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Sunday, August 13, 2017

How English conquered the world

So how did English get to be so important?  I’m no linguist but I take the following summary from The Mother Tongue by Bill Brigdon, and numerous conversations with our foreign exchange students and a couple of good linguists I’ve know.  English is advantaged because it has simple grammar.  For example, there is no gender or declination of nouns except pronouns.  (“Dog” doesn’t have 7 different endings depending on how it is used—or 40 in Finnish!)  Verb conjugations are simple compared with other languages.  Latin alphabet beats every other language from Egypt to Japan. 200,000 words in common usage, is twice most other languages.  That is because English welcomes new words from other languages.  Thus English is chock full of subtle meanings of words.  Few other languages even print a “thesaurus”.  Easy cases, flexible word ordering, allows a new user of English to break-in fast.  As Ta-Weit used to say, “You just give it a try and let ‘er rip.  Then smile a lot.  And somehow everyone catches on.” The perfect language for engineers with less verbal skills.  Concise meaning means less writing.  So how did English get that simple, that easy to add onto? 

Historical linguists say that it happened because of the quirks of history that relegated English to peasants in the middle ages while the nobles spoke Norman French, then Norman French became an object of derision by the rest of France, setting up the adoption of English in England as a simplified official tongue. 

Let’s start with the Anglo-Saxons.  Angles, Saxons, and Jutes emigrated to Britain beginning about 450 AD.  They didn’t really invade, just took advantage of the land where Celts were left defenseless by the Romans who had pulled out.  Celts were sophisticated and Roman, needing baths and police to survive.  The functionally illiterate Germans didn’t and they swamped the kingdom with a more or less common tongue.  Celtic Bretons retreated to Wales, Cornwall and Brittany.  A few Breton inclusions may have survived for centuries but the new talk was almost all in Anglo-Saxon “Old English”.  You can still find enclaves of Old English dialect in Angleland (German Danish border) and Frisian coast where they say you will be stunned by the dialect of German so close to English. Some local guy may come up to you and say in perfect Angle-Old English, “What the clock?”  Few of the early Anglo-Saxons could read or write—only a few priests and important people did.  But the spelling is radically different than our English.  On paper it looks utterly foreign.  But you understand the phonetic letters, the  words sound womewhat like English, but very archaic. This was the language of Bede and Alcuin in the 700s after the Anglo-Saxons had become Christianized, educated and writing became commoner.

Then came the invasions.  First the Danes conquered northern England on the east coast beginning about 850.  Then in 1066, 7000 Norman knights beat Saxon king Aethelred the Unready, and found themselves in possession of a nation of 1.5 million.  Old English was relegated to a second class language of peasants.  For over 300 years it remained so.  And with Danes in the North, some Celts in the South, the dialects arose all over the place.  In order to understand one another, they had to simplify into a kind of pidgin.  Thus the loss of cases, conjugations, etc.  Instead of remembering 11 different cases of an adjective, there arose just one. Gender was scrapped by the illiterate serfs.  And the nobles, of course could care less.  But that was critical.  Instead of a learned class who are the cause of complexity in language (to make stories more poetic, speak more precisely, and separate themselves from the masses by manner of talk) English grew common. 

Meanwhile Norman-French was held with some disdain by the Parisians and other French.  Norman French or “Frensh” as it was laughingly called was a dialect put out to disdain by the other French.  Worse, the English nobles started using some of the common English in daily life.  Consequently, by the 1400s, the English nobles began to abandon Frensh in favor of an English with about 10,000 Frensh terms included. Legal, government and church terms were borrowed from Frensh. Meanwhile about the era of Chaucer, English,evolved into its simplest form and spellings, were becoming modernized as the language became more and more written.  This was complete by Shakespeare and Elizabeth in the late 1500s. 

Then the Spanish Armada couldn’t win and Elizabeth did.  A few years later, Britain was building a national navy and conquering the world.  The language spread everywhere. By the 19th century English, French, German and Spanish were in a dead heat for the most international language.  France, the bounteous and populous country with all the science and engineering in the 19th century, was favored by 1900.  Then WW I killed the wide influence of Germans and French. But there were other ingredients to their linguistic demise.  French people hate changes to their tongue.  German was Europe-wide but not world-wide.  English was the easy-to-use.  And nobody was easier in usage than those Americans who became leaders after WW II.  Quite simply, the world adopted English.  Since 1945, English has gone from 3% of world usage to 14%.  Hence every foreign exchange kid lists as Goal #1 to learn English fluently.  Our Finnish exchange kid called me up to celebrate acing his university language exam. I guess he’d underlined my colloquialisms in my letters to him.  Used them in his exam and the profs were very impressed.  He laughed and said, “Dad Z, you have a colorful speech.”  So there it is.  Okies and other peasants conquer the language world.