In 1582, Richard Mulcaster, headmaster of the Merchant Taylors’ School in London, wrote: The English tongue is of small reach, stretching no further than this island of ours, nay not there all over.
In 1935, H.L. Mencken, American writer and wit, began his article for the April 1935 edition of Harper’s Magazine with this quote to show how far and wide English has spread by the 1930s. And in 2017, it is last-century news that English is the global language dominating international political, scientific, technological and cultural communications. It is the language that ambitious people everywhere wish to master, giving us native speakers a huge advantage in the global marketplace.
Moving up from 5th to 1st
It wasn’t always this way. When Mulcaster made his observation in the 16th century, English was fifth among the European languages spoken, with French, German, Italian and Spanish, in that order, ahead of it. But by the end of the 18th century, English began moving up the ladder to claim first place in the mid-1800s. And then, of course, in the 20th century, English became the chosen language of global communication.
Just as Greek, then Latin was the lingua franca when first Greek traders and then the Roman army dominated the ancient world, English began its spread with British merchants and soldiers. They sailed into the corners of the world, consolidating British power and creating their far-flung empire. In all their travels, English-speaking people continued to use their own language; they did not wish or were too lazy to learn the local language, thus forcing the natives—directly and indirectly—to use English.
Winning by merit
But the language spread for reasons beyond English speakers’ intransigence in learning new languages. It won by the sheer weight of its merit. As Jakob Grimm said 150 years ago, “In wealth, wisdom, and strict economy, none of the other living languages can vie with it (English).” And the reasons why are:
- English is simple.
- It has clear sounds logically arranged.
- Good English is free of pedantic gobbledygook.
- It has an enormous vocabulary, at least twice as large as any other language.
But the pièce de resistance—it absorbs foreign words, weaving them into its fabric quickly and seamlessly—is its lack of grammatical gender. How many hours I have wasted trying to remember if a word is masculine or feminine in my study of French and Italian, adding nothing but grief to the arduous task of learning another language. Add to that using the single you for the second person—singular and plural, subjective and objective—from all the variations in other languages, and you have another knockout punch for why English wins the best-language match.
Preferring short words to long
Then there is the matter of preferring short words to long. And we are always trying to make the long words short, for instance, mobile vulgus is now mob, pundigrion is now pun, gasoline is now gas. Then we have the characteristic of the English language of getting many meanings out of a single word by combining it with simple modifiers, for instance, to get, to get going, to get by, to get off, to get on, to get over, to get ahead of—you get the message!
Taking advantage of our advantage
With all these advantages, it’s not surprising that practically anywhere in the world someone will understand English, even if only rudimentarily, making mastery of another language for a native English speaker an esoteric enterprise. And English keeps evolving, defeating the pedagogues who try to standardize it. Just as a living, breathing person constantly changes, so, too, does a living language.
But just as a living, breathing person needs some rules to live by, so, too, does English to communicate clearly and well. Of the triad—speaking, reading and writing the language—speaking is the easy task. Reading and writing the language can be devilishly difficult, first because its spelling is often irrational, and second because it’s harder to write a paragraph using short, strong words in logically arranged sentences than it is to ramble on and on and on…
…and that’s where Editor’s Ink comes in. Let me help you to exploit the strengths of our global language in your written communications to colleagues and clients around the world.