Who owns the English language in 2022? It’s been clear since the rise of the USA at the end of the 19th century that it is no longer just England, the land of its birth.
But now English seems to be passing out of the hands of its native speakers altogether. Today, anyone might be using English, and in so doing they are staking a claim to determining how the language is used.
If a language is ‘owned’ by those who use it, English is changing hands fast. It is quickly on its way to becoming a kind of common world possession that belongs to everyone.
The status of English has changed. It is no longer tied to English-speaking countries like Canada, Australia or New Zealand, and not even to those with English-speaking traditions like India or Hong-Kong.
English is a lingua franca
New variants of English have emerged connected to the globalisation of trade and the increasing harmonisation of nation states. The example of the EU stands out in particular, where English is now the main language despite the fact that it is only spoken natively and/or officially in the not-particularly-populous Republic of Ireland and Malta.
English is now being used for general purposes of communication just as Latin was until the 17th century, when it was replaced by French, which fulfilled the same role until the early 20th century.
It is now a truly global lingua franca. That is, it has been disconnected from its native setting, stripped of its cultural associations and put to service as a tool, a neutral means of communication. Who cares where it comes from? The main point is to communicate. In international settings English is now the standard choice for just about any field, whether commerce, sport, science or education. You name it.
New kinds of English are developing for new uses
This new, widely expanded range of applications and purposes to which English is now put has wide-reaching consequences on how it is used and how it will develop in the future. It has become necessary to create new variants of English to match the different realities for which the language has traditionally not been used.
The EU is a case in point. A new kind of English has been created to describe European law, government, culture and business. The common European experience need to be encapsulatted in a common language, and for various reasons the only practical candidate is English. (Latin anyone?) These are systems for which traditional English has no available terms, so a European version of English has come about as a new language for a new culture.
What’s more, it may be necessary to develop a standard terminology in English for a country’s legal or health systems. For example, it may now be necessary to create a standardised English terminology for the German legal system, so that it could be harmonised with similar terminologies for that of other countries. It would not be possible to base such a terminology on concepts and terms from English-speaking countries because these are too different, but it would have to be innovative and novel in describing local institutions instead.
The more English is ‘borrowed’ in this way, the more it is adapted. New terms are coined and departures from the standard language are made in order to reflect new situations and concepts. These new uses of new Englishes often jar with native speakers, who frequently object to them as ‘not proper English’, ‘unidiomatic’ or ‘bad grammar’. They can be a source of indignation, and sometimes of humour, depending on perspective.
Who gets to decide how language is used?
The tension between traditional conceptions of correctness and adapting language to meet new needs is hard to reconcile. Even harder to deal with is the question of who gets to decide how language is used, especially when non-native speakers have also started doing the deciding. At bottom, then, is a debate about who is qualified to make these kinds of decisions.
But regardless of this debate and any objections by traditional owners, English will continue to be used and adapted in the ways the users of today need it. These newcomers to the table are becoming, if not owners, at least co-owners.
Ultimately, it will most likely be the majority of users that decide how English is used and who it belongs to. And those users are increasingly everyone.