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Death to English!

As part of my homework for this, I read, and have carried on reading since, a book by David Crystal entitled English as a Global Language. I’m enjoying it, and I especially enjoyed this (on page 90 of my paperback edition):

International politics operates at several levels and in many different ways, but the presence of English is usually not far away. A political protest may surface in the form of an official question to a government minister, a peaceful lobby outside an embassy, a street riot, or a bomb. When the television cameras present the event to a world audience, it is notable how often a message in English can be seen on a banner or placard as part of the occasion. Whatever the mother tongue of the protesters, they know that their cause will gain maximum impact if it is expressed through the medium of English. A famous instance of this occurred a few years ago in India, where a march supporting Hindi and opposing English was seen on world television: most of the banners were in Hindi, but one astute marcher carried a prominent sign which read ‘Death to English’ – thereby enabling the voice of his group to reach much further around the world than would otherwise have been possible.

Crystal dates the rise of English, from a merely big language among other big languages to its current status as the clear front-runner for global linguistic hegemony, from the immediate post World War 2 period. I recall noticing the phenomenon some time in the 1960s, when, in Youth Hostels in continental Europe, I observed conversations between groups of Europeans (not all of them Scandinavians, by the way) in their teens and twenties, not one of whom (I have a pretty good ear for accents) was speaking English as his or her first language. Interesting, I thought. And having become interested in where English seemed to be going, I became interested also in where it had come from.

The global English story is more complicated than just the matter of educated non-Anglos communicating by means of standard English, and Crystal seems to me to tell it very well, with lots of maps and historical details of how English spread in this or that particular place.

Crystal himself is anything but an English linguistic triumphalist. He lives and works in Holyhead, in North Wales, North Wales being the part of Wales where the Welsh language is strongest. Although Crystal is a major figure in linguistics and in English teaching, I have been unable to discover how fluent he is in Welsh. But as an academic whose basic tool is the English language, he entirely gets why English has gone global. It’s just so useful, for communicating with other people.

27 comments to Death to English!

  • Isn’t this pretty much a definition of the concept of “lingua franca”?

    Various peeps from foreign don’t speak their own language (Swedish, Dutch, Tamil, etc.), therefore use a common language in which they may not be fluent to bridge the divide.

    In times past it used to be Latin or Greek, today it is English and its regional dialects (Singlish, Minglish, etc.). The thing about a lingua franca is that its dominance is defined by the cultural relevance as much as anything else.

    We’ve also seen how lingua franca’s decline on the same basis, for example I bet French is used as a common lingua franca by a smaller proportion of the worlds population than it used to be. Same applies to Dutch, but less so to Spanish.

  • JS

    This also provides another stick with which to beat the British: that we are less inclined to learn a second language.
    For most foreign language speakers though the choice of a second language is usually very obvious, it will be almost universally useful and it’s English. For most Britons there is no one foreign language it makes any particular sense to spend the time and effort to learn – and to continually practice. Unless you are going to actually live and work in a country which speaks that language its use is going to be of little benefit and most of the time abroad you can get by with English anyway.

  • Bruce

    Lots of enterprises adopted English as their own language decades ago.

    Among the “big” users are oil and mineral exploration and Aviation.

    English is THE language of aviation / air traffic control.

    Go to a drilling rig anywhere in the middle of nowhere and the French pipe pusher, the Chinese geo-phys, the Russian plant engineer and the Brazilian mud-doctor will all talk to each other in English, an admittedly weird argot thereof, but it does the job.

    English is THE “second-language” of most of the world. Sadly, native English speakers get lazy or intimidated into NOT learning at least a rough working version of the local language. Learning to HEAR what the locals are saying even if you almost never utter a word of it can be VERY valuable and sometimes save a project from being scuttled or even stolen from under you.

    If you pay attention whilst air-traveling, take note of the multi-lingual announcements and the linguistic prowess of the cabin crew. Thai Airways are particularly good in this regard. Fly from Australia to Thailand and you get announcements in Thai and English, at least. If it’s a code-share with Lufthansa, they sometimes throw in German for good measure.

    Some years ago I worked on a major musical festival involving brass bands from all sorts of places. English was the default language: the Danes usually didn’t speak Italian, the Hungarians didn’t speak Norwegian and so on. But, being musicians they all spoke Italian music terminology, but social conversations were in an interesting variant of English. Chinese and Russian ballet dancers learn enough French for their profession, but usually resort to English for general conversations around the globe.

    Mono-linguism is a learning drawback. Shouting does NOT help. At least make some sort of effort to pick up bits and pieces of something else. One of my offspring learned German at high-school. We “exported” him there for a few months to do some “exchange study”. He returned fairly fluent in conversational German and with a Masters in beer-drinking. Every so often he can be heard chatting to German gamers in a weird mix of German and English whilst engaging in electronic virtual warfare.

