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As we all know, English is the universal communication medium. Now we know how powerful it is to convey our thoughts. When did it become a common language? Why did they opt for this language?

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"Now we know how powerful it is to convey our thoughts." You don't mean to say that English is more capable than other languages to express a given idea, do you? –  Kosmonaut Nov 29 '10 at 15:12
    
@Kosmonaut I suppose the power of a language is a function of the number of people and nationalities that will understand it. By that metric I suppose English, Spanish and Chinese are the top contenders. –  j-g-faustus Jul 4 '11 at 17:21
    
Note that while the number of people who speak Mandarin is also very large, they are almost all in China. Spanish is spoken in many countries, but besides Spain itself they are almost all in South America. English surely "wins" today as the language understood in the most diverse places. –  Jay Jan 13 '12 at 15:49
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Why are "they"? –  Kris May 19 '13 at 6:13
    
There are unsubstantiated presuppositions in the question. It requires to be strengthened or closed as NARQ. –  Kris May 19 '13 at 6:14

8 Answers 8

up vote 20 down vote accepted

English became the lingua franca around WWII, but it was already used all through the British Colonial Empire, establishing it in North America and Australia among others. here is a citation of Wikipedia:

It[English] has replaced French as the lingua franca of diplomacy since World War II. The rise of English in diplomacy began in 1919, in the aftermath of World War I, when the Treaty of Versailles was written in English as well as in French, the dominant language used in diplomacy until that time. The widespread use of English was further advanced by the prominent international role played by English-speaking nations (the United States and the Commonwealth of Nations) in the aftermath of World War II, particularly in the establishment and organization of the United Nations.
[...]
When the United Kingdom became a colonial power, English served as the lingua franca of the colonies of the British Empire. In the post-colonial period, some of the newly created nations which had multiple indigenous languages opted to continue using English as the lingua franca to avoid the political difficulties inherent in promoting any one indigenous language above the others. The British Empire established the use of English in regions around the world such as North America, India, Africa, Australia and New Zealand, so that by the late 19th century its reach was truly global, and in the latter half of the 20th century, widespread international use of English was much reinforced by the global economic, financial, scientific, military, and cultural pre-eminence of the English-speaking countries and especially the U.S. Today, more than half of all scientific journals are published in English, while in France, almost one third of all natural science research appears in English, lending some support to English being the lingua franca of science and technology. English is also the lingua franca of international Air Traffic Control communications.

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Ah, the irony of calling English the "lingua franca": a Latin phrase meaning "French Language". –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Nov 29 '10 at 15:11
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@Mr. Shiny and New: I fail to see the irony :-))) –  RegDwigнt Nov 29 '10 at 16:07
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@Claudiu: the vocabulary may be largely from romance languages, but the grammar is germanic. –  chimp Dec 15 '10 at 9:40
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I've read that short Anglo-Saxon words may be a minority of the vocabulary but they are the most used. –  RedGrittyBrick Dec 17 '10 at 10:09
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Mr. Shiny and New 安宇: Forgive the pedantry, but we need to put a stop to this canard. lingua franca is actually Italian for the Frankish language. The Franks were a Germanic group. –  Pitarou Dec 24 '11 at 4:29

This is a difficult question to answer because so many of the terms are vague. Even the term "English" is mutable, as there are many dialects and variants used regionally which are quite distinct from one another, with their own grammatical quirks and entirely unique vocabularies.

However, I would say that it was England's massive colonial expansion and the post-colonial retention of English for trade and negotiation that are mostly responsible for it's prevalence - in turn caused by England's naval superiority for many centuries. The aggressively prolific production of English-language media in the early- to mid-twentieth century (Hollywood et al) resulted in prolonged global exposure, and a significant proportion of research and diplomacy was already taking place in English. Nobody can say exactly when its usage gained "critical mass," but I would agree that it was somewhere in the early 20th century.

