500 years ago, English was spoken by about 7 million people, mainly in the British Isles. Today, there are as many as 1.8 billion people fluent in English and over 55 countries using it as a second language.
It is the main language of business, science, literature, politics, diplomacy and many other fields and sectors. It is also the lingua franca of the world. But how did this language manage to become the most widely spoken, the most widely distributed and the most understood?
To understand this, we must go back to its origins and learn about its history. A unique history which today makes it the major international language of communication for many sectors.
The influence of the British Empire
The influence of English is not related to its grammatical form or linguistic characteristics, but rather to politics and history!
Thriving across the British Isles for the past 1,000 years, Shakespeare’s language has spread further through the exchange of pilgrims, sailors, traders and missionaries from the British kingdom across the globe.
The influence of English is also explained by the advent of Gutenberg’s printing press in 1440, a revolutionary invention that greatly contributed to the spread of the language by making its writings accessible to the four corners of the world! Successful works were to create a huge craze for British literature and culture. This phenomenon contributed greatly to the conception of the British Empire in parallel with its numerous victories and economic conquests.
Britain therefore became the largest Empire in history. Its populations from colonised countries learnt English while appropriating it, which explains the appearance of new variants such as in Australia, New Zealand, India, Canada and South Africa.
The rise of the United States
When the United States was created, the aim of the founding fathers was obviously to unite the states so that they would be united around the same harmony. To achieve this, it was essential to establish a single language that reflected the national identity. In order to promote the influence of English, it was only at the beginning of the 20th century that it was really established on American territory, which prohibited the teaching of foreign languages in several states.
It is interesting to understand how and why America encouraged English domination so much. To do this, we need to look at the Second World War, a period that ushered Americans into a prosperous economic era , with a booming industry and a complete expansion of communications.
This era enabled them to export their culture in abundance throughout the world, and particularly to Europe, which had great difficulty in recovering from this tragic period and rebuilding itself.
English as a cultural language
Like business and technology, the popular culture dominated by the United States through cinema, television and music has only accentuated the universality and spread of the English language. It must be said that the cultural legacy of the post-war period has played a considerable role in the growth of English internationally. It was a period of great desire for freedom, lightness and fulfilment on the part of the people. It was therefore only natural that the hippie culture emerged, marked by the emblematic Woodstock festivals. They represent the perfect example of the musical and cultural influence of the 1960s in the United States, an influence that soon spread to the Western world.
Artists, musicians and filmmakers saw English as an opportunity to reach a wider audience. Today, the opportunities for understanding that English offers, pushes these artists to create works in its direction, further reinforcing the cultural impetus it enjoyed in the second half of the 20th century.
Rock & Roll, jazz, disco and hip hop, all these musical styles that we sing, dance and listen to come, not surprisingly, from the United States! Beyond being an industry and seducing millions of people for almost a century, English-speaking music influences our European culture and daily lives, whatever our age, our gender and our beliefs. Queen, the Beatles, Nina Simone, ACDC, Ray Charles, Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, so many personalities and legends without whom English-speaking music would not be what it is today.
As for the cinema, English is the language of Hollywood, of successful films and series! American cinema has not only produced films with unrivalled budgets, it has also created real symbols of dreams that fascinate beyond borders. In Europe, Hollywood films have been a huge success, as have American television series that have become cultural references. This enthusiasm is explained by the positive values transmitted through these formats, which compensate for the suffering reflected in the war.
English, a language for business
English dominates the fields of education, administration and of course business. The purpose of the English language has always been to do business, which is why it has not found its place in Asia and Africa, where languages are more people-oriented.
In France, advertisers quickly realised that English could be used to attract people to their brand because of its lightness and glamour. Since then, it has seduced French consumers and adapted to their language by preserving words and expressions (Haute Couture, Eau de Toilette, macaroon, chic, prêt-à-porter) that make France a cultural power and radiate internationally. It is therefore no coincidence that these types of advertising campaigns are so important!
On the French side, American brands such as Levi’s, Starbucks, Coca-Cola and many others have been imposing themselves on us for decades as leaders in our daily consumption. We have to admit that we are strongly influenced by the American power, which has been able to offer us brand new consumer trends.
English is also the language of the technological revolution, particularly with the arrival and rise of Apple over a period of 10 years, which has confirmed the United States as the most innovative nation in terms of technology.
A language that evolves with the times
In companies, “Franglais”, a mixture of French and English that corporate employees have become accustomed to using in their oral and written exchanges for the sake of popularity and simplicity, is increasingly used.
It is clear that English culture continues to influence our world today in all its aspects. Although the French language has enough words to describe any object or situation, linguistic trends are encouraging us to use more English. We no longer even realise that we use English words every day, which are deeply rooted in our society (weekend, jeans, meeting, selfie, etc.).
This linguistic evolution did not exist even 100 years ago, and is due to the influence of television, music and, for the past few years, social networks. Mixing English terms with French is a common and unique characteristic of the French people. But how far will this influence extend in ten to twenty years’ time? After decades of Anglophone deficiencies, perhaps by then the French will have mastered it even better than their native language.