27 July 2021

English: The Evolution of the World’s Lingua Franca


English is the global language of business, a lingua franca (bridging language) that enables people all over the world to connect personally and professionally. In the first article in this two-part series about the evolution of English over time, we explored the origins of English, from Old English in the 5th century to the post-Industrial Revolution world of the 20th century, when the social and cultural influence of English received a new boost from the United States becoming a global superpower.

In the second and final part of this series, we consider how technology, social media and future generations may influence the way that the English language continues to evolve.

How Social Media and Gen Z Are Changing the Language Landscape

English is a dominant language on social media, as well as being the most commonly used language on the internet – it is the language of over 25% of the web’s content. Social media and the rise in internet communications (through messaging services) has shifted English into a more informal style, with a non-stop array of words appearing, trending and becoming normalised in record time. These words have the capacity to spread from one country or region to another within days – or as long as it takes to check what is trending on Twitter! The language of social media platforms also adds new dimensions to some existing words, such as ‘like’ (Facebook), ‘tweet’ (Twitter) and ‘streak’ (Snapchat).

The young people of Gen Z, the so-called ‘smartphone generation’, are now entering the workforce with a thoroughly modern version of English compared to the Millennials, Gen Xers and Baby Boomers that came before them (and these groups sent plenty of their own words into the English language!). With the combination of rapidly evolving technologies, a desire to connect both digitally and in person, and the ever-changing demands of a world in political, environmental and economic upheaval, Gen Z may generate the biggest shift of all to the global language of business. (For more on Gen Z and how to invest in this up-and-coming generation of business professionals, download our white paper.)

The Decline of the English Language?

If ‘rapid change’ and ‘the rise of informal language’ sound alarming to you, then you are not alone. Many people have suggested that the informality of the way we use language online is a harbinger of longer-term language decline, citing the relaxation of grammatical rules as one piece of evidence. Finishing a sentence with a preposition? Oh no! And yet, unless you are writing for a formal publication (such as an academic journal), it is generally okay these days to finish up with a preposition. (Starting a sentence with a conjunction like ‘and’ is another example of alleged language decline, too!)

Fortunately, there are also many who argue that the richness and accessibility of the English language is a product of its evolution over time – after all, English has been evolving since the 5th century and it is certainly more readable than it used to be. If we look beyond our lived experience to the wider course of the evolution of the English language, we can see the immense benefits of this progress over time – but if we look to the English of ‘when we grew up’, we may not see things so optimistically.

Linguist Gretchen McCulloch, who is the author of Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, goes further, arguing that technology is making us more creative writers than ever before. Now that is an optimistic thought!

Looking to the Future of the English Language

The future is bright, and the future is unpredictable (and maybe that is okay if our optimistic thoughts bear fruit). However, we can be fairly confident in predicting that English will continue to be the world’s lingua franca, the language of global business and the most influential language on the internet for some time to come. English is the language of industrial revolutions, from the first (utilising water and steam power to mechanise production), through to the second (using electric power to enable mass production) and the third (employing electronics and information technology to automate production). On this record, we can expect that English will continue to be the language of the fourth Industrial Revolution (known as Industry 4.0), which sees emerging technologies disrupting workflows to increase the speed and scope of production in almost every industry. What better way to retain English’s global influence on businesses, individuals and communities?

We certainly hold the view that learning a new language has the potential to bring many personal and professional benefits – not least, the opportunity to operate with confidence when building professional relationships in a new part of the world. However, we also recognise that developing your team’s English skills could be just as important to business success!

To find out more about our business English training, contact us today. All of our training course can be provided online and are designed to fit your requirements.

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