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How And Why Did English Supplant French As The World’s Lingua Franca?

A lingua franca is a second language that people from different countries have in common, and it makes international communication possible. It might seem like a given that English is the world’s lingua franca, but how did it get to be that way and whatever happened to French?
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How And Why Did English Supplant French As The World’s Lingua Franca?

Illustrations by Teresa Bellón

According to linguist David Crystal, for a language to be considered a lingua franca it must be picked up by non-native countries, be made official in these countries and must be used in some important domains — like diplomacy, business or science. For my parents’ generation, French was the preferred choice for a second language, but within a few decades English took over. What led to this state of affairs? And is English poised to be the lingua franca of the next few centuries? Two nations who have spent much of their history as rivals keep vying for the podium. Let’s roll up our sleeves and see if English will win after all!

Step 1: French conquers Europe and the world

Old Norman French became the language of the English aristocracy after William the Conqueror led the Norman conquest of England in 1066. It’s not quite the French we know today, but its staying power in the British Isles has been considerable. From Honi soit qui mal y pense emblazoned on the Royal coat of arms of the UK, to its current use in correspondence between the House of Lords and the House of Commons (Soit baillé aux Seigneurs/Communes is one of the many expressions endorsed in the correspondence by the clerk), French can still be read and heard in Britain in formal matters today. It was also used by the English legal system until 1733!

The process by which French began to define itself as a stable, internationally recognized language began with Cardinal Richelieu’s creation of the Académie Française in 1634. His intention was to standardize and control speech and writing. (It continues to promote and regulate the use of specific words, such as logiciel for software and ordinateur for computer, to this day.) By the 18th century, classical French usurped Latin in international treaties, starting with the Treaty of Rasstatt (1714), which marked the end of the War of Succession in Spain. This was the beginning of French as a langue diplomatique. From this moment on, it was spoken in most courts in Europe and accumulated cultural prestige through philosophers and thinkers: Diderot’s Encyclopédie, Voltaire’s invectives against the church and defense of freedom of speech, Condorcet’s belief in the perfectibility of man — the Enlightenment began in France and radiated throughout Europe. By the time of the French Revolution, French was not only culturally prized, it was about to conquer Europe through the medium of military power.

Paradoxically, French was not the only language spoken in France at the time. In the late 18th century, out of France’s 28 million inhabitants, an estimated 6 million couldn’t understand any French and another 6 million couldn’t converse in it. When Napoleon became emperor and the French Empire spread throughout Europe, the Napoleonic Code brought French law to Europe and the world — as well as the need to etch the French language onto its soil and citizens, something which was gradually achieved. At the time of the French Revolution, 75% of French citizens shockingly did not speak French as their mother tongue and the language was spoken more widely in The Netherlands and Germany than in some parts of France.

Then German philosophers, from Kant to Hegel, and English philosophers like Burke tried to make sense of French values, its Enlightenment, Revolution and Napoleonic fervor. Europeans were forced to perpetually reply to France’s calling, culture, worldview and language. The Congress of Vienna (1815), an attempt to backtrack on the fervor of liberal values and end Napoleonic conflicts after the Revolution, also used French for negotiations as its lingua franca.

France had already conquered territories abroad — such as Canada, Louisiana, several West Indian islands and parts of India — but it eventually lost Canada to the English and Napoleon sold Louisiana to the Americans, both as a way to finance his wars and as a way to remain amicable with the United States, helping it grow to offset English influence in Europe. The prestige of the French language in the 19th century leads even to its adoption by Ottoman diplomats (!) and by 1914, France boasts an empire with over 10,000,000 square kilometers and 60 million people.

Step 2: Two languages vie for domination

But it is precisely in the 18th and 19th centuries that the English language rose in influence. The first shake-up was with the Industrial Revolution, kick-started by Great Britain in the 18th century. The country steamed ahead in science, inventing new technologies and new words for new concepts — and anyone interested in keeping up with these developments would naturally have to learn English. Even modern Newtonian science of the late 17th and early 18th centuries was in English, something Voltaire knew too well as he popularized Newton’s work in France through his writings.

