As it spreads across the world, who owns English?
WHAT COUNTRY does French belong to? The answer seems obvious: France, as it says on the label. But there are roughly four times as many speakers of French outside France as there are within it. Who does Portuguese belong to? You might now hesitate to blurt out Portugal, remembering that Brazils population is about 20 times bigger than Portugals. Maybe Portuguese belongs jointly to them both. But then 70m people live in African countries in which Portuguese is an official language. Perhaps it belongs to them, too. The English can be under no illusion that the language of the same name is exclusively theirs. The small matters of the other nations in the British Isles, and of the superpower across the Atlantic, make clear that it is joint property. But these countriesalong with Canada, Australia and other Anglophone peoplesmust at some point come to terms with the fact that, even collectively, their language no longer belongs to them. Of the estimated billion people who speak English, less than half live in those core English-speaking countries. Every day, the proportion of English-speakers born outside the traditional Anglosphere grows. Perhaps 40% of people in the European Union speak English, or about 180mvastly more than the combined population of Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In India, calculations range from 60m to 200m. Most such estimates make it the second-biggest Anglophone country in the world. English-speakers pride themselves on the spread of the language, and often attribute that to an open, liberal-minded attitude whereby it has happily soaked up words from around the world. In the coming century, though, English will do more than borrow words. In these non-Anglophone countries, it is becoming not just a useful second language, but a native one. Already it is easy to find children in northern Europe who speak as though they come from Kansas, the product of childhoods immersed in subtitled films and television in English, along with music, gaming and YouTube. Today, many learners still aim for an American or British standard. Textbooks instruct Indian English-speakers to avoid Indianisms such as What is your good name? for What is your first name?, or I am working here for years instead of I have been working here for years. A guide to avoiding Europeanisms has long circulated in European Union institutions, to keep French- or German-speakers from (for example) using actual to mean current, as it does in their languages. Yet as hundreds of millions of new speakers make English their own, they are going to be less keen to sound British or American. A generation of post-colonial novelists has been mixing native words and phrasings into their English prose, without translation, italics or explanation. Academic movements such as English as a lingua franca (ELF) have been developing the ideology that speakersno longer referred to as non-native but rather multilingualshould feel free to ignore British or American norms. Karen Bennett of Nova University in Lisbon says the university website has been translated using words common in southern European Englishlike scientific for academic, or rector for vice-chancellor. The appropriate local dialect is not British or American but ELF. Given enough time, new generations of native speakers contribute not just words but their own grammar to the language they learnfrom older speakers point of view, distorting it in the process. I am working here for years is a mistake today, but it is not hard to imagine it becoming standard in the future in culturally confident Anglophone Indian circles. If this disturbs you, remember that this column is written in a mangled version of Anglo-Saxon, learned badly by waves of Celts, Vikings, Normans and others until it became an unrecognisably different tongue. And take comfort in the fact that such changes usually happen too slowly to affect comprehension in a single lifetime. Written language is less volatile than the spoken kind and exerts a stabilising force. But if language is always evolving (true to the point of cliche), the adaptations are even more profound when they come as a result of new speakers hailing from different linguistic worlds. No language has ever reached more speakers than English. It is hard to predict how they will change it, but easy to rule out the notion that they will not change it at all. In the end, it will be theirs too. Read more from Johnson, our columnist on language: The hazards of pronouncing foreign names on air (May 11th) ChatGPT raises questions about how humans acquire language (Apr 26th) A new language textbook in Mexico has caused a brouhaha (Apr 12th) Also: How the Johnson column got its name