Understanding the Agency of English Vernacular Across the Globe
By Ian Ségal
22 December 2020
For most people, the concept of language has been assumed—born and cultivated from early childhood through adult years, accepted, and usually overlooked. A degree of complacency is wrapped around communication, absent of care or interest of its roots. And regardless of ethnic origins and geographical locations, there has always been a blending and influence from the broad brushstroke of culture infused into languages. Some of these occurrences have been the result of centuries of conquest—the adverse effects of imperialism, and the implantation of colonization. In other capacities, international trade, travel, and acculturation have affected this form of vernacular globalization. Additionally, time also has eroded influences and transformed dialects into the acceptance of modern-day tongues. But while some effects have been sustained, others have faded. And in light of these historical waves, one language seems to have weathered time and all of the elements, and through today remains dominant across the globe. That language, English, is the focus of this study, which will reveal the history of its conventional acceptance across continents and those factors that have not only led to its dominance but sustained it as what has been fostered as the world’s common means for communication.
Keywords: acculturation, colonization, communication, culture, dialect, discourse, English, global, history, imperialism, influence, language
Among researchers and language scholars, there is always the challenge of determining when, where, and how a language came into being—from earliest inception through functional practice. But concerning the English language, thorough investigations have unearthed evidence regarding Germanic invaders that settled in Britain between the fifth and sixth centuries, bringing their culture and, above all else, their vernacular (Durkin, 2020). And while this is one of the earliest accounts of influence that helped form the English language, little else is known about this period due to the scarcity of written records. Yet, the blending of the native language—that of the Anglo-Saxons—with Germanic invaders led to the formation of a language adopted by Alfred the Great in the ninth century, referred to as English (Durkin, 2020). All through Alfred’s reign, texts were authored and archived, thus affording researchers ample evidence into the adoption and the transformation of words, phrases, and pronunciations into what the modern world would label as Old English.
And as English evolved and spread throughout Britain’s lands and kingdoms, English’s anticipated standardization occurred across the regions of England and Wales to Scotland’s southern borders. At its core, within the city of London, the cultivation of English intensified and disseminated its influence into outlying lands—mainly through commerce, trade, and travel. Soon, the London standard of speech dominated wider use and was supported by technology, such as the printing press, making it easier to maintain communication consistency through the production of books and parchments.
Yet, outside the upper classes and aristocracy, other English variations were stigmatized—the result of the absence of social prestige and education deficiency, which was typical of the lower classes. In turn, this ensued in the formation of new dialects, modified accents, and something referred to as the Great Vowel Shift—a linguistic pronunciation change prevalent in all languages. According to Durkin (2020), “The phonetic pairings of most long and short vowel sounds were also lost, which gave rise to many of the oddities of English pronunciation.” And as these nuances became rooted in the foundation of English communication, something else was happening in parallel.
The expansion of exploration, trade, and a desire to discover new lands and acquire an abundance of riches galvanized the spirit of nationalism. Not only did this period, the time of colonization, expand the wealth and power of Britain, but it also ensured the permanency of English at home and its longevity of influence abroad. Over time, the residual impact of this period of expansionism, spearheaded first by Great Britain and later steered by the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, ensured English’s persuasive authority as a dominant global language. The influential power and dominance of English is the consequence of economic, social, and geopolitical objectives leveraged by the hegemony of Great Britain and the United States over the centuries. To explore this further, this probe will unfold the factors that have cultivated worldwide English language influence and dominance, taking a more in-depth look at globalization.
The concept of globalization, which is sometimes referred to as a phenomenon, is complex in nature, with many factors affecting its development. According to Boykov and Živković (2016), the term globalization has been used to illustrate trends that are perceived as incessantly harvesting intercultural relations and communication among people regardless of their disparate nationalities and geographies. Following the efforts of unabated colonization and imperialism, the modern-day world has witnessed an accelerated unification process while preserving diversification—or individuality—bridging these gaps with the binding nature of the English language. Within the cohesiveness of a common language, such as English, the advocacy for coherent language harmony across social media has become the cornerstone of digital communication. And whether by natural evolution or a transition from English dominance in the real world to the virtual realm, English has remained the benchmark for unifying global communities throughout the digital age of the 21st century.
More importantly, globalization has introduced a myriad of changes to the entire world, sometimes nurturing unification and at other times safeguarding diversity. But what remains constant is the utilization of English as paramount to the success of globalization efforts, regardless of the disparity of the native language. Interestingly, the expansion of global economies has seen Western culture importation, and none more markedly observed than the English language—a channel for spreading ideas on the resonating sounds of a common tongue.
