How did a mongrel tongue born on a small island in the north Atlantic become the globally dominant language now known as English?
That's a question Robert McCrum tries to answer in his new book, Globish, which explores the way English took the world by storm over the course of several centuries. It's a story that begins back in the first millennium, when the language spoken in England wasn't even called "English."
The Britons, who first inhabited the isle of Britain, spoke Celtic languages. Their culture was forever altered when Anglo-Saxon raiders began invading England around 500 A.D., bringing with them their own Germanic speech.
"Although they came as raiders and were warriors when they landed, they soon became farmers and artisans and a kind of pastoral people," McCrum tells NPR's Renee Montagne. Pastoral Anglo-Saxon words — "sheep," "earth," "plow," "dog," "wood," "field" — provide the "building blocks of the language we use today," says McCrum.
But English is much more than just a combination of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon. Nordic invaders from Scandinavia followed the Anglo-Saxons, altering the language of Britain just as those earlier raiders had. And then, in 1066, came the Norman invasion of England (which McCrum calls "the mother of all invasions.")
The French Normans, led by William the Conqueror, crossed the Channel and imposed a French way of life on the English people with what McCrum describes as "tremendous zeal" and "some ferocity." Norman words that survive to the present day, such as "fortress," "siege," "assault" and "prison," indicate the cruelty of the invasion.
But while the Normans used their native French as the language of the court and of literature, English became the language of England's common, conquered people. Compare English words that come from that time — "fire," "work," "strong," "heart" — to French words from that era: "glory," "cordial," "fortune," "guile" and "sacred." As McCrum explains, English disappeared from the written record, but survived "underground on the lips of ordinary people." As a result, the language became democratized very early on.
That democratic character, according to McCrum, is partially responsible for English's eventual global domination. While French imperialists forcefully imposed their own language on foreign countries in a "top-down" manner, English imperialists took a "bottom-up" approach. English would not be "imposed from above by the government" in the colonies, says McCrum. Instead, "the troops would arrive, and the language would flow again from the ordinary people."
It sounds nice and democratic, but McCrum isn't arguing that British Empire was a "benign" or "culturally beneficial" influence. "Clearly, the British Empire has much to answer for," he says. "But at the level of language, the way in which it operated was very effective from the point of spreading English."
Today, English is "everyone's second language," says McCrum. "It is completely global. It is the default position — if one foreigner meets another foreigner and they can't communicate, they are very likely to default to English. And so we might as well know where it came from."