Survival of the Fittest: How English Took Over The World


Marshall Tankersley

You don’t want to run into English in a dark alleyway.

Granted, there aren’t many things you’d choose to run into on the dank cobblestones of a darkened alley, but the English language is one you especially don’t want to meet. English has a strange propensity for invincibility, a way of dodging any and all attempts to thwart its ever-expanding, constantly-conquering modus operandi. Many groups have tried to pin it down and limit its size, yet history constantly repeats itself as English consistently manages to worm its way out of threatening situations and continue marching ever forward towards its bright future. The English language is the proverbial unstoppable force that has yet to meet an immovable object to bring it to a halt, and the world should be glad of that.

English wasn’t always an all-conquering force of nature, though. In its early days, it nearly found itself entirely wiped off the face of the planet by a new invading language – Norman French. After the Battle of Hastings brought Norman Duke William over to be the new king of the land, William invited along most of his pals to accompany him on this grand adventure. Of course, if you give a Norman a duchy, sooner or later he’s going to want your language too. Positioning themselves as the arbiters of every good, true, and educational thing in England, the Norman conquerors set about attempting to root English out of its place as the English nation’s language of choice. “Those who… speak of the inevitability of English might do well to imagine a conversation in the early twelfth century with that level-headed historian [William of Malmesbury],” Melvyn Bragg writes in his book The Adventure of English. “His view, from the battlefield, would have been far less confident. He wrote in Latin. Written English, which had established itself so magnificently before the Conquest, was being rapidly sidelined.” (Bragg, Kindle location 704) This is an ancient tactic – if a conqueror wants to truly capture the hearts of his new subjects as well as their land, he must remove their own culture and cause them to love his. In defocusing on English as a common written language, the Normans hoped they would turn the Saxons into little more than animated Norman puppets, bereft of their heritage. They vastly underestimated the stubbornness of the Saxons and the power of English.

Much like Robin Hood, English of this era was accustomed to hiding from the authorities in numerous inventive ways. The Saxons continued to use it in their common conversations, meaning that when the Normans finally gave up trying and integrated themselves more fully with the native population, English was ready and waiting to spring back into first place. Much like modern day guerrilla warfare, the English language simply managed to outlast its competitors on its home turf, beating out the opposition more through stubbornness than any grand innovations.

English as a concept continued to exercise its freewheeling, irrepressible nature when it came time for it to be well and truly settled down. For centuries it had sown its wild oats, allowing a near-infinite variation of spelling and pronunciation to produce an enormously wide variety of words that made the language fit for bursting. Some of the English intellectuals found this situation to be untenable, and therefore set about to reign the language in. Dr. Samuel Johnson, noted English scholar, was the first to be given the task to create a grand English dictionary. Johnson managed his great work over quite a lengthy period of time, but still did not create an utterly exhaustive map of English. This state of affairs got on the last nerve of Enlightenment-influenced individuals like Jonathan Swift (he of Gulliver’s Travels fame), who looked across the English Channel and grew envious of the French’s control over their own language. The French, in an act of almost Babel-like arrogance, had established an Academy in an attempt to pin their own language down to a specific set of rules and to keep it pure from other foreign words’ attempts to insinuate themselves into the French canon. Swift sought to bring this same bad idea to bear on English as well, believing that its chaotic nature need fall before the absolute genius of the Enlightenment. Thankfully, Swift never managed to convince many of his contemporaries that this was a profitable project to pursue, and English once again dodged doom. Instead of being limited by small-minded pseudointellectuals, English was content simply to be tracked and understood through dictionaries.

Perhaps no element of English has so helped it to grow and survive through the centuries more than its ability to spread. The modern world is inundated in English. Despite the fact that the world is home to literally hundreds of languages, English consistently leads the way as one of the most recognized and trusted. Melvyn Bragg writes:

From the mid twentieth century the English language flooded all over the world until by the year 2000 no one was in any way surprised that a Polish-speaking Pope, the head of a Latin-speaking Vatican, on his arrival in a Hebrew-speaking state, should say in English: “May this be God’s gift to the land that He chose as His own – Shalom.” Nor, as I write this, does it surprise anyone that so many of the diplomats and leaders of states at the United Nations are speaking to the world’s press in English. (Bragg 4746-4753)

English’s ability to adapt and overcome has finally led it to a position of strength, blazing a trail to a place where it has the ability to connect widely disparate people and cultures without too dangerous of a learning curve. English, allowed to be itself and to grow as it desired, has emerged as one of the modern world’s greatest strengths and most valuable assets.

Tracking English’s development can make one feel almost like a proud parent, watching on as one’s bullied child fights back and grows into a world leader. Despite repeated attempts to do it in early on in its development, the English language has proven that it is entirely capable of looking out for itself. English is very proactive; it has never sat easy on its laurels after its victories, but has always set about continuing to grow its own borders as well as the frontiers of human knowledge. Allowing it go grow free simply increases its strength, and its ability to adapt and modify itself when it comes into contact with other languages means that it has no realistic boundaries. English as a concept has finally taken over the world in all of the most meaningful ways. As a language, it defines the ways that people talk and communicate, thereby changing how they think and thusly either inspiring to grand heights or confounding to great depths. English now has been given the ability to control the imagination of the world itself. The English language is the kind of concept/word/thing that you certainly don’t want to find creeping up on you one night in some dark brick alley – so you’d best make friends with it instead.  

If you want to continue exploring English, Melvyn Bragg’s The Adventure of English is a fantastic read