impact of urban terminology cannot be overlooked. Look at a couple of words I found in the Oxford Dictionaries Online:

  • Baby daddy: I think we all know what that is by now.
  • Aight: This one I have actually heard in conversation. It’s defined as “non-standard spelling of all right, representing a pronunciation.” For example, “just take it slow, you’ll be aight.”

Let’s take a look at another factor that will affect how we speak and write in the not-very-distant future.

The Influence of Artificial Intelligence (AI)

AI can help with translation, but can it write and communicate naturally?

Along with advances in computers and technology, AI has also seen phenomenal growth in recent years.

In the near future, AI will influence us in all areas of life.

AI can do many things that humans do every day: drive automobiles, spot cancer, do legal case research. And the list includes writing and speaking.

AI can write articles and film scripts—well, kind of. The short film Sunspring was “written” by an AI machine with input from several popular movies like Highlander: Endgame, Ghostbusters, Interstellar, and The Fifth Element.

The movie is a sci-fi story of love and despair. In isolation, the sentences make sense, but when read in its entirety, the dialogue makes no sense; it’s even funny.

Here is some dialogue from the final screenplay for Sunspring (H, H2, and C are characters in the play):

H

In a future with mass unemployment, young people are forced to sell blood. That’s the first thing I can do.

H2

You should see the boys and shut up. I was the one who was going to be a hundred years old.

H

I saw him again. The way you were sent to me … that was a big honest idea. I am not a bright light.

C

Well, I have to go to the skull. I don’t know.

Not very good is it? It’s literally gibberish. Obviously, AI is not ready to write screenplays yet, but the time is coming when AI will be able to beat humans at many of their own tasks.

According to Garrett Grams in the article “The Future of Writing, With Robots,” AI is already being used to produce content for news outlets like The Washington Post, Reuters, and USA Today, although the content tends to be data-driven information that a computer can easily analyze and put into some useful form.

According to Grams, The Washington Post has software called Heliograf that covered the Rio Olympics and the U.S. Presidential election. He says, “Heliograf captured results immediately, selected an appropriate angle, and published its news stories before a human writer even had the chance to open Microsoft Word.”

Impressive, yet we can see that AI is still not really able to “think” or reason on its own: AI still needs human input and intervention (at least for now) in order to produce anything useful or innovative.

The Future of English

world language
Who knows what the future holds for the English language. It’s constantly evolving. 

Sometime in the future, we may all be speaking (and writing) in a simple English: a language used universally in all areas of communication by individuals, businesses, and governmental bodies.

And the advances in AI will help us in everything we do, not just writing and speaking English.

All good.

But there’s a another side to embracing simple English and letting computers do too much for us.

AI may advance to the point where we don’t need to be so concerned about the details of writing. AI will be able to do that for us: news content, business reports, contracts, treaties, novels, letter writing.

Yet, all is not lost. We will always be able to think and feel, and express our many emotions, whether in writing or speaking. AI will never be able to do that.

Let’s see what the future holds.

About the Author Joaquin Roman

Joaquin is a graduate of Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania, with a degree in Business Administration. He was a software engineer for many years, working mostly for the U.S. government as a contractor. He has always enjoyed the idea of trying to interpret what people are saying, either verbally or in writing and has always been interested in languages. That’s how he found his way into copy editing and proofreading, which he really enjoys. Joaquin is a copy editor at Craft Your Content.

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