THE LANGUAGE OF THE WORLD
Have you ever wondered why it is that a quarter of the world’s population speaks English, either as a first or second language, more so than any other language? No doubt British Empire springs most readily to mind, and it is true that the tentacles of trade, and the protection of these routes by the British, spread far and wide all over the globe. Thus, the language of trade, both amongst the traders themselves and with the natives with which the traders came into contact, was English and that state of affairs has proved to be remarkably resilient. Wherever the British went, they left behind their language….oh, and cricket too.
Yet there is another reason that this might be so, one that seems to have been largely forgotten by history. General James Wolfe is not a figure that jumps off the pages of history books, like Alfred the Great, William the Conqueror, Henry V, Duke of Marlborough, Nelson, Wellington, Churchill and other notable figures of our island story. Nevertheless, the victor at the Battle of Quebec in 1759 paved the way for British domination in North America and thus the hegemony of English as the spoken language throughout the continent.
Of itself, the battle – sometimes known as the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, because the field on which it was fought belonged to a farmer called Abraham – was not a titanic struggle between two massed armies – think Hastings, Agincourt, Blenheim, Waterloo – but a relatively small affair. It was over in fifteen minutes, involving a total of 10,000 combatants in both armies. The death toll on the British side was a mere 58, whereas the French lost 112 killed.
It was the time of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), fought between all the major European powers, which had spilled over the Atlantic into the Americas. The details of the conflict do not necessarily concern us here except that – as usual – France and Britain had found themselves on opposite sides. For years, the two countries had been at loggerheads (not a bad metaphor seeing as logging was one of Canada’s main sources of trade) over control of the New World. France called her territories New France; Britain called hers New England. The clash of the two armies in 1759 was a pivotal moment in the conflict between France and Britain over the fate of New France, which later led to the creation of Canada.
The walls of Quebec City were heavily fortified and had resisted a three-month siege by British forces. The French commander, General Montcalm, was confident that his defenders could hold out until the onset of winter froze the St Lawrence River, which would have put paid to any further military expeditions by the Royal Navy and British Army. Almost in desperation, General Wolfe, commanding the British forces, decided on a risky plan, to land a small party of volunteers - experienced climbers all - behind the city, scale the cliffs and surprise the French. That they did. Montcalm had previously scoffed that his undefended rear could be attacked: “Do you suppose our enemy has wings?” he famously told his commanders before retiring to bed. Not only did the advance party scale the cliffs, the whole of Wolfe’s army followed them to the top, hauling up two cannon with them.
Surprise was total and victory overwhelming. The number of casualties was small, but in their number could be counted both Generals, Wolfe and Montcalm. Wolfe had been shot in the chest. Hearing a cry, “They run! They run!”, he asked who was running. When assured that the runners were French, he turned aside and muttered, “Now God be praised. I will die in peace.” And died. Montcalm had been mortally wounded by musket fire. He asked his surgeon how long he had to live. When told no more than a few hours, he said, “All the better. I will not see the British in Quebec.”
The British were in Quebec all right and there they remained. At the Treaty of Paris in 1763, France ceded all her territories in North America (with the exception of Louisiana) to Britain, ending once and for all any influence she had in settling the New World. English became the official language of the continent with French dying out (except for pockets in the Quebec region). It is not fanciful to imagine therefore that had there been another outcome to the Battle of Quebec, French, not English, would now be the spoken language of North America.
Thus, it became a sine qua non, a given, that English would spread throughout North America after the French left. Inevitably the language of trade, government, religion, literature, and the law became English, with some minor differences but recognisably the same language.
Two World Wars changed the whole landscape of world geopolitics. Europe had turned in on itself and the United States emerged as the dominant force throughout the globe. As the Old World reeled after the ravages of war, in the New World trade was booming (just as it had done in Britain in the century before). Jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, pop music, spawned in Britain as in the America, infiltrated the culture of people everywhere. Hollywood films were exported worldwide. Business, science, literature, politics, diplomacy, television, trade were dominated by the United States and the common language was English. The internet was invented in the US; the entire lexicon for technology and computers was created in English (though I have to confess that some of the terms are all Greek to me), spreading like wildfire around the globe. The world of science too is largely dominated by English.
And yet and yet… There is another reason that English has readily lent itself to world domination, the same reason that it survived the catastrophic Norman Conquest in 1066. Overnight, after the Battle of Hastings, the ruling class - the French - took over the country. The English king, the officer class, the nobility, the aristocracy, the landowners, the clergy and the forces of law and order had been wiped out. The language of the court, of the nobility, of the military, of the church, of the law, of just about anybody who counted, was now French. By any yardstick, English, or Anglo-Saxon as it was, should have become extinct. But it didn’t. It sort of merged with the French, testament to its inherent flexibility and its tractability. English is easy to learn. It has a simple grammar, its plurals are straightforward, its verb conjugations are not complex, its vocabulary is extensive and supple, and its nouns are largely gender-neutral. In short, it has displayed a remarkable ability to adjust and assimilate. Some would argue that is because we have never had the equivalent of the Academie Francaise, which lays down the rules for the purity of the French language. Nobody has ever argued that English is pure and immutable. Why, even Shakespeare spelt his own name with several variations.
So, ask yourself, what have the Americans ever done for us? Well, yes, apart from the English language, that is….