Anglopolis: How English Went Global

Durante il regno della regina Vittoria, tra il 1837 e il 1901, l’Impero britannico, che divenne il più potente in assoluto, arrivò a governare su una quarta parte della popolazione mondiale e il numero di anglofoni aumentò di più di cento milioni di persone.

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The sun never set on the British Empire” was an expression used to emphasise the fact that during the Victorian era there were British colonies spread out all around the globe. These included Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, the West Indies and parts of Africa, including South Africa. It was said that under Victoria a quarter of the map was pink. This referred to the pink colour typically used on world maps to denote British territories. For many British people, the power and extent of the British Empire under Victoria was a source of national pride. The empire was regarded as a success story in spreading both British values and the English language around the world. But, since the mid-20th century, historians have increasingly challenged the idea that the British Empire was a positive force and have highlighted the many atrocities carried out against colonised people in its name.

The language of power

In British colonies around the world, English became the language of power, the official language used for administration. But English coexisted, to varying degrees, with local languages. For example, India was under direct British rule from 1858 to 1947, a period known as the British Raj, and during this time both English and Hindustani were used for government business. And, of course, the vast majority of people across the Indian subcontinent were still using their mother tongues of Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Tamil, etc. In South Africa, too, although English was used for administration, local people continued to speak their mother tongues of Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans and many more.

British Raj

The power of language

Not surprisingly, when English was imposed on colonised people, local languages began to absorb English words. There are numerous examples of this: Kiswahili, spoken in the British colonies of East Africa, adopted the words ‘machine’ (‘mashine’), ‘pencil’ (‘penseli’), and ‘bicycle’ (‘baiskeli’) among others. But many words moved in the opposite direction too, from local languages into English. For example: ‘pyjamas’ entered English from Urdu or Persian; ‘avatar’ came from Sanskrit; and ‘safari’ from Kiswahili.

How English went Global Young Victoria

The language of progress

While the English language was expanding and changing around the globe under Victoria’s rule, back in Britain, the language was changing too. The 19th century was a time of major advances in science and medicine, and these new advances needed new words to describe them. The word ‘scientist’, for example, was recorded for the first time in English in 1834. And new technologies also led to new vocabulary. The word ‘telegram’ to describe short messages sent using electrical signals was coined in the United States in the 1850s.

How English went Global Queen Victoria

American English

It was not just the expanding British Empire that raised the number of English speakers around the world during the 19th century; the population of the US grew around 500 per cent during the time that Victoria was on the throne. And with that population explosion came a huge growth in the number of English speakers. Millions of non-English speaking immigrants arrived in the US during the 19th century: Germans, Italians, Greeks, Hungarians, Poles and more and whatever their heritage, English became the common language of the melting pot.

A common language

Today, English is our global language in part because of Victorian imperialism. We can’t get away from that uncomfortable fact but we can look for the positives. Even back in 1890, the editor of Webster’s International Dictionary, published in America, wrote this message: “We recognize that the language of the mother-country now encircles the globe; that the literature of each of its branches is the common possession of all.” And he was right, the globalised English language now belongs to all of us.

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