  • Arvinio

    English is also the language of science, of international business, and of the Hollywood/TV popular entertainment industrial complex. It’s probably the entertainment industry which has made competence in English a popular, rather than elite accomplishment. However, it is a win all round by reducing communication barriers (= transaction costs)

    English also serves a useful role in some multi-language countries, in standing apart from language-group rivalry. Indeed in Belgium I have witnessed French-speakers and Flemish-speakers talking to each other in English because neither would use the other’s language.

  • During the 12th century, English became a pidgin language: it changed from being what the pre-conquest Anglo-Saxons spoke to being what their Norman conquerors had learnt to speak. Did that make English peculiarly suitable to being a lingua franca? I think it did.

  • Mr Ed


    I certainly think that the ‘pidgin’ nature of English has made it easy to learn (spelling apart, which matters little for speaking unless reading out loud). Any English speaker who has studied German or Norse languages will be struck by such delights as the complexity of grammar, case endings, changing verb order, noun gender etc.

    I’m told that the phrase ‘My pen is in my hand’ is identical in English and Afrikaans, but the latter has a limited appeal.

    As an aside, I have often thought that the Soviets keeping the Cyrillic alphabet was a PR blunder as it made them and their works look utterly alien to users of the Roman alphabet, emphasising the unnatural nature of their society.

  • pete

    I think it would be more correct to say that North Wales is the part of that country where the Welsh language is least weak, not the strongest.

    Hardly anyone in the region speaks Welsh, and of those who do nearly all speak English most of the time.

  • bobby b

    Niall Kilmartin
    January 10, 2019 at 10:50 am

    “Did that make English peculiarly suitable to being a lingua franca? I think it did.”

    No disrespect intended, but are all the peoples of the world adopting “English” as their lingua franca, or are they adopting “American”?

  • Y. Knott

    I have a story in me’ quotes page, concerning the Dalai Lama. He was visiting Japan at the time, and an audience rep’ asked him what the Japanese should do to improve their lot in life. They were expecting an airy-fairy answer such as more meditation or enhancing their spirituality, and were nonplussed when he answered “Learn English”.

  • JohnK

    I am sure that the global success of English is mostly due to the influence of the British Empire, and then the rise of the USA. However, the language has a lot going for it from the point of view of foreign learners.

    We do not assign gender to nouns, we do not bother with the tedious business of having adjectives change to match the gender of the noun, and our verbs are nice and simple.

    French verbs can make you weep, and I still remember my incredulity in my first French lesson to be told that a table is masculine and a window is feminine. What are they thinking?

  • French verbs can make you weep, and I still remember my incredulity in my first French lesson to be told that a table is masculine and a window is feminine. What are they thinking?

    Yup. Had this exact conversation with my French toyboy over Christmas. It ended with the classic line “Where is the penis on a table”.

    We agree to differ.

  • Chester Draws

    Any English speaker who has studied German or Norse languages will be struck by such delights as the complexity of grammar, case endings, changing verb order, noun gender etc

    No. Swedish has no irregular verbs except “to be”, no cases, no difficult declensions, no difficult tense issues, and only changes word order to pose a question. It does have two genders, but then spelling is 100% regular, pronunciation is easy and it has few difficult sounds to make.

    It is an incredibly easy language to learn. If you were in the business of choosing a language from scratch to make it as easy as possible for the world to learn, Swedish would be an obvious choice. The lack of conjugation and simple tenses is a dream for a beginner.

    It bears almost no grammatical relationship to German at all in terms of ease of learning.

  • Robbo

    Yes, Swedish has few inflections, but it still has a number of irregular verbs, as well as strong verbs and weak verbs. Noun inflections are simple, but there are I think 8 different ways the plural is formed. Word order follows two rules, depending on whether it’s a main clause or a subordinate clause, so you need to be able to distinguish those. Pronunciation has some quirks: kör (choir) is pronounced differently than kör (drive). The ge digraph is pronounced in three different ways in different words. There are 8 distinct long simple vowels and 6 short ones. It is a challenge to recognise the distinctions and make them in your own speech. Then there is the tricky ‘sju’ sound, the assimilation of rs, rt, rl, rd and rg, shall I stop now?

    Sorry, I just mean Swedish s simpler than German, but has a number of difficulties up its sleeve for English-speakers.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    I’m pretty sure that the reasons English has gone global are 99% historical rather than connected to the intrinsic nature of the language itself. People are very good at coming up with reasons why whatever is the case ought to be the case. When Latin was the shared language of Europe, both when it was a living language and during its second flowering as the language of scholars, I am sure that the people who spoke it could put forward excellent reasons to explain why its triumph was inevitable.

