This year English Language Day celebrates 'English the Global Language'. A language that was the tongue of three tribes 1,500 years ago is today the language of nearly two billion people. It has three-times more non-native speakers than native speakers. No other language comes close to matching that, and it is that that makes English global. It is the modern lingua franca, the language used by the Russians to talk to the Nigerians, the Germans to talk to the Spanish, the Chinese to talk to the Brazilians.
English is found on every continent. It has major speech communities in over seventy countries. It is the language of the internet. It is language of air-traffic control, of international travel, and of international business. It is the language of science.
English comes in a huge variety forms across time from Old English through Middle English to Modern English and through space from Australian through Jamaican and Indian to Zimbabwean. It exists in a thousand dialects, slangs and street forms. It exists in two major written forms, American and British. Those forms are not materially different, and the uniformity of written English provides the world with a consistent, and flexible mode of intercommunication.
With the role of being a global language goes the need for a large vocabulary, and the vocabulary of English is huge. The online Oxford English Dictionary has over 600,000 headwords; word collectors claim counts of one million and more words. Remarkably, the vocabulary of a university-educated person is about 50,000 words, and any one speaker can only use a tiny portion of the full range of English. Trades, groups, professions and activities have all their own vocabularies; the International Scientific Vocabulary is the largest with 200,000 words though each scientific area has its own subset of that great number. English has borrowed words from 350 languages, mainly from French (20,000) and from Latin (20,000). English has given words to as many languages as it has borrowed from, and it has probably given to very many more.
The English language is not only the vehicle of our heritage; it is the greatest jewel in that heritage. If we celebrate the English language, we do not do so with any sense of its superiority to other languages spoken in our community but only to recognize that English is the foundation of our heritage and the one language that we all have in common. It involves us all. It is a heritage so rich and diverse that is not possible to sum it up, but the English language is important to absolutely everyone in the United Kingdom. Salman Rushdie puts it best: ‘What seems to me to be happening is that those people who were once colonized by the language are now rapidly remaking it, domesticating it, becoming more and more relaxed about the way they use it—assisted by the English language’s enormous flexibility and size, they are carving out large territories for themselves within its frontiers.