This accelerated drive has endorsed an increased homogenization among countries of the western hemisphere and yet has been met with some resistance by nationalities expressing anti-American sentiments (Boykov & Živković, 2016). But as a condition of benefit from the global economic supremacy of English-speaking countries—with none no more powerful than the United States—many global communities have been complacent in introducing English into their dialect to promote international trade and economic sustenance at home. The prospect of financial growth at the price of embracing another language—in this case, English—has been deemed an affordable concession throughout the world. North American corporations have taken the wheel of imperialism, steering the exportation of goods and services—dressed in the silks of American culture with branding tailored in the finery of the English language.
Influence of English on International Communication
Having investigated the model of globalization as a delivery system for exporting both American culture and the English language as a promoted form of worldwide communication, the next step in this study is to analyze its influence on communication inside the international community. While globalization continues to develop, along with the augmentation of informatization, there exists an irrefutable fact that global populations are not only accepting English but using it to exchange ideas locally and communicate internationally. And almost like being required to have a passport to enter a foreign country, regardless of one’s partiality to English, the effective use of this language has become obligatory for those seeking to achieve significant influence as politicians, scientists, entertainers, and international entrepreneurs (Xue & Zuo, 2013). But more importantly, the dominance of English has gone beyond mandatory for harnessing global enterprise; it has cascaded as an avalanche—unstoppable—growing in size and momentum as it hurls itself down a mountain of change, acquiring new voices along the way.
Language, Culture, and Power
As aforementioned, the English language has effectively evolved into becoming the delivery system for culture and its beneficiaries, specifically the U.S. economy and corporate America. Within this crystallization, the process of cultural exchange, circulation, and adaptation is nurtured by the increased practice of using English for communication. In retrospect, history has shown that language has been a practical tool for allaying political and cultural battles and contention, especially regarding the bolstering of developing third-world countries (Xue & Zuo, 2013). Additionally, culture reflects a society’s ideology as it pertains to views regarding politics and the economy. And with the supremacy of U.S. political and economic strength, the ability to affect influences upon a disparate culture with these fundamentals— namely English language immersion—becomes an easily facilitated effort driven by a unidirectional flow to a vulnerable society, ready to be transformed by overwhelming influence.
English Dominance in Media
With over 380 million people in the world using English as their native language, another 250 million people have acquired this vernacular as a second language to varying levels of proficiency (Xue & Zuo, 2013). More importantly, as shared by Xue and Zuo (2013), it is estimated that over one billion people throughout the world are currently learning English while another two billion are exposed to it through social media; it is further estimated that half the world’s population will have mastered the English language by the year 2050. With these illuminating statistics, it becomes evident that English language dominance will not be diminishing any time soon. Furthermore, historians have noted that there has been no language in the world's history that has dominated global communities as English does today.
Currently, over 59 countries have elevated English to be the official language of their respective nations (Mikanowski, 2018). Global ambitions have capitalized on English practice from education to commerce, using it to further positions and achieve opportunities. And whether the vertical is international business, science and technology, diplomacy, or digital media proliferated across the internet, it is inescapable, making it a compelling argument to achieve its proficiency. It has been estimated that the world loses a language every two to three weeks, with linguists predicting that as many as three-quarters of the world’s 6,000 languages will vanish by the next century (Mikanowski, 2018). And like a ruthless conquistador, wherever English has invaded, it has left behind the dust of desolated foes, the remnants of dismantled dialects, forgotten native tongues, and discarded literature.
And as the universe expanded into the frontiers of the digital world, so too has the landscape been journeyed by virtual travelers navigating their way on the wagons of English communication. Social media—both diverse and vast—has, for practical purposes, adopted a wide range of English, including formal, informal, jargon, and, growing in popularity, the truncated shorthand of terse text-messaging. Such examples, drawn from English's core vocabulary and grammar principles, have become the accepted language for facilitating virtual discourse across social media. While there have been significant deviations in communicating using English as the language of choice, the diversification of social media communication relies heavily on one’s rudimentary knowledge of English.
What is more profound is that while English has become the official unofficial language of social media, audiences of varying aptitude have enhanced their propensity for the language with exposure to proper forms of the written language, shown in media as digital news—magazines, newspapers, and broadcast companies. Such empirical studies have identified the potential for social media to mentor learning English while reinforcing its propagation throughout the world quickly by exposing audiences to evocative stories that compel interest, reading, and reaction (Lantz-Andersson, 2017). Furthermore, with growing accounts of disinformation, or electronic propaganda, global audiences have been roused into taking partisan sides on various subject matters and debates, compelling many to raise their digital voices by participating in passionate discussions. Whether these efforts represent grammatically correct written content or have been supplanted by abridged language and words—or derivatives of conventional English—it remains the language that continues to dominate the digital landscape, sharing stories with accuracy, distortion, capitulation, antagonization, and pontification.
