How and why did English come to be a global language?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007

22 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. What is and what makes a global language?

3. The spread of English
3.1 The historical development of the English language towards a global one and beginnings of its conquering of the world
3.2 Colonial Expansion: The role of Britain in the 19th century
3.3 Money, Mass Media and Modernity: The United States take over

4. English usage today
4.1 Statistics: who speaks English?
4.3 English everywhere – but where exactly?

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

The role of the English language among all other languages is constantly examined, researched and written about. It appears that no other language has ever had such an amazing and massive impact on other cultures, languages and world history. Statements like “English is today a truly global language” (Rubdy 2006: 5) and “World English exists as a political and cultural reality” (Crystal 2003b: xii) underpin the notion of the possibility of a language that connects all people, a notion and perhaps also a wish that is almost as old as mankind.

This paper will investigate the question of what defines a language as a global one and what factors are convincing or definite. David Crystal’s explanation makes it quite obvious: “A language achieves a genuinely global status when it develops a special role that is recognized in every country” (Crystal 2003b: 3). However, he himself admits that this is not precise enough; a ‘special role’ can mean many things. The concept usually refers to political aspects, like, for example, the status of the language of the state defined by law, or the language being the only one in some states for historical reasons (cf. Crystal 2003b: 66).

But in all cases, it can be argued, the population is living in an environment in which the English language is routinely in evidence, publicly accessible in varying degrees, and part of the nation’s recent or present identity (Crystal 2003b: 66).

It also has to be clarified what processes can lead to a global status of a language, and if so-called “naïve” theories hold true. For the purpose of examining this question further, the concept of the lingua franca and the role of English as such will also be looked at. Talking about English and its world influence, it is inevitable to consider the roles and history of Britain and the United States. In order to make the attempt of getting more precise, numbers of speakers will be shown and it will be explained how these numbers came about and what they mean.

The English language has not always held that extraordinary status, and especially during the twentieth century a huge increase in those numbers took place. The reason for this seems obvious, but how exactly did it happen that for instance in China “in 1959, everyone was carrying a book of the thoughts of Chairman Mao; today [20 years later], everyone is carrying a book of elementary English” (Crystal 1997: 360)? The amount of Anglicisms in other languages also accounts for the fact that English plays an ever increasing role in communication, and, despite all the benefits deriving from that, this is not appreciated everywhere. Bastian Sick in the so far three volumes of his book Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod complains about change in the German language due to the influence of English, and similar criticism is done in favour of other languages.

As obvious as it may seem, English is dominant is so many spheres that it appears impossible to account for all of them thoroughly. However, the most significant domains will be explained as such in order to draw a connection between history, present and future.

2. What is and what makes a global language?

In order to present the reasons for the emergence of English as a global language, it first has to be made clear what the term “global language” really means. Considering the fact that currently there are 178 countries on this planet, McArthur’s list of 104 “territories for which English is a significant language” seems to be extraordinarily huge (McArthur 2002: xvi). According to his statistics, there are now more than 90 countries in which English has the status of an official or semi-official language or a significant role (cf. McArthur 2002: 3), which corresponds with the number of more than a billion people, a seventh of the world’s population, that are users of English (cf. McArthur 2002: 2). Today, non-native speakers far outnumber the native speakers of English. These facts and figures should speak for themselves, but they still do not tell us what characteristics a language has to have in order to count as a global language.

McArthur states that English is the “universalizing language of the human race” (McArthur 2002: 2); there are three major tags that are universally used to specify this rather broad statement – world English, international English, and global English. Each of these labels implies that English is at least known and recognised and understood in various countries in every continent, but they also denote that English is the most common and prominent language in certain domains. They all certainly include the fact that English also deals as a transmitter between billions of people whose mother tongue is not English. Basically, the whole globe is able to communicate due to the fact that English did not just spread into parts of the world – like Spanish did, for instance, into South America – but it made its way into a great number of terrestrial niches like water finds its way into a sponge. According to Crystal, the representation of the English language in all parts of the world, including the terrestrial continents and all major oceans alike, makes it a self-evident fact that we call English a world language (cf. Crystal 2003a: 106).

