California-based linguist Paul Payack expects the English language to gain its one-millionth word this autumn. The language has come a long way indeed, as the English would say, in 400 years. In 1582, the English grammarian Richard Mulcaster could say that the language was "of small reach, stretching no further than this island of ours, nay not there over all." In 1582, though, William Shakespeare married Ann Hathaway -- and the language itself has since flourished as magnificently as the playwright himself. More than one billion people now speak it. Another billion people are learning it. Not bad, indeed.
The British Council, an independent charitable organization, says the English language now has special status of one kind or another in 75 countries. That one-third of the world's books are published in English. That two-thirds of all scientists read English. That three-quarters of the world's mail is written in English. That four-fifths of all electronic communications are in English. That people who spend time in Britain simply to learn English spend $2-billion a year doing it.
Language is a fascinating thing, the most complex of human achievements, spontaneously evolved, one unique word or expression at a time, without government control -- for that matter, without government interest (aside from official language status). It is true that more than 40 countries have established academic police forces to protect their languages. But these are, for the most part, reactionary institutions that seek to reverse the past rather than invent the future. Cardinal Richelieu was the first of the language cops, founding the illustrious L'Académie française in 1634 with a mandate "to give rules to our language, and to render it pure and elegant." Time travel would have been a simpler assignment. Once the great language of diplomacy, the French language has been going through rough times. Indeed, France deemed it necessary a few years ago to amend its constitution, specifying French as the official language of the republic. By its nature, language is decentralized, independent and anarchic. Only in exceptional circumstances, is it pure and elegant. It is almost always out of control.
In the 18th century, the English language almost became the American language, escaping by the very skin of its teeth -- itself one of those inspired English-only phrases devised by the translators of the King James version of the Bible. (In contrast, the Douay Bible expresses Job's lament for his wasted body with the literal assertion that "nothing but lips are left about my teeth.") In the century between the Revolutionary and Civil wars, American references to "the American language" abounded. In 1780, American envoy John Adams could write from France to lobby Congress for an American language academy, directed by learned Americans and empowered to "correct and improve" the young country's rude misuse of the language. "English is destined to be more generally the language of the world," he wrote, "than Latin in a previous age and French in the present age."
North America gave English room to roam. In Mr. Mulcaster's 1582, English was spoken by perhaps four million people. In Mr. Adams's 1780, by perhaps 12 million. In Noah Webster's 1828, on publication of The American Dictionary of the English Language, by perhaps 50 million. A century later, in H.L. Mencken's rambunctious 1920s, on his publication of The American Language, by perhaps 200 million. With two billion now speaking it or learning to speak it, we can credibly imagine a genuine global language.
Some linguists say that three or four dominant "language brands" will emerge -- Chinese and Spanish are most frequently suggested as rival global languages. (In any case, Canada will be competitive. Of the 100 languages used in Canada, Chinese is already No. 3, spoken by one million people.)
Language has always been closely connected to patriotism, and almost always to a particular country. The English have always regarded "the American language" as essentially barbaric. Inevitably, in the 19th century, Americans came to regard their distinctive English as a unique language. In 1838, Indiana instructed its state university "to instruct the youth of the Commonwealth in the American language." In 1854, secretary of state William Marcy ordered U.S. diplomatic missions to use only "the American language."
Fifteen years ago, Robert MacNeil, the Canadian who for many years co-anchored The MacNeil/Lehrer Report on PBS, wrote his evocative memoir Wordstruck as a love story with the English language. In the end, looking retrospectively from his mother's home in Halifax to the Atlantic, he says simply: "This is where I was first struck by words. This is where they made me more than a Canadian, an Englishman, or an American; or Scottish, or Irish, or German -- all things my forebears were. This is where I became what [dissident Russian poet]Joseph Brodsky calls 'a citizen of the great English language.' " It is this sense of the language that most fully expresses its dynamic.
English is to language as capitalism is to economics. It is the language of laissez-faire, of enterprise -- and, beyond all argument, of hope.