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How the English Language Conquered the World

The spread of the English language lies not only in the British empire, but in the circulation of capital in a capitalist world-system.

19 November, 2021

This article is part of Project Empire, an editorial series designed to explore the history of the British Empire. See the full collection here »

In 1170, Richard De Clare, the English Earl of Pembroke, subdued the Irish city of Waterford and married Aoife, the daughter of Dermot MacMurrough, the Irish King of Leinster. So began the centuries long colonisation of Ireland by England, during which the language of the colonisers came to supplant Irish as the dominant language of the land.

It is often overlooked that Ireland was the English nation’s first overseas colony so embedded is Britain’s ‘red ink’ nineteenth century empire in the psyche of imperial historians and in the British national mythology. Against this, the subjugation of Ireland (1170-1801) has often been an obscure historical footnote in what is popularly a story of inexorable British expansion after 1815, not only of Britain’s territorial empire, but also of the language of English.

Today, it is said that there are approximately 1.3 billion users of English around the world, of which around 400 million are “native speakers” (although native/non-native is a contested dichotomy). Yet the number of users depends on whether a distinction is made between those who are active users of English — either as native or non-native speakers — those who have learned it to some extent but never use it, and those who have been required to study it, but have never learned it in any useful manner. In the discussions which exist about the spread of English, these distinctions often go unmentioned.

Whichever way you look at this, the number of people around the world who know at least some English is extraordinarily high. It exceeds the number of speakers of every other major language in the world, from Mandarin Chinese (1.1 billion), Hindi (600 million) to Spanish (553 million). In these terms, English is a “hyper-central language” — existing at both a local and global level. Under the former, in cities as diverse as Urumqi, Jakarta and Dar-es-Salaam, we find it in streets on advertising hoardings, street signs and shop window displays. Under the latter, it is the official language of the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation, the World Health Organisation, the European Union, the Association of South-East Asian Countries, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the Bank of International Settlements, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, and a vast slew of other international organisations and businesses. It is even a primary language alongside Chinese for the nearly 200 co-operation agreements China has signed since 2019 to promote its $1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative. With the English language more widespread than any previous lingua franca, it is undoubtedly the most global language in the history of the world.

Many scholars — not just historians or intellectuals of English — look to Britain and its nineteenth-century imperial empire as the origin of this process. While there is some truth in this — it was, after all, an empire that by 1921 incorporated nearly a quarter of the earth’s land surface and approximately a fifth of the world’s population — it is still a rather narrow view. Instead, what explains the dominance of English is that Britain oversaw the development of a capitalist world-economy, of which its formal territorial empire was only one dimension.

***

In a seminal 1953 paper critiquing the preoccupation of historians with Britain’s formal territorial empire, the imperial historians John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson commented that “the conventional interpretation of empire continues to rest upon the study of the formal empire alone, which is rather like judging the size and character of icebergs solely from the parts above the water line.” Quite so.

They pointed out that a good deal of British imperial acquisition — New Zealand, the Punjab, Hong Kong and Lagos, to name just a few — took place prior to 1880, and it did so in the context of an increasingly integrated global trading system in which Britain was the hegemonic power. They also placed an emphasis on the “economic importance — even pre-eminence — of informal empire in this period,” where, in places like Cartagena, Buenos Aires, Valparaiso, Lima, Nagasaki, Yokohama, Shanghai, Foochow and Bangkok, despite not being British possessions, Britain exercised imperial influence and sway. Rather than being a territorial construct, for Gallagher and Robinson, the “empire” had to be understood as a “total framework of expansion” which included both formal and informal domains. It was, in other words, not merely a land-based entity, but an integrated world-economy with Britain at its core.

Gallagher and Robinson’s argument was significant for its time, but if there is a criticism, it is that it did not go back far enough. The role of capital was also overlooked. As Karl Marx pointed out in Capital Volume I, “World trade and the world market date from the sixteenth century, and from then on the modern history of capital starts to unfold.”

It is for this reason that in my recent book I have argued that the global dominance of English needs to be understood in relation to the circulation of capital in a capitalist world-system, in which, for more than 400 years, the hegemonic powers of that system have been the consecutive world-economies of Britain (c. 1600-1919) and the United States (c. 1919-present). To this day, the English language plays a seminal role in managing the circulation and accumulation of global capital. It acts as a “free rider” on capital and is imbricated in every stage of the accumulation process. But it is not any old English that has been made dominant. Rather, it is a definite form of “global English,” one which has been accepted as the dominant linguistic mediator of the capitalist world-system.

