Over the last 400 years, Britain has won and lost an Empire. At one time, the British Empire was so large that you could walk from Cape Town to Cairo and not leave British territory. Now only the language remains a superpower.
World leadership passed to the United States in the course of the two world wars. With the spread of films, radio, television and globalisation, English has attained an even more dominant position as a world language. Technical development and international communication has confirmed the position of English in the world.
Today, there are about 400 million people who have English as their first language or mother tongue. More than this have English as their second language. These are mainly people living in former British colonies, people who also often have a native tongue. Being so widespread, English picks up words from other languages. English has, as opposed to French, always been willing to adopt words. Listen to these examples from 'Journeys in English' by Bill Bryson.
English Adopting Words (transcript)
You only have to think of words from Australian English like kangaroo and kookaburra and boomerang and all the rest of them. We have got an incredible number of words, that’s the interesting thing. Wherever English takes root, we lift words from the indigenous languages and then those words become ours.
I talked to you earlier about a taboo, and that’s a word from the South Pacific ‘tapua’ meaning something that you shouldn’t do, a particular thing. But what would we do without a word like that? Then we indigenize it, we turn it into an English word and it becomes a word that everybody uses. We quickly forget that we borrowed it from the South Pacific.
I suppose it would be easier for us to borrow words like that via Australia, people coming back home or coming on visits would bring words like that and then gradually they would be absorbed into the English language.
I think one way in which we might notice an Australian influence would be in the use of ‘e/ie/y’ as a diminutive: Aussie and Brissie. Of course, you have probably always had that sort of thing in Britain and indeed in America as well. But the overlay is used much more widely in Australian English. Great big men using abbreviations that you might think of as diminutives in parts of the world. Cossie for example for a swimsuit, admittedly that’s a wee bit old-fashioned now. But nevertheless, you have men using it and so on.
That sort of thing has come in to Britain and we have also started using a lot of abbreviations like that. The influence always works, I think, two ways and again I talked to this to some of my students who are teenagers and they rather liked ‘spunk’ for a handsome young man, which they have picked up from the soap opera “Neighbours”.
This generation might know where they got it, but in four or five years time ‘spunk’ will either fade or it will have become so integrated that nobody will remember that it was first used perhaps on the media in Australia.
A Lingua Franca
English is used as a means of international communication, a lingua franca, by others who have learned English as a foreign language. The United Nations and the International Olympic Committee are two examples of organizations which use English as one of their official languages.
Perhaps in the future, the English language will change, as suggested by the linguist Sir David Crystal. The English-speaking countries will have their own national versions of English and there will be an international version for communication with the rest of the world.
Examples of foreign loan words which have become part of the English language:
- German: kindergarten
- African: apartheid, safari
- Indian: verandah, pyjamas
- Arabic languages: mattress, zero
The English Speaking World: countries where English ia a majority language are dark blue; countries where it is an official but not majority language are light blue.
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