English owes its frequent determination as a lingua franca to this very fact. The most commonly understood meaning of English being a lingua franca indicates that it is a language that is used as a means of communication by speakers from many different linguistic backgrounds in many different circumstances. Indeed, “English is both the world’s key up-to-the-minute operational language and a kind of living classical language” (McArthur 2002: 3), because its origins reach far back in history and in many parts of the world it is used as the language of literature, art and science – by more than 250 million native speakers (cf. McArthur 2002: 2) and probably many more non-native speakers of English alike. The categorisation into a lingua franca signifies that it is not bound to a native context, i.e. England, America, or Australia, for example, but it is aterritorial, in contrast to territorialized Englishes like Caribbean Standard English or East Asian Standardizing English. Just like these varieties of English, English as a lingua franca (ELF) has characteristics that are not existent in British or American Standard English. James points out that zero-inflection in verbs in the 3rd person singular and new prepositional usages are examples of the structural patterns that are changed to the advantage of those non-native speakers who use ELF (cf. James 2005: 134). However, the point has to be made that ELF is not becoming a new language or a variety of English as such, but many kinds of regionally dissimilar ways of using it (cf. James 2005: 134). James’s view is also confirmed by Crystal: “A totally uniform, regionally neutral, and unarguably prestigious variety does not yet exist worldwide” (Crystal 2003a: 111).

Yet Crystal in his work English as a Global Language states indirectly that English must necessarily be a global language, as “[a] language achieves a genuinely global status when it develops a special role that is recognized in every country” (Crystal 2003b: 3). As early as 1985, Braj B. Kachru developed his model of the three circles of types of English speakers, which shows like several other models, maps, and figures of the kind that English is holding this “special role” that seems so hard to define, even though a labelling of English as a second or foreign language does not tell us anything about the proficiency of the specific speakers. Considering the amount of works about the global status of English, it seems inevitable to announce it as such, as English definitely is the most frequently used language, apart from the fact that the state of affairs of English in the non-native speaking parts of the world is a very complex one.

Crystal points out that a language cannot achieve global status merely because of the number of its speakers (Crystal 2003b: 7). The preceding pages to some extent suggested the opposite. The following chapters will deal with the realities that Crystal considers the main reason for a global status – power. Evidently, his examples of historical proof of his thesis are absolutely valid, though it cannot be denied that in the case of English the number of its speakers can hardly be ignored while attempting to find the crucial elements of its success. Apart from scientific hypotheses, however, there are also various persistent “naïve” theories about why English might have achieved such a significant global status. Compared to German, for example, English seems to contain a lot less difficult grammatical phenomena; there is only one definite article, less inflections have to be used, and one usually does not have to consider the gender as much as in German to make a grammatically correct statement (cf. Crystal 2003b: 7f.). Bill Bryson seems to point out, too that it is due to characteristics of other languages that are hard to grasp and to learn that English was “chosen”. His whole chapter called “Global Language” tries to depict the peculiarities and difficulties of other languages in order to make the English language look more easy (Bryson 1990: 35-45), disregarding the fact that also in English there are many exceptions to rules. The only statement that might be valid here is that the apparent simplicity of English perhaps attracts people to learn it. However, even though there might be characteristics to English that are alluring, the role of these factors in the process of developing a global language is apparently overrated, as “ease of learning has nothing to do with it” (Crystal 2003b: 8), which has been proved in the history of linguistics.


Excerpt out of 22 pages


How and why did English come to be a global language?
Martin Luther University  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
English Rules the World? The Globalisation of English
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
470 KB
English, World, Globalisation, English Language, lingua franca, David Crystal, Sprachwissenschaft, Linguistik, Linguistics, global
Quote paper
Cornelia Richter (Author), 2007, How and why did English come to be a global language?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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