Global English is mostly realised in the “standard” form of English that is employed in formal written and spoken contexts in the English “native-speaking” world. Whether or not standard English is the most “superior” or “correct” form of English is largely irrelevant next to the widespread perception that it is. This can be seen, for example, in the mass of written documentation produced by global organisations such as the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, where this kind of English is widely found. A great deal of scholarly research that is published internationally is also written in standard English, no matter what the linguistic backgrounds of the authors.

Most linguists will argue that the idea of a most “correct” or “elegant” form of a language is a myth, since all standards are social constructions with no innate merit or essential legitimacy. Instead, they are dialects, and for reasons unrelated to correctness or elegance, have simply become more dominant than others. Yet standard English effortlessly maintains its attraction in the current world-system, for national governments, global institutions, international corporations, international education and research, and for parents of all classes who are concerned with the life prospects of their children.

Despite the world dominance of standard English, there is still enormous diversity on display — from the English of hip hop, rap and K-pop, to recognisable varieties such as Indian English, Jamaican English and Singlish. There are also arguments for extending that recognition to other forms of English as these are spoken by speakers of different languages. Examples include Frenglish, Japlish and Indonglish, which are the respective names given to the English spoken by native speakers of French, Japanese and Indonesian. This has understandably led to calls for non-standard varieties of English to be granted their own legitimacy, and for English language learning and teaching to reflect this by no longer solely deferring to native-speaker norms, and as part of that to standard forms as well. After all, it is true that non-native speakers outnumber native speakers, so shouldn’t this be acknowledged in the way that English is taught?

As a moral — and even numerical — argument, there seems little to disagree with, and it is of course important that we do not learn inside a bubble of obsessive grammatical correctness — since, as we have seen, the idea of there being an ideal or true form of a language is a deception. The problem as I see it, and the one that I present in my book, is that the argument for equality of recognition is based almost entirely on the evidence of speech — it is how English is spoken in the world which is the primary concern and interest. But this is to miss a critical point, because in the capitalist world-system it is with writing that the dominance of English rests.

If capital has a language that most fundamentally represents it in the capitalist world-system, that language is English. But it is not spoken English, although it plays its part too; rather, it is written English, and it is the standard form of written English that is more than any other way of using English responsible for this dominance. Where speech does play its part in this process, it is in reproducing the standard form, as when international diplomats and functionaries in international organisations make public statements to the press in English, or take part in interviews on English-speaking news networks. The standardness of their English is usually very noticeable.

The reason why English in its standard form is so dominant is because the global hegemons of the capitalist world-system, and the principal arbiters of the circulation and accumulation of capital within it, have been anglophone nations, and in these nations the most prestigious form is the standard form. This is also why in global capitalism and capital accumulation it is the standard form which has been preferred, and this is most noticeable in writing. The reason why writing is so significant is because the frameworks and mechanisms that make possible the management and functioning of the capitalist world-system have been set out in writing. The capitalist world-system is in this way given documentary presence thanks to the vast network of documentation that the system generates to support it. It is the incessant reproduction of the standard form in writing, particularly ‘elite’ writing, and its intimate connection to capital that makes this form more dominant than the diversity of alternative grammatical forms and usages which are to be found in speech (but which can also be found in more informal ways of writing too, such as text messaging, emails and chats in online forums).

As for the teaching of English and the relevance or not of standard English there. While it is evident that English is being used in many ways in the world, this does not make standard English of only incidental interest to language learning in comparison with the great diversity which exists. It is not so much that standard English ought to be deferred to in some automatic way, of course it should not. That is the easy part. The more difficult part is that linguistic prejudice and the social favouring of standard forms in whatever language, not just English, is an aspect of structural inequality in a capitalist world-system. This means that those with the most developed repertoires of skills and competencies, including in language, tend to fare better than those with the least. This is why not having standard English in one’s repertoire in native-speaking contexts such as Britain and the US is viewed as a major social impediment.

Equally, if you are to learn English, it is in your interest to learn the form that is favoured by capital in a capitalist world-system. This does not mean we ignore other varieties of English or do not educate ourselves about the diverse ways English is being used globally. Only that we also equip ourselves and our students with knowledge of the form in which symbolic power currently resides. Not to do so, and to reject or refuse standard English, may make us feel good as educators standing up for diversity, but it will do little for the life prospects of young people in a capitalist world-system where capital since the time of the British hegemony has favoured the standard form. Refusal to teach the standard form also does not amount to much as resistance, since it leaves the underlying mechanisms that are responsible for linguistic inequality in place.

