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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?

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 becomes the language of the English aristocracy after William the Conqueror leads 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 use in correspondence between the House of Lords and the House of Commons to this very day (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 — and it was used by the English legal system until 1733!

The process through which French begins to define itself as a stable, internationally recognized language begins with Cardinal Richelieu’s creation of the Académie Française in 1634. His intention is 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.) By the 18th century, classical French usurps Latin in international treaties, starting with the Treaty of Rasstatt (1714), marking the end of the War of Succession in Spain. It is the beginning of French as a langue diplomatique. From this moment on, it is spoken in most courts in Europe and accumulates 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 begins in France and radiates throughout Europe. By the time the French Revolution kicks the doors open, French is not only culturally prized, it is about to conquer Europe through the medium of military power.

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

German philosophers from Kant to Hegel and English philosophers such as Burke try to make sense of French values, its Enlightenment, Revolution and Napoleonic fervour. Europeans are forced to perpetually reply to France’s calling, to its culture, its worldview and its language. The Congress of Vienna (1815), an attempt to backtrack on the fervour of liberal values and end Napoleonic conflicts after the Revolution, also uses 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 loses Canada to the English and Napoleon sells Louisiana to the Americans, both as a way to finance his wars with Britain and other European powers and as a way to remain amicable with the United States, helping it grow in might 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 rises in influence. The first shake-up is the Industrial Revolution kick-started by Great Britain in the 18th century. The country steams ahead in science, inventing new technologies and new words for new concepts. Anyone interested in keeping abreast of these developments must learn English. Even modern Newtonian science of the late 17th and early 18th centuries is in English, something Voltaire knew too well as he popularized Newton’s work in France through his writings.

As the British Empire spreads in power and influence over all corners of the world, creating universities and establishing trading posts, it creeps up on France’s cultural potency. By the 19th century, Britain is the world’s superpower, its empire spreading 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 speak English and are the most productive and fastest growing economies in the world, the influence of their people unsurpassed. According to anecdotal evidence, Bismarck stated that the United States, as an English-language nation, was the most important political fact of modern times.

French might be spoken in the courts of Europe all the way to Russia - it is the language of the nobility, including Catherine II, who uses it in correspondence and daily communication. (This Russian love affair with French is interrupted abruptly with the anti-monarchical fright of the French Revolution, but is later to be gradually resumed in the early 19th century with Alexander I.) Nonetheless, English is now the language of money — and money talks louder than philosophy. The Victorian City of London is the financial center of the world and most of its business is directed outwards and overseas, not domestically.

Surprisingly, 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 sees its Empire reach its peak, but its fortunes dramatically change after WWII. Europe is destroyed and England is bankrupt. The USA and the Soviet armies have de facto dominion over the continent. For the next few decades it’s no longer a matter of English vs French, but Russian beyond the Iron Curtain vs the languages of the allies in the West. American technological and military might drags soft power with it, and English is now gaining greater weight in the world. However, the language’s might is only truly unleashed after the fall of the Soviet Union. Linguist David Crystal mentions 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.

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 that 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 has caved in as well 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 now describe this world conquering English as Globish and scholars such as 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. Imagine a business meeting where Indonesian, Spanish and French natives speak in English (their second learned language) and understand each other with little attrition. Now throw in two Brits and two Americans, born and bred, and watch how they fail to make themselves understood to non-native speakers. The native speakers’ vocabulary, phonetics, idioms and dialect is too far removed from a core international English. You might assume the non-native speakers need to brush up on their English skills, but why should they, if they’re communicating with each other fluently? The true saboteurs appear to be, paradoxically, the British and US natives! Do their advanced skills in their mother tongue stop them from communicating properly with others?

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 French 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 (Ghana, Nigeria, India, Singapore, etc.).

Which poses the question: by conquering the world is English now uprooting its origins? Is it a pyrrhic victory or a real triumph? Poetic justice after the onslaught of colonialism or merely a rebooted imperialism with Uncle Sam’s face replacing the Union Jack? 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 hot mess and 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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