There are many other universal-communication languages in use (a notable drive in S E Asia to promote "Mandarin" Chinese as a lingua franca is underway) but as you say, none of them so prevalent as English.

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To nitpick: it should be "the United Kingdom" (from 1707; "Great Britain" before then) rather than "England" when talking about the Empire. –  Steve Melnikoff Nov 29 '10 at 10:04
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Ach, it's a fair point, but a contentious one. That's a debate I'll avoid, I think...! –  PyroTyger Nov 29 '10 at 11:42
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(To nitpick further: in my earlier comment, the year should be 1801). –  Steve Melnikoff Nov 30 '10 at 16:05
    
@Steve Melnikoff: Come on Steve, get your acts of union right! ;-) –  Orbling Dec 20 '10 at 18:04
    
If you don't want to be controversial, how come the Empire and trade were "caused by" naval superiority and not its causes? –  TimLymington May 30 '11 at 22:58

I agree with the other answers which emphasize: a) the British empire, and b) the dominance of the US in business/science in the post-WWII era. I might also add that its simple alphabet (non-calligraphic, no accents, etc) was very useful in the early computer era when coding and printers were simple.

On a biased note, it's my impression that English is more dynamic than many languages (quick to adopt foreign words and to coin phrases), and while it has a lot of irregular verbs it has also undergone trade-language-like simplifications, such as the dropping of noun gender and less inflection. I've been told that english has more synonyms than some languages, which also makes rhyming easy. Last, perhaps the US's history of immigration also helped spread exposure.

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The BBC News magazine has an article on "How English evolved into a global language"

As the British Library charts the evolution of English in a new major exhibition, author Michael Rosen gives a brief history of a language that has grown to world domination with phrases such as "cool" and "go to it".

It refers to a free exhibition at the British Library: "Evolving English - One Language, Many Voices"

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Not really related, but I couldn't resist:

It's not that they're wicked or naturally bad
It's knowing they're foreign that makes them so mad
The English are all that a nation should be
And the pride of the English are Donald and me

The English the English the English are best
I wouldn't give tuppence for all of the rest

Full lyrics here.

EDIT On a slightly more serious vote (erm, freudian slip, I meant note!), I think that apart from the geopolitical aspect, another element in the success of English is its flexibility and openness to evolution.

If you contrast with a protectionist language like French that has a 'magisterium' which has to decide on all things new (l'Académie Française), there is much less liberty to improvise or adapt. In English, it's often been a case of 'If you can't beat them, join them', and we liberally import any new and useful words we come across.

So in one sense, English hasn't so much beaten other languages as absorbed them.

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@Rhodri, yes, I wasn't too sure but it was the first link I came across and my memories were hazy. If you've got a better version, I'll update. –  Benjol Nov 29 '10 at 14:45
    
Resistance is futile, you will be assimilated. –  SamB Feb 21 '12 at 23:58
    
+1 for Flanders and Swan! –  terdon Oct 11 '13 at 15:22

English may now be the world's lingua franca, but according to a review of Nicholas Ostler's latest book in The Economist the future looks quite different:

English is expanding as a lingua-franca but not as a mother tongue. More than 1 billion people speak English worldwide but only about 330m of them as a first language, and this population is not spreading. The future of English is in the hands of countries outside the core Anglophone group. Will they always learn English?

Mr Ostler suggests that two new factors—modern nationalism and technology—will check the spread of English.

...

English will fade as a lingua-franca, Mr Ostler argues, but not because some other language will take its place. No pretender is pan-regional enough, and only Africa’s linguistic situation may be sufficiently fluid to have its future choices influenced by outsiders. Rather, English will have no successor because none will be needed. Technology, Mr Ostler believes, will fill the need.

This argument relies on huge advances in computer translation and speech recognition. Mr Ostler acknowledges that so far such software is a disappointment even after 50 years of intense research, and an explosion in the power of computers. But half a century, though aeons in computer time, is an instant in the sweep of language history.

