Don’t you think the title on this blog sounds like Sherlock Holmes talking to Dr. Watson? Well, I do. But in fact, it’s a slightly varied version of a real sentence I found in a journal article I was editing this week. This article was on engineering research, some work that shows up in my email a couple of times a year, written by a scientist whose native language is not English. I removed the word “indeed”, which merely indicates enthusiasm, in addition to sounding weird in science writing.
That article got me to thinking about the use of English hither and yon, that is to say, on the planet earth. Did English soldiers sailing off from England in 1760, heading for America or India, have any notion they were helping to create a world language? Did writers in Hollywood in the 1930s, coming up with lines for Humphrey Bogart, suspect they were doing this? Or kids on the streets of Philadelphia in the 1960s, singing harmony in groups and hoping to get a record contract, could they have imagined they were helping to turn that doowop language into a world force?
So now we have it. Scientists from China, from Portugal, from Egypt—everywhere, in fact—publish articles in English. Every international flight in the world requires that flight crews and control towers be able to speak to each other in English. Years ago, when I was a wee tyke (1979), I went off to Russia, and for some reason went into a bank. I could not have had much money, but apparently enough to go to a bank. There was a man in front of me who I recall as being German, no doubt from his accent. He struggled along a minute in Russian with the Russian teller, then he said, “Do you speak English?” The teller said yes, and they finished up easily in English.
English is very obviously the international language, and according to Wikipedia it is the most widely used language in the world, perhaps in terms of number of speakers (1.8 billion) or perhaps in terms of widespread use. Some people will say that English might be replaced someday. After all, look at other widespread languages from the past: Latin—Pretty much dead. Aramaic—Have you even heard of it? It was extremely common and is believed to be the language Jesus spoke. Greek—Greek was common? (Yes) French—Yeah, well, that’s over.
These examples are misleading, however. In reality, if we think of international as meaning the entire earth, there has never actually been an international language before English. There has even been talk recently proposing English as a general European language, at least for the European Parliament. The premier of China once estimated that 300 million Chinese were studying English (hint: that’s almost equal to the total population of the United States). If something else replaces English, the entire earth will have to participate in doing that, as the entire earth uses English.
I once knew a woman planning to go work abroad, and I asked if she was going to teach English. She became offended and said she was not going to go impose her language on other people. I respect her respect for other languages, but it’s not exactly imposing when people are clamoring for it.
You can feel how you will, that English as an international language is wonderful, and now you don’t have to study some godawful foreign language, or you can consider it terrible that one language is dominating all the others, but the facts of usage are clear. I want to say here that much as I love the British, it’s frustrating to hear them come so close to speaking correctly and then get it wrong. (It’s not a spanner, mate, it’s a wrench.)
And more and more people are speaking English, yall know what I’m saying? That’s how it is, amigo. You want to be a citizen of the world, you gotta speak English. Moi? I say “indeed”.