English as a global language


The historical spread of English as a global language – colonisation and the British Empire

Knowles (1997, p.139) reports that ‘by the nineteenth century, English had become the language of a world empire, and it was beginning to be influenced by its worldwide context’. Famously, it was said that the sun would never set on The British Empire , informing us of the magnitude and power it had. Along with power came language spread and change. English was spread by native settlers to America, Australia and New Zealand with its growth attributed to by ‘three discernible main patterns. In the first case, English was transplanted by native speakers; in the second it was introduced as an official language alongside existing national languages; and in the third case, it interacted in complex ways with native languages’ (Knowles, 1997, p.140).

English had become more superior than other native languages and this led to ‘a decline in respect for other languages’, contributing further to English’s success (Knowles, 1997, p.140). Trade languages formed where English was not adopted in the form of pidgins and creoles. Knowles (1997, p.140) discusses that the ‘use of ‘broken’ English…encouraged the view that there were some human beings who did not have a proper language at all’ and that ‘such a view has political implications which go far beyond language, and was to prove influential in England itself’. The growth in use in China and India, and that fact that it is used by people in all walks of life ensure that it continues to grow, and that standard will be subject to change in future.

Word origins

See Lexical changes for more word origins.

We completed activity 2.1.2  and discussed etymology with each other. Our task was to look at the words and make educated guesses about their origins. There were many we got right, including ‘alcohol’ in Arabic, ‘bagel’ whose origins are in Yiddish, and ’boutique’ which derives from French. There were many we didn’t know though such as ‘anorak’ and ‘cot’.

It was evident that these words had some socio-cultural significance; a word usually isn’t adopted into a language without need. So we started to think about why we had loaned these words into English. Without researching, you can make all kinds of assumptions why. The British Empire is the first that springs to mind with the above examples. We know that French has influenced English greatly, and you can imagine the aristocracy (I’m taking a guess that’s a French loan-word too) needed an expensive shop to go to where lower classes didn’t shop in order to maintain their prestige, and before long we introduced ’boutique’. English spread to America and Europe, which have large Jewish communities. Again, you can take an educated guess that when we went there and took over half their land, we probably sampled a few of their delicacies, and so the bagel was introduced into English.

Other languages around the world have also been ‘infiltrated’ by English. Many scientific, economical, cultural and medical advances are made by people whose main language of profession is English, meaning many words have been loaned into other languages. I have an ESOL learner who speaks minimal English, but when I use gestures in class, precedes to shout ‘OMG’. It makes me smile and cringe every time.

The role of the US in English

America has dominated films and music. They have been at the forefront of advances in these areas as well as with advertising. Some of the most famous brands are American including Coca Cola and Microsoft. Many inventions such as technological inventions are made in America too including production lines that have gone on to change the world as we knew it.

SfLQI suggest the following examples of divergence of British and American English
● Pronunciation and stress, e.g. tomato [t∂meit∂u] aluminium [alu:min∂m – and see below: the US spelling is also different].
● Spelling conventions: programme (program), centre (center), aluminium (aluminum).
● Grammar, e.g. gotten for Br got.
● Lexis, e.g. fall for Br autumn,railroad for railway,streetcar for tram, pants for trousers,cellphone for mobile,automobile for car,gasoline for petrol,purse for handbag.
● New terminology: Congress,backwoodsman,prairie,popcorn, sweetcorn,tapioca.
● Same words – new meanings, e.g. purse = handbag.
● Idiomatic expressions, e.g. to bury the hatchet.

What did you learn? 

I learnt a little more about the spread of English as a global language. This again is a concise and brief account for my own purposes to help in writing my assignment. It’s something that I will again come back to when I have further time to research. I did however appreciate that etymology often shows some kind social reason for lexical introductions into a language. I learnt that English either became a main language, or was adopted as the second official language in many countries due to mass-migration from Britain, ensuring its global domination.

How will you apply it? Practical implications? Resources made/changed? For assignment? Meet with? Find out more about? By ___ in my teaching.

I’ll apply it when writing my assignment. Some key facts will help to frame my ideas, and help me to focus my research if I need to make a specific point. It would be interesting to read more about etymology in future, and perhaps conduct a lesson on it too.


Knowles, G. (1997) A Cultural History of the English Language. London: Edward Arnold. pp. 139–140.
Crystal, D. (2003) The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge University Press. p. 113.

Web Sources

The Skills for Life Quality Improvement materials are useful for future reference.

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