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I've turned this into a question: english.stackexchange.com/questions/7146 –  Antony Quinn Dec 20 '10 at 18:02
    
An interesting article, though I think the power of global media and the internet to spread the English language is liable to define the situation, rather than a technological response. Dynamic, accurate, machine translation in to audio is exceptionally hard, in to writing it is still very hard. Google Translate does a pretty good job, but it is no substitute for knowing the language just yet. –  Orbling Dec 20 '10 at 18:07
    
Mr. Ostler acknowledges that 50 years has not yielded good translation software, then compares that to language history. He should rather compare it to computer history, where technology is obsolete in two years and at various times a huge amount of research has been put into translation. In that context, 50 years is a long time. –  Wayne May 17 '11 at 15:27
    
I wouldn't dismiss computer translation just yet. Over the past 10 years-or-so AI has finally started living up to the hype of the '80s (self-driving cards, computers that win at Jeopardy, etc). AI can already rival human linguists: Yahoo! Translate was laboriously created by a team of linguists, whereas Google Translate -- which is of comparable quality -- was automatically generated by a clever algorithm that compared parallel texts. I won't be shocked if a translator good enough for most practical purposes comes along in the next 20 years or so. –  Pitarou Dec 24 '11 at 4:36

Usually the nation with the biggest power spreads its culture and language. Take the Greeks or Romans for example, when they were in power, the world spoke their language. As simple as that.

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I am very surprised that none of the answers has mentioned the obvious: English is simple. Speaking English at the basic level needed to order a meal or direct a taxi is by far easier than any other language I know. Speaking English well is another matter entirely but the lingua franca does not require great ability.

English has the following features that make it very easy to speak it well enough to be understood:

  • No gendered nouns. Compare to any Latin language for example.
  • No declinations. Compare to German or Greek.
  • The conjugation of the overwhelming majority of verbs is trivial, almost non-existent. For example compare the verb to find, in English and French:

    I find                     je trouve
    You find                   tu trouves  
    He/She finds               il/elle trouve       
    We find                    nous trouvons  
    You find                   vous trouvez  
    They find                  ils/elles trouvent     
    

    In English, only the third person singular changes and that by a single character. This is the case for most verbs.

  • No infinitive, the name of the verb is the same as the verb itself with an added to. For example, the verb to go (first person singular I go). Compare to, say, Spanish, where the verb is ir and the first person singular is yo voy. Let alone french where the first person singular of aller is je vais.

  • English, like all European languages, uses a phonetic alphabet. This will make it much easier for foreigners to learn since there are only 26 (in English), unlike languages like Chinese where writing requires the memorization of hundreds of characters.

  • English has no accents.

Now, I want to stress that the chaotic nature of English makes it a very difficult language to speak well. However, its basic simplicity makes it a very easy language to speak just well enough to be understood. I think that this is a very important factor to consider when thinking of the language's current popularity.

Obviously the historical, geopolitical and economic considerations mentioned in the other play a major role. Greek has none of these points in its favor yet was the lingua franca of the Byzantine world for centuries. Simplicity is not essential for a language to become widely spoken but it does help.

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You're cheating with ir and aller. The corresponding verbs in English are "to be" and "to go", and their past tenses are "I was" and "I went". No simpler than the Spanish or French versions. And the accents in Spanish and French make the pronunciation closer to the spelling ... a big drawback of English. I'd say having them is an advantage for these languages. –  Peter Shor Oct 11 '13 at 16:28
    
@PeterShor no they're not, go is ir and aller respectively. They are only to be if used to construct tenses which is not what I am talking about. In any case, English verbs very rarely change from the "infinitive" to the first person singular which is my main point. Do you disagree that English is a particularly easy language to speak at a basic level? As for spelling, Spanish spelling is exactly what you hear 99% of the time (and the accent never affects spelling). French spelling is all over the place. Admittedly, so is English spelling but that's why I don't mention it. –  terdon Oct 11 '13 at 16:34

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