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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
    Commented Nov 29, 2010 at 15:12
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    @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. Commented Jul 4, 2011 at 17:21
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    Why are "they"?
    – Kris
    Commented May 19, 2013 at 6:13
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    E.g. Spanish it's much easier than English. It's probably the easiest European language to learn. But British were/are better imperialists than Spanish and here you are to,too,two and other crap.
    – Derfder
    Commented Jun 23, 2013 at 15:38
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    Is English is a universal language? I think that is an overstatement because 70% of the worlds population speaks other languages. Chinese is the most spoken language in the world in terms of people who speak it as mother tongue and Spanish is the second.
    – PbxMan
    Commented Mar 12, 2014 at 7:38

7 Answers 7

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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". Commented Nov 29, 2010 at 15:11
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    @Mr. Shiny and New: I fail to see the irony :-)))
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Nov 29, 2010 at 16:07
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    @Claudiu: the vocabulary may be largely from romance languages, but the grammar is germanic.
    – chimp
    Commented Dec 15, 2010 at 9:40
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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
    Commented Dec 24, 2011 at 4:29
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    @Mr.ShinyandNew安宇 That is False
    – Lincity
    Commented Aug 16, 2013 at 4:20
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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. Commented Nov 29, 2010 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
    Commented Nov 29, 2010 at 11:42
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    (To nitpick further: in my earlier comment, the year should be 1801). Commented Nov 30, 2010 at 16:05
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    @Steve Melnikoff: Come on Steve, get your acts of union right! ;-)
    – Orbling
    Commented Dec 20, 2010 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? Commented May 30, 2011 at 22:58
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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 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 letters (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 answers 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. Commented Oct 11, 2013 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
    Commented Oct 11, 2013 at 16:34
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    If the official language of the USA were German, today we'd all be speaking about its grammar being so logical and how phonetic its is. oxforddictionaries.com/words/about-the-german-language. If the US's official language was French we'd be musing about its musicality and importance in the field of art, literature and politics. And if the US's official language was Italian, we'd all be talking about how great Italian pizzas are and how Latin brought civilization/culture to the barbaric world.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 10, 2016 at 9:07
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    You're saying people are choosing English because of its simplicity, I'm disputing your introductory line: I am very surprised that none of the answers has mentioned the obvious: English is simple. Its spelling, pronunciation, phrasal verbs, slang, idiomatic expressions are far from being simple. To reach a certain level of communicability can be relatively easy to obtain, but to become proficient requires hard work. We could well be talking about mandarin being the second lingua franca in 50 years time.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 10, 2016 at 9:48
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    And I am surprised that the "obvious" reason why English has become the lingua franca is not apparent to you. I know many Italian speakers who have said they preferred studying Spanish because it is easier. And I suspect the majority of Spanish speakers would say Italian, and French are simpler to learn. Scandinavian speakers (Danes, Fins etc.) seem to take to English like a duck to water. But I'm not sure the same could be said for Arabic speakers, maybe they prefer French for obvious geopolitical reasons. :)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 10, 2016 at 10:22
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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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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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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
    Commented Nov 29, 2010 at 14:45
  • Resistance is futile, you will be assimilated.
    – SamB
    Commented Feb 21, 2012 at 23:58
  • What's delightful is that English is do lassez-faire about adding new words that you can actually invent a new language by speaking English in a slightly different context. Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 13:36
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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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  • This answer basically consists one good link and a dead one (404 - page not found on www.bl.uk).
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 10, 2016 at 12:50

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