Today, when English is one of the major languages in the world, it requires an effort of the imagination to realize that this is a relatively recent thing — that in Shakespeare’s time, for example, only a few million people spoke English, and the language was not thought to be very important by the other nations of Europe, and was unknow to the rest of the world.
English has become a world language because of its establishment as a mother tongue outside England, in all the continents of the world. This exporting of English began in the seventeenth century, with the first setelments in North America. Above all, it is the great growth of population in the United States, assisted by massive immigration in the nineteenth and twentieth centyries, that has given the English language its present standing in the world.
People who speak English fall into one of three groups: those who have learned it as their native language ; those who have learned it as a second language in a society that is mainly bilingual; and those who are forced to use it for a practical purpose-administrative, profesional or educational. One person in seven of the world’s entire populatin belongs to one of these three groups. Incrediably enough, 75% of the world’s mail and 60% of the world’s telephone calls are in English.
Simplicity of Form. Old English, Greek, had many inflections to show singularand plural, tense, person, etc., but over the centuries words have been simplified. Verbs now have very few inflections, and adjectives do not changed according to the noun.
Flexibility. As a result of the loss of inflections, English has become, over the past five centuries, a very flefible language. Without inflections, the same word can operate as many different parts of speech. many nouns and verrbs have the same form, for example swim, drink, kiss, look, and smile. We can talk about water to drink and to water the flowers; time to go and to time a race; a paper to read and to paper a bedroom. Adjectives can be used as verbs. We warm our hands in front of a fire; if clothes are dirtied, they need to be cleaned and dried. Prepositions too are flexible. A sixty-year old man is nearing retirement; we can talk about a round of golf, cards, or drinks.
Openess of Vocabulary. This involves the free admission of words from other languages and the easy creation of compounds and derivatives. Most world languages have contributed some words to English at some time, and the process is now being reversed. Purists of the French, Russian, and Japanese languages are resisting the arrival of English in their vocabulary.
The future of English. Geographicaly, English is the most widespread language on Earth, second only to Mandarin Chinese in the number of people who speak it. It is the language of bisiness, technology, sport, and aviation. This will no doubt continue, although the proposition that all other languages will die out is absurd.