The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States

By H. L. Mencken | Go to book overview

XII.

THE FUTURE OF THE LANGUAGE

1.
English as a World Language

The great Jakob Grimm, the founder of comparative philology, hazarded the guess more than three-quarters of a century ago that English would one day become the chief language of the world, and perhaps crowd out several of the then principal idioms altogether. "In wealth, wisdom and strict economy," he said, "none of the other living languages can vie with it." At that time the guess was bold, for English was still in fifth place, with not only French and German ahead of it, but also Spanish and Russian. In 1801, according to Michael George Mulhall, the relative standing of the five, in the number of persons using them, was as follows:

French 31,450,000
Russian 30,770,000
German 30,320,000
Spanish 26,190,000
English 20,520,000 1
____________________
1
Jespersen, in his Growth and Structure of the English Language, p. 244, lists a number of estimates for previous periods. At the beginning of the sixteenth century English was variously estimated to be spoken by from four to five millions of persons, German by ten, Russian by three, French by from ten to twelve, Spanish by eight and a half and Italian by nine and a half. French was thus in first place, closely followed by German, with English fifth. In the year 1600 English was spoken by six millions, German by ten, Russian by three, French by fourteen, Spanish by eight and a half, and Italian by nine and a half. The six languages thus ranked exactly as they had ranked a century before, but with French showing a greatly increased lead, and English slowly spreading. In the year 1700 the various estimates were: English, eight and a half millions; German, ten; Russian, from three to fifteen; French, twenty; Spanish, eight and a half; Italian, from nine and a half to eleven. Jespersen shows that Mulhall's estimate, given above, differed a good deal from that of other statisticians. The guesses made in the year 1800 and thereabout ranged as follows: English, twenty to forty; German, thirty to thirty-three; Russian, twenty-five to thirty-one; French, twenty-seven to thirty-one; Spanish, twenty-six; Italian, fourteen to fifteen. Mulhall did not list Italian.

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