English Language and Hegemony

From websites to social media, from advertisements to novels, English-language content holds powerful sway across the globe. As the world’s most widely spoken language, with over 1.5 billion speakers worldwide, English is considered the lingua franca of international business, science, academia, and more. The language has established a global hegemony unlike any other.

But why is English so readily available worldwide? Below, we take a look at the English language’s rise to power and the influence it holds in the present day.

English and Empire

The English language didn’t always have such glamorous associations. After its humble Germanic beginnings as Anglo-Saxon (also known as Old English), the invasion of William the Conqueror and the Normans in 1066 marked the transformation of the language. Throughout the next three centuries or so, Britain’s elite Norman conquerors spoke French, relegating English to the language of the peasants while also introducing thousands of French vocabulary words.

Eventually, however, English’s fortunes took a turn for the better. The language gained a more acceptable status; by the end of the 14th century, it was even adopted in the royal court. But it was the expansion of the British empire during the 17th through 19th centuries that ensured English would spread across—and come to dominate—the globe.

By 1920, at the height of its power, the British empire covered one-quarter of the Earth’s surface. London’s role as the foremost hub of global trade had given English far-reaching influence, even in territories that were not officially British colonies. As a result, English became a valuable piece of capital, not least because the British empire often harshly enforced English dominance through language bans and other forced assimilation policies.

By the mid-20th century, the United States came to fill Great Britain’s position as this epicenter of the world economy. This has further cemented English as the major player in international commerce, technology, and industry that we are familiar with today.

English World Domination

English is now widely used in top scientific journals, adopted as an official language in 67 countries, and highly prized in schools and workplaces worldwide. For example, across Europe, nearly 100% of students study English at some point in their education. English has become a prestigious global currency—fluency is desirable because it can confer status, job prospects, educational credentials, higher incomes, and more.

In fact, although English itself was once considered a “thief” of numerous loanwords from other languages, we can now trace English domination by the increased adoption of English words in other languages. This is especially true of modern U.S. slang, tech concepts, and brand names. In France, despite efforts to combat anglicisms, words like le selfie and le Bitcoin have entered the dictionary; in Germany, “cringe” was even voted the 2021 Youth Word of the Year.

The Dark Side of English Hegemony

While English can certainly offer many benefits, the global dominance of any one language also comes with serious costs, leading some scholars to term the global spread of English “linguistic imperialism.”

We cannot forget that English hegemony stands on the shoulders of centuries of colonization, genocide, slavery, and other atrocities, not to mention modern-day discrimination that continues toward speakers of non-English languages. As the UN kicks off the international decade of indigenous languages, for instance, it’s impossible to ignore the U.S. government’s concentrated efforts to eradicate Native languages throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

The global “Americanization” of culture also presents translators with some unique difficulties. Not only must they be aware of English idioms in other languages, they must also be sure to capture other cultures and languages accurately, without assimilating them into anglicized assumptions. When dealing with foreign languages, then, it’s essential to find professional translators who not only are exceptional linguists, but also have the fluent cultural knowledge to tackle this sensitive task.

Photo by Clarissa Watson on Unsplash