Recent flareups over issues of “cultural identity” have brought into sharper relief the question of what it means to be English. Related to this: what does it mean to speak English? Populist purveyors of ill-intentioned identity politics rush to demand that we consider what they see as similarly consequential questions: what does it mean to be not English; and does speaking English confer exceptional or preferential status?
These are just the questions from the political right. Those on the left have a quiver of substantial concerns arising from the legacies of European and English history. As regards the English language in particular, they push back on its dominance in the world as having proceeded from imperialist behaviours. Is English, they ask, the language of colonialism? (Spoiler alert: no.)
What all of these questions have in common is the assumption that what matters in the here and now is a function of the past. Depending upon the political perspective, what is seen to have been triumphant confers exceptional status along with benefits that need defending against people who did not earn them. Alternatively, what is seen to have been evil calls now for punishment and reparations. The question that goes unanswered relates to the future we leave as our legacy: sustainable peace and happiness for as many people as possible, whether they are English or not, or speak English or not.
As with so much of human knowledge, the road to wisdom is best lit by humility, and we must allow that any global language with its history and character will be hard to pin down beyond its sheer weight of numbers.
Those numbers are eye watering. While in third place in terms of first-language speakers, behind Mandarin and Spanish, it is in the number of speakers of English as a second language that the real story emerges. And let’s bear in mind that, as a general rule, we speak our first language by upbringing and our second by choice. In 1500, English languished in sixth place as a minor European noise, well behind German, French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese. Today there are almost one billion speakers of English as a second language, more than double the combined, second language total of those five European languages, and still comfortably more even with second language speakers of Hindi and Mandarin added into the equation.
Nothing in all of this implies a moral judgement or supports a determination of exceptionalism. The fact that such a large minority of the population has chosen to learn English as the language of getting on only means that a disproportionate number of new words will emerge from the wider world of second-language speakers. After all, that’s precisely what happened with all the co-optings of vocabulary and usages that enriched the language as it spread out over just a few centuries and absorbed the world, creating along the way a host of recognised variants including (by no means exhaustively) African, Indian, Caribbean, Singaporean, pidgin, and err, or umm, American.