When it comes to native speakers, English actually fares pretty poorly; there are more native speakers of Spanish and Mandarin than there are of English. But in terms of the total number of speakers, both native and as a secondary language, there’s really no comparison – there are believed to be nearly 2,500 million English speakers all around the world, and it has fast become the world’s ‘lingua franca’.
The ‘lingua franca’ certainly isn’t a new concept. In fact, it can pretty much be dated back to the widespread use of Latin and Greek throughout the Roman Empire; trade languages that were used to bridge the communication gap between Central Europe, Northern Africa, and the Mediterranean. A little later, we had the Mediterranean lingua franca that can still just about be heard in some areas.
So why have things shifted to make English the dominant language? Well, take your pick! There are 101 reasons why we tend to favor English these days: familiarity thanks to the influence of English ex-colonies, Hollywood as one of the world’s biggest film industries, the English-speaking United States as the most powerful country, one of the official languages of the United Nations… It’s become a power language.
English in Other Languages
So just how has English infiltrated itself into other languages? Well, it’s actually quite fascinating. We can see three ways that other languages have become anglicized: normally, not-so-normally, and downright oddly.
* Standard Anglicization
Just as English has borrowed words from other languages that have become a standard part of our syntax (‘banjo’ from African languages, ‘hula’ from Hawaiian, and ‘cozy’ from Scandinavian languages, for example), other languages have done the same. The French look for ‘parking’ for their cars when they head off for the ‘weekend’, while the Italians enjoy ‘camping’ over the summer. These are words that have been plucked directly from English, and that have been incorporated into other languages.
* Not-so-Standard Anglicization
And then we have Anglicization that’s a little bizarre; English words that have been incorporated into another language, but changed to make them look like they belong. Germany is one of the biggest culprits of trying to hide the fact that they’ve borrowed words (‘reboot’ becomes ‘rebooten’, for example, with a characteristic German suffix), and it’s becoming so common that the term ‘Denglish’ has been coined. But it’s not just Germany. How about ‘ending’ in Japanese? エンディング – endingu!
* Strange Anglicization
Now something a little strange – other languages have taken English words, but have used them in ways that we typically wouldn’t, so while we understand the words themselves, we’d have a hard time recognizing the context or following a conversation. Once again, we can look to Germany for some great examples (German and English both share a common Germanic ancestor, so it’s not that surprising that there are a few similarities). ‘Antibabypille’ for birth control pill, and ‘handy’ for a cell phone are commonly used!
The Future of Anglicization
Can we expect further Anglicization of other languages in the future? At the moment, things really could go either way. On the one hand, English is very much seen as a powerful language, and the German Language Association claims that ‘ the introduction of English as the administrative or official language today is a serious demand of some politicians’. On the other hand, language is important to culture, and many countries are becoming very vocal about wanting to do more to preserve their language. There’s a fine line between enrichment and dominance, it seems.