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English: the global language

20 December 2010

A wonderful free exhibition at the British Library, Evolving English, makes the point: 'the roots of old English, slang dictionaries, advertisements and newspapers from around the world are brought together to present a fascinating picture of the evolution of English'. Today 400 million people speak English as their native language, but there are more than 1.4 billion people worldwide for whom it is their second language.

At the time of Shakespeare's birth in 1514, English was spoken only in a couple of islands at the edge of Europe. By the time of his death in 1616, English-speaking settlements had been established in the Americas which were to result in the English-speaking nation of the United States. Between now and then it has been a story of two empires and their effect on the distribution of the English language.

First, the British traded across the world, becoming a great maritime nation and establishing colonies in Africa, India, the Far East, Australia and New Zealand. English was the language of the occupying power and in these countries it became the language of government and commerce. Countries like India, with a large number of recognised languages belonging to different groups, could unite around English, which belonged to none of them.

Then it was the turn of the USA, which took over from the UK as a superpower and imposed English, not through colonisation, but through trade, the spread of American culture and the development of American-dominated science and technology. Now the world is clamouring to learn English and it has become the international language par excellence.

English is immensely adaptable and has incorporated words from more than 350 other languages. In the internet age it has become especially dominant and over half of all web pages are currently written in English. This gives authors writing in English an immense advantage, a market potentially of both the 400 million and the 1.4 billion mentioned above. Without your work needing to go through the expensive and difficult process of translation, it can in theory be made available to all the readers in these huge groups.

In terms of translation too, very many more books are translated from English into other languages than the other way round, as there are so many writers writing in English that there is no shortage of books for English language readers. There is often dismay expressed about the small numbers of foreign writers translated into English (the current vogue for Scandinavian crime and Stieg Larsson in particular being an unusual exception). The truth though is simply that, although diversity might be best served by a wider range of voices from different countries, the market is already well-supplied with writers working in English and publishers feel no need to translate foreign writers to produce a full publishing programme.

Better still for writers using English, the secondary market of people for whom English is a second language but who speak it well enough to read it for pleasure, study or professional reasons is growing apace. Europe and the Far East are booming markets for English-speaking writers and join with the many countries for which English is a primary language to create a stunning global opportunity.

Take part in an English mapping project at the British Library.