The consecutive periods of hegemony of Britain and the United States are sometimes referred to as the Pax Britannica and the Pax Americana. This is not because there was an absence of war. Quite the opposite, since through the history of capitalism there have been many wars and countless millions have died. In this sense, the notion of the British and US hegemonies being eras of pax, or “peace”, is a rather cruel misnomer, since as a casual glance at history shows, during the last 400 years there has been precious little peace around. If there is a meaning which better fits these terms, it is that the Pax Britannica and the Pax Americana refer to stewardship of the world-economy in a way to ensure — if necessary, by force — that the accumulation of capital is as “peaceful” and unimpeded as possible. If conflicts occur and people die, this is treated as collateral damage and is at a price the market will bear.

From its beginning in the 1590s, British hegemonic expansion developed at an incremental pace. Notable developments included the founding of the English East India Company in 1600; the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade from 1640; the passing of the Great Navigation Act of 1651; the founding of the Bank of England and the London Stock Exchange in the 1690s; the transfer of the Asiento monopoly on trade in slaves in the Spanish Caribbean from France to England in 1701; the English defeat of France in the Spanish War of Succession between 1701-1713; the defeat of France at the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War in 1763; the establishment of the “Canton System” in China after 1757; and Robert Clive’s victory in Plassey in the same year.

During this entire period, England built its strength in industry, finance, military capability and scientific knowhow, emerging in 1815 as the unrivalled hegemonic power of the capitalist world-system. England did not meet any real challenge until after 1850, with the emergence of Germany and the United States as rival hegemons. Even then, for Britain it was to be a long decline, with the 1956 British retreat at Suez probably its final call. By then, with the end of the second world war, the United States had become the unrivalled hegemon of the world-system and the dollar had also displaced the pound as the central currency of that system.

Just as Britain had before it, by 1945, the United States had developed an edge in four key dimensions of structural power: in production (goods and new technology), in finance (control of the world’s financial system), in security (military capability), and in the production of knowledge (global research and development). As component elements of this supremacy, it also held control over the international currency of reserve — the dollar — and the world’s favoured lingua franca, English. These are advantages the United States still holds today, despite the rising challenge of China.

***

If the world-system is still presently defined by the relationship between capital and English, what prospect is there that the rise of China will see this relationship replaced by Mandarin Chinese — that is, with Mandarin Chinese as the free rider upon capital instead of English?

Contrary to current narratives surrounding China, in the absence of a US hegemonic collapse or a fatally destabilising nuclear conflagration, there seems to be little prospect of such a displacement. This is because China only has structural parity with the United States in economic production; in the other three dimensions — finance, security and knowledge — it is behind.

The United States remains the centre of the world’s financial system: global finance and commerce are denominated in the dollar, and in the global markets it is the dollar which has the “trust of credit”. In times of crisis such as economic turndowns and global shocks, —  e.g. 9/11, the financial meltdown of 2007-8, the onset of the pandemic in 2020 — people hoard dollars, they do not hoard renminbi. The impediments to Chinese hegemony are many, but the most significant is China’s lack of structural power in a global financial system that was designed by the United States.

Another is the Chinese state itself. The Chinese Communist Party’s exceptional authoritarianism, its “cookie jar” direction of the Chinese economy, and its hyper-secretiveness and sensitivity make global financial markets wary of trusting China with their money, especially during a crisis. Chinese technology companies quietly complain that China’s economy is too tightly controlled, and its close surveillance makes it difficult for them to innovate.

Party interventions in the economy have also created unusual patterns of borrowing and domestic pricing, particularly in property (the Chinese economy’s largest sector), which are not replicated in market economies that follow a more “Western” capitalist model. The more difficult the Chinese economy is to predict, the riskier China appears as a place to invest and the less attractive the yuan becomes as a currency to hold.

China also lacks hegemonic preparedness in its unwillingness to take on responsibility for global security. It has shown characteristic non-commitment in zones of tension such as Iran, Syria, Yemen, North Korea, Ukraine and Afghanistan. Instead, its preferred approach — mainly for its domestic audience — has been to make great-power gestures from afar and to encourage opposing parties to settle their differences amicably. This may go down well at home, but it does little to suggest the Chinese Communist Party aspires to a Pax Sinica to replace the Pax Americana. Taken as a whole, not only is capital denominated in the yuan not as attractive as capital denominated in the dollar, China’s actions both domestically and globally seem indicative of a power that wishes more for great-power recognition and ‘face’ than it wishes for unrivalled global hegemony.

This means that until China can resolve its dilemmas and contradictions in relation to the hegemonic dimensions of capitalist production, finance, security and knowledge, it will remain a secondary power in what is for now a US-dominated capitalist world-system, where standard English remains the governing lingua franca of capital and its accumulation.



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