Friday, October 10, 2014

The spread of English

It is a language nobody owns.
Henry Hitchings, The Secret Life of Words

Henry Hitchings makes this comment near the end of his 2008 book The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English. He is speaking about the spread of the English language around the world so that far more people speak English as a second language than as their primary language. Travelers who speak only English can travel just about anywhere in the world and find some native they can communicate with. The language, as its name suggests, may have originated in England, but the English have not actually owned their language for a long time.

Hitchings doesn't say so, but nobody owns the Spanish or French languages either. Just as English spread in previous centuries thanks to conquest and colonization, so Spain and France spread their languages far and wide. Today Spanish is spoken throughout most of South and Central America, and thanks to immigration, legal and otherwise, in many parts of North America. French is the primary language in Quebec and in a few other parts of the world heavily influenced by France.

Most languages tend to be confined almost exclusively to the lands or regions where they originated. As Hitchings observes, if you hear people talking in Polish, chances are they are from Poland.

There were about 6,900 languages spoken in the world at the time Hitchings wrote his book, but hundreds of them have become extinct since then. "Realistically, fifty years from now the world's 'big' languages may be just six: Chinese, Spanish, Hindi, Bengali, Arabic and English," the author writes. Of these, only the last two, Arabic and English, have "significant numbers of non-native speakers," according to Hitchings. Converts to Islam must learn Arabic, while persons around the world are learning English for reasons of business, technology and entertainment.

As English spreads, it continues to gobble up words from other languages, claiming them as its own. The apt word Hitchings uses to describe the language is "omnivorous."

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