The global reach of English


First aired on Babel (27/8/12)

About two billion people -- more than a third of the world's total population -- speak English. And as use of the language spreads in countries such as India, China and South Africa, regional varieties are emerging. Nowadays, most conversations in English occur between people who speak it as a second, third or fourth language, rather than between native speakers. What does that mean for English as we know it?

Babel host Mariel Borelli talked to David Crystal, an author and professor of linguistics at the University of Wales, about the global reach of English. "Language becomes first of all an international language, and then a global language, because of the power of the people who speak it," he explained. He went on to say that when English first began to spread, it was because of Britain's "political power, military power. Then power of knowledge, technology, science and technology, and then in the 19th century, economic power. And then of course there's cultural power."

Crystal said that the spread of English has brought about a rise in regional variations, with "new pronunciations, especially new rhythms and patterns of intonation as you go around the world, new grammar to some extent, but most noticeably, new vocabulary." He cited dictionaries in Canada and Australia, with "tens of thousands of words" that are particular to the local area. These have inspired projects in other parts of the world. Crystal gave examples of distinctive usage: the pavement at the side of a road is a "footpath" in Australia, while "robot" is the South African word for traffic light.

"It takes a generation or so before these words really start to spread and become part of what you might call a global or an international English," Crystal said. He noted that India shows signs of becoming a very powerful global player, both economically and as part of the online community. If that happens, it's likely the rest of the world "will suddenly start using Indian words without even thinking twice about it."

The fact that English has spread so widely means that it's not really possible to claim that it belongs to any one country or group. "Ownership has to be completely revised when you start looking at a global language," Crystal said. "Everybody owns English now."

Babel also spoke to Stephen Farnsworth, director of the Centre for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, about the dominance of American English in global media. "In many ways, the economic activity, the political activity, the commercial activity that's going on around the world increasingly uses American English as the lingua franca," he said.

Farnsworth believes that there's "a growing American voice" in the international media. Because of its proximity, Canada is particularly susceptible to American influence -- but Farnsworth says that it's also recognized "the risks or the threat that autonomy might face when you are as close as you are to the United States, the influence of American politics and American culture." He cited Canadian content regulations as "a very effective response, a very effective mechanism to make sure that there is a distinctive Canadian voice, at least in Canada."

In other segments, Babel's correspondents describe English usage in India and China, and sociolinguist Sali Tagliamonte discusses what makes Canadian English distinctive.

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