English in Its Social Contexts: Essays in Historical Sociolinguistics

By Tim William MacHan; Charles T. Scott | Go to book overview

AFTERWORD
English: From Village to Global Village

SUZANNE ROMAINE

Josiah Smith, a Congregationalist minister, confidently asserted just before the turn of this century that the language of Shakespeare would eventually become the language of mankind. Most linguists would be reluctant to hazard such long- range guesses. Although this prognosis was probably uttered from a conviction of cultural and moral superiority rather than from knowledge of the forces of the linguistic marketplace, at the moment many indicators point in favor of Smith's prediction. It is said, for example, that in 1966, 70 percent of the world's mail was already in English and 60 percent of its radio and television broadcasts was also in English. If the medium is the message, as McLuhan ( 1962) tells us, then the language of his global village is indeed English. Throughout the world, English is now spoken as a mother tongue by 300 million people, and another 300 million use it as a second language. The estimated number of people who are learning English as a foreign language in countries where English has no official status is 1 billion.

In the face of statistics such as these, it is often asserted that the world is becoming more linguistically homogeneous through the increasing spread of a few world languages at the expense of the continuation of many local languages. Although there can be no doubt that the spread of English and the role it plays as a world language are truly remarkable phenomena, the growth of world languages like English is strongly related to colonialism and economic hegemony. Most English speakers take the present position and status of English for granted. Most do not realize that English was very much itself once a minority language initially in all the places where it has since become the mother tongue of millions. It has done so by replacing the languages of indigenous groups such as the American Indian, the Celts, and the Australian Aborigines.

Nevertheless, both the centripetal and centrifugal forces that Rodby refers to in her chapter will always be active. Together I feel they will ensure that there is no overall decline in linguistic diversity. The rise of new varieties of English in the new world has been producing new anglophone countries for the past few centuries. This is itself one consequence of the spread of a language beyond its original mother tongue country.

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