The global spread of English over the last 50 years is remarkable. It is unprecedented in several ways: by the increasing number of users of the language; by its depth of penetration into societies; by its range of functions.
Worldwide over 1.4 billion people live in countries where English has official status. One out of five of the world’s population speaks English with some degree of competence. And one in five — over one billion people — is learning English. Over 70% of the world’s scientists read English. About 85% of the world’s mail is written in English. And 90% of all information in the world’s electronic retrieval systems is stored in English. By 2010, the number of people who speak English as a second or foreign language will exceed the number of native speakers. This trend will certainly affect the language.
English is used for more purposes than ever before. Vocabularies, grammatical forms, and ways of speaking and writing have emerged influenced by technological and scientific developments, economics and management, literature and entertainment genres. What began some 1,500 years ago as a rude language, originally spoken by obscure Germanic tribes who invaded England, now encompasses the globe.
When Mexican pilots land their airplanes in France, they and the ground controllers use English. When German physicists want to alert the international scientific community to new discoveries, they first publish their findings in English. When Japanese executives conduct business with Scandinavian entrepreneurs, they negotiate in English. When pop singers write their songs, they often use lyrics or phrases in English. When demonstrators want to alert the world to their problems, they display signs in English.
Three factors continue to contribute to this spread of English: English usage in science, technology and commerce; the ability to incorporate vocabulary from other languages; and the acceptability of various English dialects.
In science, English replaced German after World War II. With this technical and scientific dominance came the beginning of overall linguistic dominance, first in Europe and then globally.
Today, the information age has replaced the industrial age and has compressed time and distance. This is transforming world economies from industrial production to information-based goods and services. Ignoring geography and borders, the information revolution is redefining our world. In less than 20 years, information processing, once limited to the printed word, has given way to computers and the Internet. Computer-mediated communication is closing the gap between spoken and written English. It encourages more informal conversational language and a tolerance for diversity and individual style, and has resulted in Internet English replacing the authority of language institutes and practices.
English, like many languages, uses a phonetic alphabet and fairly basic syntax. But most importantly, it has a large and extensive vocabulary, of which about 80% is foreign. Therefore, it has cognates from virtually every language in Europe and has borrowed and continues to borrow words from Spanish and French, Hebrew and Arabic, Hindi-Urdu and Bengali, Malay and Chinese, as well as languages from West Africa and Polynesia. This language characteristic makes it unique in history.
Finally, no English language central authority guards the purity of the language, therefore, many dialects have developed: American, British, Canadian, Indian, and Australian, to name a few. There is no standard pronunciation. But within this diversity is a unity of grammar and one set of core vocabulary. Thus, each country that speaks the language can inject aspects of its own culture into the usage and vocabulary.
However, the future is unpredictable. As David Crystal commented, there has never been a language so widely spread or spoken by so many people as English. So, there are no precedents to help us predict what happens to a language when it achieves genuine world status.