The English language didn’t seal its current status as the world’s common language until the late 1980s. Let’s explore the steps that led up to the adoption of a new international language.
Taking a look at the predecessors of English as a lingua franca (ELF), we will begin to explore and have an idea of how such a change comes about in the first place. And, more specifically, how we eventually got to English.
Leading up to English: Lingua Francas of the Past
Aramaic was the unifying language in the Persian Empire. It was the language of Jesus Christ and lives on today as the everyday language in Palestine. It replaced Hebrew as the language of the Jews and was eventually superseded by Arabic and Greek.
Alexander the Great forged an empire that comprehended a massive territory, stretching from Greece to India. His rule saw a great deal of cultural miscegenation, due to the diversity of his conquered peoples. The common second language used was Alexander’s native tongue, Ancient Greek.
Inside the vastness of the Roman Empire, Latin was the common tongue. The result was that it was spoken throughout most of the European continent. Latin would last into the Middle Ages, through the Roman Catholic Church, and evolve into the romance languages.
Classical French became the choice language for international treaties, supplanting Latin, with the 1714 Rastatt Treaty. It garnered momentous prestige, bringing French to the high courts of Europe, the heart of the Enlightenment movement, and a world empire of 60 million people.
So, How Did English Become the Lingua Franca?
The British Empire
By the nineteenth century, Britain was the new title holder for the largest empire in the world.
- > India
- > Australia
- > the West Indies
- > territories in Africa
- > territories in the Middle East
- > British Guiana
- > Canada
- > the United States
These were among Britain’s conquests, which, all in all, accounted for 400 million people.
Britain used its empire to found strategic trading posts and universities around the world, disseminating British culture and the English language. This helped establish learned societies and economic dominance.
The Industrial Revolutions
The industrial revolutions in eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain would also help pave the way. Britain was quickly becoming a global leader in science, technology, and invention. The result was the transformation of commercial trends and new English-originated terminology.
Wartime Language Spread
World Wars I and II also gave clear indications of English language proliferation. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles, at the conclusion of WWI, was written in English, as well as French. Use of English surged with the WWII victory by English-speaking nations and the subsequent formation of the UN.
With Europe in ruins after WWII, the United States and the Soviet Union became the contending global superpowers. It wasn’t until the dissolution of the USSR, and the end of the Cold War, that English would secure itself as the bona fide international lingua franca.
The English Language Today
English is unique in that it is the first truly global lingua franca. No other language has ever enjoyed the same degree of reach and assimilation. Almost sixty sovereign states designate English as one of their official languages and it’s the most studied language in the world.
Business, government, and science hold great influence over the evolution of language. Exceptional command of the English language features in the skillset of world-class translators and interpreters. And nearly every kind of professional needs at least a basic level of English training.
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