A Journey through Time: The Evolution of the English Language

First Article in our International English Language Day Series

, by Miguel Ángel Cabrera Gallego

A Journey through Time: The Evolution of the English Language
John Keats at Guy’s Hospital, London, 2014

As JEF’s Europe’s only English language magazine, The New Federalist (TNF) honors the English Language this week on the occasion of International English Language Day which falls on April 23rd of each year.

On this occasion I have been granted the privilege of writing in a relaxed way about a subject far from the dense and serious areas that I usually indulge myself in on this platform. Today I will talk to you about the English language. It is a fact that English is one of the world’s most important languages, if not the most important language, given its widespread use as a working language in international business and the world’s many international organisations. In diplomatic circles, where French used to prevail, it is gradually, if not already, being replaced by English.

If we ask ourselves what has brought us to this point, we must think back on one of humanity’s biggest empires in history, the British Empire. It managed to export its language to places far away from each other, where it was imposed upon the natives. Moreover, as the economic powerhouse of its era, the power of negotiation was being done in English. From then on, the decline of the British Empire was followed by the rise of the United States of America. Both the United Kingdom, heir to the British Empire, and the United States became members of the UN Security Council after winning World War II (1939-1945), which provided them the legitimacy to impose their language as the official language in most of the international organisations that have been developed since then. The United States, which to this day continues to maintain its position as the world’s leading economic, cultural and military power, has accelerated this process by promoting an aggressive cultural diplomacy through film, literature and technological means.

However, there is a certain particularity in the European Union regarding the stature of English; perhaps because neither American nor English citizens have the right to vote in our institutions. However, it still is considered an official and working language in the EU institutions. Evidently, it is the most spoken second language in the EU, with many as 43% of the European population able to comprehend it.

Many people consider it to be a simple language to learn, which would facilitate its learning and use, arguing that it has a more accessible grammar at the pronoun level and consequently less convoluted verb conjugations than other EU languages. It turns out, even if many people are not aware of the fact, that when you begin enjoying learning a language, you end up understanding that it is inevitable that along the way you will have to read classic literature in it to understand not only the roots of it, but also its mindset and world view. The weight of the way you see the world rests largely on your ability to describe it through language, which is nothing more than a reflection of the passage of time in society. It is something that has been studied again and again.

Many people discover it within themselves when they read the works of Shakespeare or other famous authors and artists. In my personal case it was when I read the poetry of John Keats, who still used the uncommon pronouns today of: thine, thy, thee, thou, etc, as in the following sentence: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Sonnet 18, Shakespeare.

These pronouns, whose use is currently reserved exclusively for poetry, religious texts and certain dialectal regions, bring certain nuances to texts that, from my point of view as a Spaniard, embellish them.

Nowadays, they have no place in modern English as they have been replaced by “you” “your” “yours” “you all” and so on, and we must accept it as a fact. It is not possible, as I once heard, to request for their use to be taken up again in Europe to make them similar to other languages or as a way of differentiation. Languages develop, or should develop autonomously from the nations they are from, as they are an active part of the culture and as such should be the property of the citizens, not the countries. Today, English is a global language whose use is essential for travel or work. That is why this short article is dedicated to the most spoken foreign language in the world.

“Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art," John Keats, Brights Star

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