How an Unknown Dialect Became the World’s Most-Spoken Language
(The story of English)
The Language of Industry
The Industrial Revolution in Britain during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries led in an age of advancement in technology and science. As Britain moved towards and industrialized society, there became a need to find new ways to name and describe these developments.
Many neologisms had entered the English language through inventors, entrepreneurs, and scientists writing books, pamphlets and scientific papers describing and exploring the industrial age.
Some of these new words were adaptations of old Saxon terms, others were borrowed from other languages such as French, Latin and Greek. ‘Lingerie’, for example, is taken from French word meaning ‘things made of linen’, which comes from old French word ‘linge’ which translates as ‘washable’.
Other products were named after notable people associated with them. A ‘raglan’ was a popular type of overcoat and is believed to have been named after Lord Raglan, a nineteenth-century army general and diplomat. Similarly, the mackintosh is named after Charles Mackintosh, the inventor of waterproof fabrics.
During the nineteenth century, over half of scientific papers, journals and books produced in the world were written in English.
By creating a language of industry and science, English became the language of age the world over.
The Language of Empire
At its peak towards the end of the nineteenth century, the British Empire covered a quarter of surface of the earth. Britain’s loss of the thirteen colonies of British America during the American War of Independence (1775–83) had forced Britain turned its attention towards Asia and the south Pacific.
Captain James Cook claimed the eastern coast of Australia and the islands of New Zealand during the 1770 and these outposts along with the Cape Colony in South Africa, laid the grounds for the British Empire’s dominance during the nineteenth century.
In 1813, one of the acts of the Royal Charter was to provide funds for educating the Indian population. The English Education Act led to the funding of schools and educational establishments that taught an English curriculum with English as the language of instruction. As more and more of India’s population became versed in the language, English became the language of the law and administration in the subcontinent.
It is interesting to note that in Gandhi’s political pamphlet ‘Hind Swaraj’ (1909) he highlights the spread of English as the major block to Indian self-determination: ‘To give millions a knowledge of English is to enslave them. The foundation that was laid for education has enslaved us… Is it not a sad commentary that we should have to speak of Home Rule in a foreign language?’ Today, English is one of Indian’s eighteen official languages.
Singlish and Spanglish
In the twenty-first century, English continues to influence other languages. Two key examples of this process can be found in the hybridized forms Singlish and Spanglish.
Singapore was a key outpost of the British Empire and was under colonial rule for 146 years between 1819 and 1965.
When Singapore was granted independence, the newly elected government chose to make English the official language of the state, principally to maintain its status in world commerce. As for Singlish, it is very much the language of the streets and is far from the official English. Words and phrases from Malay, Bengaly and Chinese have been absorbed into Singlish and English-based sentences structures.
In contrast to Singlish, linguist dispute the status of Spanglish as creole or pidgin form of English and Spanish. Spanglish differs from region to region. It is totally informal language without any clear rules or structures. It is the practice shifting between the two languages during a sentence, for example: ‘Que is that?’ (What is that?) and ‘Me voy de shopping para the mall’ (I’m going shopping in the mall).
In 1933, H.G. Wells wrote a science-fiction novel ‘The Shape of Things to Come’.
The book was Well’s attempt to write future history from 1933 up to the early decades of the twenty-second century. He made several accurate predictions, including the outbreak of the Second World War and the creation of nuclear submarines. Wells also predicted that English and Spanish would become the dominant world languages and would eventually merge to become interchangeable – in other words, Spanglish.
The following books provided invaluable resources of information in the writing of this article, and are recommended for further reading.
Ball, Martin J., The Celtic Language, Routledge, 2002.
Baugh, Alfred C. and Cable, Thomas, A History of the English Language, Routledge, 2005.
Piercy, Joseph, The Story of English, Michael O’Mara Books, 2012.
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