As the British Empire expanded in power and influence over all corners of the world, creating universities and establishing trading posts, it crept up on France’s cultural potency. By the 19th century, Britain was the world’s superpower, and its empire spread from India to Australia to The West Indies, British Guiana in South America, several countries in Africa, territories in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Britain, and the now independent United States, spoke English and were the most productive and fastest growing economies in the world — the influence of their people unsurpassed. According to anecdotal evidence, Otto von Bismarck once stated that the United States, as an English-language nation, was the most important political fact of modern times.

French might have been spoken in the courts of Europe all the way to Russia — it is the language of the nobility, including Catherine II, who used it in correspondence and daily communication — but English was the language of money, and money talks louder than philosophy. The Victorian City of London was the financial center of the world and most of its business was directed outwards and overseas, not domestically.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the final blow to French’s status as lingua franca doesn’t come from England, but from England’s former North American colony.

Step 3: English conquers the world and goes global

After WWI and the Treaty of Versailles, Britain’s Empire reached its peak, but its fortunes dramatically changed after WWII. Europe was destroyed and England was bankrupt; meanwhile the United States and the Soviet armies had de facto dominion over the continent. For the next few decades it was no longer a matter of English versus French, but Russian versus the languages of the Western allies. American technological and military might carried soft power with it, and English continuing to gain greater weight in the world. However, the language’s might was only truly unleashed after the fall of the Soviet Union. Linguist David Crystal mentioned that he only started giving lectures on global English in the 1980s and that the trend for books on the subject only took off in the late 1990s.

English As A Lingua Franca

But which English?

The global influence of English has only picked up since the millennium. As a global economic powerhouse, the United States exports its culture — from pop music to TV series to cinema — all over the world.

This hints at one possible future for English: it will become American in idiom and spelling. We already see this happening in England, where words such as “kids” and “cool” have officially entered the vocabulary, American spellings are taking over (“encyclopedia” instead of the British “encyclopaedia”), pronunciation is altered (the sch in “schedule” often spoken as sk instead of sh) and grammar is caving in, too, with the dwindling use of the present tense (the British “I’ve just eaten” replaced with the American “I just ate”). This is part of what author Arthur E. Rowse describes as “Amglish,” or “English in blue jeans”!

But there is another possibility: the coexistence of many different Englishes in different cultures and regions of the globe with one common core English. In aggregate they function as a universal language. Authors such as Robert McCrum describe this world-conquering English as “Globish” and scholars like Jennifer Jenkins speak of an English that must be tamed and tailored to allow for fluid communication between different cultures, no longer privileging natives and their idioms.

English has the last laugh. Or does it?

So English rules the waves. Does this mean French is no longer a language of cultural value? Not at all! The most recent generations of influential European philosophers and thinkers come from France: Sartre, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, de Beauvoir, Bourdieu, Badiou, Baudrillard and their contemporaries have dominated intellectual discourse in the West since the second half of the 20th century. The Académie Française’s control of French promotes its homogeneity and consistency. The language is still powerful enough to encompass 29 independent nations spread throughout Europe, the Americas, Africa and the Pacific where it retains official status. It is spoken by 79 million native speakers and 370 non-native speakers. France is one of the top six military powers on Earth, one of the top six economies and the most visited country on the planet. Its contribution to world culture is immense, from fashion and literature to architecture and cuisine.

Nonetheless, English does win by a large margin, since it is spoken by 375 million natives and 1.5 billion non-natives all over the globe. Estimates show there are around 1 billion people learning English right now! And the more countries include English as a second language in their education system, the more it will take over as a lingua franca. So it looks like English fills David Crystal’s lingua franca prerequisite with aplomb, having acquired special status in over seventy countries (including Ghana, Nigeria, India and Singapore, among dozens of others).

Which begs the question: by conquering the world, is English now uprooting its origins? Is it a pyrrhic victory or a real triumph? It’s difficult to say what the future will bring. Whatever happens, we’ve never had so many people in the world speaking the same language and being constantly connected through technology. Perhaps it’s time for native speakers to let go of their prescriptivism and embrace the delirious linguistic chaos they drove the world into.

The English language is a citizen of the world, traveling freely without a passport and residing everywhere, ignoring borders and facilitating communication. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the world followed suit?

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