    That said, English isn’t as bad an option for a world language as some people (often English speakers anxious to prove their internationalism) like to claim. The spelling is more irregular than that of say, Spanish, but at least it doesn’t do that thing French does with not saying the ends of words. And even an irregular alphabetical writing system is easier to learn for a foreigner than a logographic one such as Chinese.

    When totting up how English scores as a world lingua franca, its mixture of Germanic, Scandinavian, French and Latin spelling rules is both bad and good. Bad in that it is illogical, unpredictable and difficult to learn, good in that a very large chunk of the world’s population speaks languages of Germanic or Latin origin and so will find at least some English words familiar. As Anthony Burgess said in Language Made Plain, it is a help not a hindrance for the German speaker to see the otherwise pointless “gh” in “night”. It helps him remember that it “night” is cognate to “nacht” and “eight” to “acht”. Likewise “encourage” is actually said “inkurridj” but the spelling is almost identical to French encourager. (I’m quoting Burgess from memory here.)

    However for non-Europeans, other than a few old-fashioned Roman Catholics who know Latin, it all must be very burdensome.

    A few decades ago there was a mad fad for pretending English spelling was so irregular that each word could only be learned separately by means of “look and say”, as if it were a Chinese character. I remember you posting something about that on your Education Blog, Brian. Yet the great majority of words follow the rules well enough that if a non-native speaker can be understood even if he or she gets it a little wrong.

    Everyone goes on about the inconsistent pronunciation of words ending in “ough”, particularly “through” and “enough” because they are so common. Trough, through, enough, bough. Insane. But there aren’t that many of them. You could learn them in an afternoon.

    Noam Chomsky of all people said that English spelling was “close to optimum”!

  • Nicholas (Unlicenced Joker) Gray

    One of the consequences of being the world’s language is that when people decide to emigrate, they want to go to a place where they know the local language. Most people know two, their own and English, which is why people want to get to Britain. I suspect that is the reason that the Saudi teenager, Rahaf Mohammad Alcunun, chose Australia- it was close, and she knows English.

  • Y. Knott

    “… which is why people want to get to Britain …

    – And here I thought it was because they feel so safe under English gun laws!

  • Mr Ed

    When Latin was the shared language of Europe, both when it was a living language and during its second flowering as the language of scholars, I am sure that the people who spoke it could put forward excellent reasons to explain why its triumph was inevitable.

    And then Latin began its inevitable declension…

    I’ll get my coat.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    As an illustration of how English is being spread via new technology, and also as a pleasing diversion for those readers who like looking at young Japanese ladies in very short skirts, take a look at this video: When Japanese Try To Speak English Like A Native. It’s a panel game where the contestants – the aforementioned young ladies – must pronounce an English word into a smartphone set to “native speaker” mode. Because Japanese does not distinguish between the “l” and “r” sounds the words are mostly chosen to have lots of both those sounds. It’s quite funny to see what the smartphones think the contestants are saying.”Rhythm” comes out as “Pizza Hut” for one girl and “Lego man” for another. I felt a little sorry for the contestants, as pronouncing that English word really is a severe test for a native speaker of Japanese, and as a matter of fact I generally understood the contestants better than the smartphone did. Also the second part of the game where they have to insult each other in English is just mean.

    (BTW, I hope Brian won’t mind if one day I make a post of my own on this topic, for which I will probably re-use some of my comments here.)

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Mr Ed,

    “And then Latin began its inevitable declension…”

    It probably needed some conjugation to spice it up.

  • Mr Ed


    My apologies for only now remembering this Latin lesson.

  • Surellin

    I knew an exchange student from Sweden in the 1970s. He said that everyone in Sweden learns English in school, and that his parents’ generation learned British English, whereas his generation learned American English. His accent was, for all practical purposes, undetectable.

  • Graham Asher

    @Robbo: well done for your succinct description of Swedish; I was going to jump in and say something in response to Chester but wouldn’t have expressed it as well as you. When I learnt Swedish long ago we were told there were 63 ways of making a plural, but that sounds like an exaggeration, and no doubt includes all possible combinations of indefinite and definite plural, and loanwords. Having learnt or tried to learn a few languages, I’d rate the easiest for a native English speaker as Norwegian and Spanish equal first, with Swedish third – and not ‘incredibly easy’ – just relatively easy. But I have never studied Malay, which is said to be quite easy, although surely the vocab would be harder.

  • Graham Asher

    @Natalie Solent; on the subject of Japanese people’s difficulty with some English words, when I used to work in typography I enjoyed discussing the design of the Right Black Lenticular Bracket with a Japanese colleague (see https://www.fileformat.info/info/unicode/char/3011/index.htm).

  • Zerren Yeoville

    At least English simply uses the gender-free word ‘the’ whereas those learning French have to contend with memorising whether ‘la’ or ‘le’ is correct, and German offers you ‘der’, ‘die’ or ‘das’ to make mistakes with – or should that be ‘with which to make mistakes’? (… which shows also the flexibility of English in that a sentence can have rotten grammar and mangled syntax, and yet still remain perfectly comprehensible).

