Who owns the language we now call English? Who has the right to tell others have to speak? Who is right and who is wrong? Is anybody really wrong? This is all frequently asked questions, which are tough to answer and which causes a lot of conflict around the world. I will try to get a bit closer to a solution.
To find an answer to the questions above we have to go back to the birth of this now-worldwide language, which dates back to the fifth century A.D., and we will find that English is a result of invasions of different tribes from the continent to the windblown island in the west, Great Britain, who each sat their footprint on the English language.
English is considered a West Germanic language, which has its origin in the Anglo-Frisian dialects brought to Britain by the Germanic settlers and Roman troops from various parts of what is now the northwest Germany and northern Netherlands. The Old English was then developed and influenced by two waves of invasion.
The first was by the Danish and Norwegian Vikings, who conquered and colonized parts of the British island. This mass of intruders affected and changed the language a great deal, because numerous amounts of the conquerors had difficulties learning the complicated grammar and therefore it was simplified. The language also received a number of Scandinavian words, which were integrated into the language.
The second wave of invasion - the invasion of the Normans, the Frenchs - led to the nobility speaking Norman French, while the general populations still spoke English. This has naturally enough created a number of misunderstandings through the years, like for example the name of the famous Beefeaters at The Tower of London, who originally were called buffetiers, which means “those who keep an eye on the buffet”, or the name of a road in London called Rotten Row, which was originally called route du roi, which means the king’s road.
It was not until the 15th century that everyone again spoke English. However, it was a greatly changed form of English. The grammar was simplified, and the vocabulary was either expanded or words were replaced by French words. The everyday words were mostly the same, while the more formal were of French origin. For that reason you can find sheep and pigs on English farms, while they have changed name and are called pork and mutton when they appear on the dinner table.
Nowadays English is the mother tough of more than 350 million people, mostly in the USA, United Kingdom and Australia. It is also the official language in the Philippines and India, even though it is not their primary language, the world’s biggest lingua franca (language spoken between people who does not share the same native language), and the international language of business and science. But why is that?
Why is English as widespread and as much spoken as it is? The answer mainly lays in the British Empires conquest of the so-called New World, know as America and Oceania. Parts of America were conquered and colonized, and English became a natural language to use. After the Declaration of Independence in 1776 the British were forced to leave, but the English stayed behind as the primary language for a mass of people, who had been born there and who saw no reason to deceive their country by leaving. The United States quickly took over as the motor behind the spread of English and is now the biggest English-speaking nation in the world.
After the War of Independence the British could no longer send their convicts to the USA, as they had done in the past, and after Captain Cook’s discovery of Australia their convicts were sent there instead, free-settlers soon followed, taking English with them.
Other countries were also conquered, but in some nations, like India, this was not possible, because they had been highly developed civilizations for centuries. The British therefore had to rely on the native population to do their biddings. When the British finally left these colonies in the 20th century, English stayed behind as an official language and a lingua franca between different tribes.
Today English is used in every corner of the world and that is why it is very hard to determine who owns the language which is spoken daily on the entire planet. You might say that it was much easier to decide who owned English in the old days, but was it really?
As said above the Old English was a mixture of different words from various pats of the continent, and as it is hard to say who the greatest and most powerful conquerer was, it is tricky to determine who owned English even in the old days. Still a number of people would say that the British were the owners in the past, but nowadays it is much more complicated.
If we take a look at the Nordic countries, especially Denmark, Norway and Sweden, we can see that these languages are very much alike, and that a person who has for example Norwegian as his or her mother tongue easily can understand both Danish and Swedish. This is because all of these three languages are related and most likely have the same starting point. The language Papiamentu on the island of Curacao in the southern Caribbean Sea is also a good example of a mixed language, because it has its roots in African, Portuguese and Dutch, and to a minor extent in Spanish and Native Indian language. This again shows that English is not the only mixed language – that virtually every language has roots in a mass of different dialects and languages.
As a conclusion I think it is fair to say that to determine who owns the English language is an impossible task and that you could just as well looked at any other language on the planet.
English is everyone’s property.
Wikipedia (norsk), http://no.wikipedia.org/wiki/Engelsk