The world has always had the need for an international language. Before, it was for the spread of religion and for intellectuals to engage in debates. Today, it is more about communicating with other people from any culture and part of the world. Currently, a billion people around the world speak English, a language that until a few hundred years ago, was spoken by a few million people who lived in the British Isles. How did it happen? Well, the rise of English comes from politics and history.
The origins of English as a language come from the Anglo-Saxon tribes that arrived in the British Isles in 400 AD. Its language, Old English, was adopted as the common language of these islands.
Chaucer is considered the father of English literature and the greatest English poet of the middle ages. He contributed in the English vernacular tradition. At the time he wrote his popular work “The Canterbury Tales” in English, Latin and French were considered as the prominent languages by rule. By doing that, he showed that literature written in English was just as sophisticated and permanent as those preferred languages. Also, as English evolved through the centuries, his works were becoming difficult to understand. Readers became a bit anxious, and, in the fear that recent works would have the same effect, his work indirectly promoted the creation of English dictionaries.
The Hundred Years’ War brought with it the end of French rule in the British Isles, so English became the dominant and influential language in the 15th century. The famous poet and writer William Shakespeare gave a literal and cultural impulse to the language. He enriched the language with his writings, inventing more than 1700 new words.
The British Empire
When Great Britain became the “colonial master” of the world, the true spreading of the English language began. At the beginning of the 20th century, after the Industrial Revolution that took place in Europe and United States during the 18th century, Great Britain had established imperial control over more than a quarter of the world – from Asia to Africa – and more than 400 million (new) British subjects. English was spread throughout the world by sailors, soldiers, merchants (and so on) of the British Empire. So, before the introduction of any language policy, English had already reached every corner of the planet.
In most of the British Empire, trade was the main goal (if not the only one), so few Britons settled permanently in the colonies–that’s why English was the language of business, administration and education, but not the language of the people in Asia and Africa.
After independence, many countries became multilingual, but they needed a language to communicate with each other and other nations, so English language became protagonist. Now, it is the dominant (or official) language in 75 territories. Although in Canada, US and Australia (the largest colonies) native languages almost became extinct due to the preponderance of English, it wasn’t the lingua franca (and wouldn’t be until sometime after 1945). English really wasn’t the dominant language of European colonialism (at the time, it was French), therefore, a series of more recent events had to occur in order for English to gain its international status: The rise of the United States in the 20th century.
Two world wars
This series of events were the two world wars. The European continent (the protagonist of both wars) had been devastated, and while they were going through a reconstruction process in the years after 1945, the United States experienced an incredible expansion. American companies began to expand where British companies had dominated many years before, bringing English around the world as a commercial language. The English tradition in combination with the American Business converted English into the first language of the international trade. After World War II, English replaced French as the language of diplomacy.
It is necessary to note that the post-war era also contributed significantly to the expansion of English in the world. In 1948, the United States gave Western Europe a large sum of money to help them in the reconstruction process, but that wasn’t the only intention. The Marshall Plan served to promote influences on Europeans that made them favour the US and the English.
In addition to sending money, USA also expanded through jazz, rock and roll, disco and so on. They became a popular culture: Hollywood became a worldwide sensation and a cultural reference. However, the British also took English to different parts of Europe through bands such as the Rolling Stones, Queen, The Beatles and other bands. They came to sites as “inaccessible” as Communist Germany, which was under the control of the Soviets, who did anything to prevent English culture and influence on the inhabitants.
Music festivals such as the popular Woodstock or United Kingdom’s Glastonbury festival were icons of generations of both English speakers and those who did not speak the language.
English is the computing science language
The earliest bigger consumer of computing science during its emerging state (which later developed into digital communications and World Wide Web) was the U.S. Navy, whose tactical needs caused the development and execution of programs that later brought advances in the creation of software. The WWW history of computing can corroborate this fact. Also, while not all programming languages are in English, the keywords used in all of them are in English. Comments and variables in English are in each programmer’s language. Of the 8500+ known programming languages, 2400 were made in the United States, 600 in the United Kingdom, 160 in Canada and 75 in Australia. One third of the programming languages were made in English speaking countries.
As you can see, the development of English as the global language has been gradually taking place, until it became what it is today. While it is true that other languages are booming (such as Chinese, Spanish and Russian), English will probably remain the global language for a long time.