    Punctuation matters rather more. The ‘Dear John’ letter is an example of how an identical sequence of words has a total change of meaning when punctuated differently:

    1: Dear John, I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy – will you let me be yours? Gloria

    2: Dear John, I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we’re apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be? Yours, Gloria

    Pronunciation is a minefield. The construction of ‘GHOTI’ pronounced as ‘FISH’ is the classic example – GH as in ‘enough’, O as in ‘women’ and TI as in ‘motion’ … which leads us on to the ‘-ough’ endings that @Natalie Solent has already mentioned. Try the following passage, which contains a mix of commonplace and relatively obscure ‘-ough’ words, on a non-native English speaker (or even a native speaker) and see how many trip them up:

    The rough wind soughed through the boughs of the old tree by the lough, disturbing the choughs which roosted there. Two Yorkshire naturalists, one from Scarborough and one from Brough, were on a short furlough from their jobs. They sat and watched the choughs in the tree and reminisced about the time they watched a snake slough off its old skin in Slough. In the village bakery the baker kneaded some tough dough, and across the valley a farmer with a cough was getting ready to plough a rough field. The weather forecast was poor enough, due to a trough of low pressure, though some wondered whether the forecast had been thought through thoroughly.

    After that, they may be ready for the old joke about the foreigner who had spent years learning English and finally felt confident enough to try a visit to England to use it in earnest. As he got off the ferry in Dover the first thing he saw was a newspaper placard outside the little shop in the ferry terminal which read ‘Conference Pronounced Success’ … and he turned around and got straight back on the ferry!

    (… I’ll now join Mr Ed in getting my coat)

  • Gong Cult

    Was Latin declining because of its declensions ? Or was it because its conjugations could not spread among the nations? Look, reality suggests a Lingua Franca will make the world a better place in which to exist… that it is ENGLISH sure makes it easier for me… but if I had to make do… German, Lithuanian, Wobbly Latvian and schoo-boy(read Catholic prep-school Latin),and bastardized Spanglish (via the Southside of Chicago…) will get me there… a coupla other stabs at other languages sure won’t hurt…

  • David Bishop

    Thank you, Brian, for your thoughtful piece.

    English has been good to me, and David Crystal’s books a constant companion for the past four decades or so. He is a great of English Language and Linguistics, his erudition highlighted by the clarity of his writing.

    I was fortunate to ride the rising wave of demand for English since the mid-70s when I started teaching EFL/ESP (English as a Foreign Language / English for Specific Purposes). Now retired, I was most recently in the Training Department of the national oil company of a Gulf country. The national language was Arabic, and Farsi was also extensively spoken, but as noted by Bruce and others, the lingua franca of the oil and gas industry is English, and not only at senior levels of staff.

    The job was a delight as the company employees competed to get onto our courses and worked hard once there; we couldn’t meet the demand. Their motivation was straightforward: better English meant better prospects for promotion, for further training and so on, and also gave them the benefit of better English for their social lives and travel. And this was a tradition in the company extending back decades; senior management, who had themselves come up through the same route, spoke and wrote at Band 9 and would put many a native speaker to shame. (On a 9-band scale, Band 9 is university-educated native speaker equivalent.) Indeed, our programme had full senior management support as they recognised how their command of English was a significant factor in how they themselves had advanced.

    So no “Death to English” there!

    I agree with Natalie that much of the rise in the status of English is attributable to history, though let’s not forget its almost unique utility: its adaptability across genres (science, technology, business, the arts and so on) and its immense vocabulary, the largest of any language.

    I also agree with bobby b’s tongue-in-cheek remark that although the early rise of English flowed from Britain’s imperial reach, latterly the American influence has predominated, as JohnK notes. But it’s still called “English”, bobby!

  • Julie near Chicago


    I just watched a very short (<6 min.) UT of Peter Thiel trying to explain the current college bubble, and in it he used, CORRECTLY,
    the word


    I do not think that one native speaker of some version of English in half a million knows that word. Any number of alleged English-writers go around writing “superimposed” as if ’twere a legit word.

    Fie! I say. Din’ you ever learn no Latin?!

    If I were almost anybody else, I’d say that Mr. Thiel’s Brave Old Word impacted me greatly, but I won’t, because there again … a terribly, horribly misused word! No no no. I insist that I was greatly affected on hearing this word from the lips of a gent whom I think might be the only gazillionaire founder of a hugely successful tech startup — which unfortunately has been allowed to fall in with thieves — to have his brains somewhat in working order. :>(

    😀 😀


    . . .

    Woody Allen is said to have said, more-or-less,

    You make the same mistake over and over again and after awhile it’s your style.

    Make the same mistake over & over in English & after while it’s “English.”