Why English is the Lingua Franca

Dr James Kierstead
Insights Newsletter
18 August, 2023

Why does so much of the world speak English?

As someone who was born in Canada, educated in the UK and US, and has now been living in New Zealand for more than a decade, the question has always fascinated me. It’s also the question that the New Zealand historian James Belich sought to answer in his classic Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo World, which I’ve just finished reading.  

For Belich, the global sway of English isn’t simply a result of the technological superiority that saw Europeans take over vast swathes of the world in the period between Columbus’ journeys and the First World War. It was also the result of a distinctive path of development that took off in the 19th century and was, if not exclusively Anglophone, at least ‘Anglo-prone.’  

First, a ‘preindustrial revolution’ in communications technology (sailing ships and canals, but also literacy and postal services) helped Anglophone ‘oldlands’ (Britain and the original, thirteen-state US) set up distant ‘newlands,’ with Canada, Australia, and New Zealand serving as Britain’s ‘wild Wests.’ 

Next came the settlers, in a ‘settler revolution’ marked as much as anything else by a change in attitudes to migration. A whole ‘booster’ literature flowed back to the oldlands, transforming emigration from ‘an act of desperation’ into a golden opportunity. Some 36 million oldlanders answered the call. 

Money, information, and industrial technology went with them, fuelling ‘explosive colonisation’ in the newlands. Cities like Chicago and ‘marvellous Melbourne’ boomed, then busted. 

But the oldlands could help. In a process Belich calls ‘recolonization,’ busted newlands re-attached themselves to their oldlands through new transportation technologies. New Zealand began its long career as a supplier of frozen mutton and refrigerated dairy to Britain. 
By the First World War, the Dominions were also supplying manpower, an export of lives that is marked by memorials from northern Canada to Southland.  
In the decades since the Second World War, Canada and Australia have increasingly forged their own paths. New Zealand, for its part, was forced to seek other trading partners after Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community in 1973. 

Our world today is very different from Winston Churchill’s, let alone James Cook’s, and in most ways for the better. At the same time, the nations that once formed Britain’s far-flung ‘Wests’ retain certain commonalities. For anyone who wants to understand the source of these commonalities, Belich’s book is a must. 

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