Reasons for English Dominance
The English language has endured over 1,300 years of transformation—from birth to a period of change effected by the impact of the French and Medieval years. Modern English was incubated during these times—taking shape on the pottery wheel of shaping word spelling, enlarging vocabulary, incorporating new terms and phrases, and adjusting pronunciation. However, it was not until the 19th century that English emerged as the accepted international language globally. The Industrial Age of the 1800s precipitated the influence of British expansionism, stretching its empire around the world, instilling English as the official language in all of its colonized territories. Additionally, non-English-speaking nations, by default, chose English as the language for facilitating diplomacy when either adversary was inept in conversing in the opposing tongue.
Another reason for English language dominance is demonstrated within its vivacity—outliving other languages, reinforcing its bonds and close relationships with Indo-European communities, both near and far. Along with being both flexible and adaptive, it became easy for foreigners to learn English and mold it into an adaptable complement to their own native tongue. And while the English language features the most extensive vocabulary in the world, the majority of people only need to master an average of 1,300 words to attain sufficient communication competency (Xue & Zuo, 2013). Additionally, with its flexibility, non-English speakers have discovered ways to localize English into their native languages, conflating words and phrases into newly morphed outcomes.
Thirdly, as discussed earlier, there is an intrinsic and intimate relationship between the English language and its cultural value system, which fosters vast innovation and progress as compared to other cultures. It is this marketization through American and British media that elevates English to the apex of international communication. And whether this phenomenon is the effect of the entertainment industry, the music trade, or the technological advances of the digital age, all of these cultural products have not only taken the world by storm but swayed populations to incorporate English into their culture. Lastly, it has been recognized that almost 80% of documents throughout the world are written in English—further supporting the efficacy of English being universally accepted (Xue & Zuo, 2013) for commercial and personal activities.
For countless generations, immeasurable efforts in philosophy, sociology, and psychology have been conducted leveraging English speakers and reverberating ideas across time as academically anglophone (Mikanowski, 2018). The concept of using a universal vocabulary and grammar system underpins not only the dominance of English in the world but optimizes the transfer of knowledge, the elevation of thought, and the progression of global learning and achievement. Although some may consider this to be a shift toward monolingualism, popular opinion among academics strongly advocates this direction to safeguard scientific enrichment, promote future discoveries, and ensure that next generations will enjoy endless benefits across the great expanse of the world.
As shown, the growing use of the English language has escalated beyond its origins of reinforcing colonization throughout the world. Its influential power and dominance continues to fill its sails with the winds of economic, social, and geopolitical objectives, steered in the past by British colonialism, and presently navigated by the hegemony of American financial dominion. It has been fundamentally responsible for restructuring the global perspective of everything from culture to advancing society in a much broader context. And across these spheres, English has established itself as the functional language of international organizations, embraced as the system for evolving technology, and has harmonized communication in global banking and international affairs. Furthermore, corporate brands, including a plethora of consumer goods and services, have endorsed English as the language for advertising, marketing campaigns, and the effectuation of both media and public relations.
From audio and visual products, such as film and music, to tourism, education, international law, safety jargon, and the bridging or relaying language for universal translation, English maintains its gold standard. While the holistic use of English has dominated global language, it has not been accomplished in the absence of spreading American and British culture throughout the world, a byproduct of English adoption. And as sparsely used languages and dialects in different corners of the world fall out of use, English continues to fill those voids as the replacement vernacular. Although history can recount other dominant languages used thousands of years ago with unyielding authority—such as during the reign of the great empires of Rome, Persia, and others—these have dwindled, as they were directly tied to the vitality of those dynasties, not their cultures.
English has become comprehensively ingrained in all facets of society—not tied to the imperialistic desires of conquest but harnessed to globalization's unstoppable momentum. The outlook for its survival remains positive, while its dominance in communication is strongly supported by other forces—the world's ongoing predisposition to accelerate life's improvement in all of its facets. While some may regard this as the reverse-engineering of the Tower of Babel, others will argue that in an effort to bring the world together in harmony and advancement successfully, a common language must be championed to not only support growth but protect civilization from devolution. And while English continues to swallow the world whole, humanity will survive its influence and dominance in what has matured into a symbiotic relationship that is still in its infancy, with much growth to be seen.
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