English’s je ne sais quoi

How a cobbled-together mishmash became the world’s mother tongue.

How a cobbled-together mishmash became the world’s mother tongue.

At one time or another, we have all struggled to find the right word. English users may struggle more than most.

When someone wants to write in English about how something can be both ‘just’—in the sense of justice—and ‘right’—in that is it correct—they need to do the work to show that they mean both of these things, not simply one or the other. To do that well, writers must be concise, clear and leave no room for confusion. It is a balancing act that can be both delicate and maddening.

The obvious choice is to turn to diction to find the precise words to express this idea. Or one could focus less on word choice and more on syntax—the order in which words are used—or on logic or rhetoric, to display truth or to persuade. We call these tools, and two others, the Machinery of Language—read more here.

Writers using Italian, however, have the word ‘giusto’ in their arsenal—a word that means both ‘just’ and ‘right.’ They can do in six letters what an English user will struggle to do in six words.

That’s just one example of dozens, if not hundreds, of instances where a language other than English has a concise—even beautiful—way to say something complicated in as little as a single word.

So why has a language that lacks this level of detail or nuance become the de facto language for worldwide affairs?

The rise of the English (Language) empire

Over the past century or two—give or take a couple of colonial expansions—English has emerged as the primary language of commerce and diplomacy around the globe. This development comes despite English’s comparative paucity of true native speakers and cultures. It is the native language of just under five percent of the Earth’s total population, yet it is the default language of the United Nations, and of business and entertainment the world over.

It is almost ironic. English has become the lingua franca for the entire planet, and yet the term lingua franca itself is Italian.

In 2010, the United Nations established a series of celebratory ‘days’ for each of its six official languages—one each for Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian, Spanish and English. English’s day is on April 23, the day of the birth and the death of arguably the language’s most famous and important figure: William Shakespeare.

As a company that prides itself on expert use of language—and of English primarily—Stiff notes a day like this with reverence. But we also note it with an eye to explore just how and why English’s dominance has come to pass.

The concept of a lingua franca has existed since the Middle Ages. Historically, lingua franca applied to pidgin languages, or closely-related languages that served as ways to bridge linguistic gaps between neighbouring cities or countries.

Finding common linguistic ground

They were often conglomerations of similar or shared words—such as between French and Italian used when Crusaders were traipsing through the Mediterranean and needed to communicate with locals for supplies. Since French and Italian are both Romance languages, they shared enough commonalities to mix and create an early lingua franca that was widely understood by most people in the area at that time.

Imperialism and colonialism are major influences on the development of a lingua franca. The process for English can be said to have started with the British Empire, on which the sun “never set.” America’s expansion in the 1900s—along with rapid, fundamental changes to human communication through technology and globalization—cemented English’s place as the global language.

This expansion mutated and supercharged the idea of a lingua franca. It was no longer just a shared tongue between neighbour states. English became the way a computer scientist from Shanghai and a business executive from Rio De Janeiro could speak to one another at a conference in Frankfurt. But imperialism can only account for so much of a language’s reach. Many languages are highly unique and require a complete reframing of one’s understanding of grammar or syntax to learn. What about English makes it malleable enough that speakers of Arabic and Portuguese and Mandarin can adopt it with (relative) ease?

Speaking the language

English is a relatively young language and a tremendously flexible one. It’s also an incredible thief.

According to research, between only 20 percent and 33 percent of modern English words derive from Germanic sources—the original root of Old English and Middle English. The rest are attributed to Latin and French—approximately 30 percent apiece—plus Greek, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Indian languages, German, Hebrew, Yiddish, Arabic, and more. Another factor is that on a technical level, English is often more simplistic than other languages. For instance, English has largely eliminated grammatical case and gender. It is a language based on analytic constructions—such as word order, and simple subject-verb-object structures—rather than on conjugations or inflections. English also has a streamlined pronoun system compared to others.

For inexperienced speakers, English can even accommodate dropping fundamental elements such as articles and prepositions and still maintain legibility. In other languages, improper conjugation or botched syntax can alter or destroy meaning. In English, a sentence can sound crudely constructed or “wrong,” but a speaker can still be understood. We call English unruly—figuratively and literally. It eschews the kind of rules that constrain flexibility and growth, such as those that govern French. That unruliness likely helps adoption by foreign speakers.

Sharpening your linguistic sword

Just because English can, for some, be simpler to learn, does not mean it is easier to master. We’ve already demonstrated how, despite its potential to break down communication barriers, it sometimes lacks the words to simply and elegantly speak to certain ideas.

This is where the Machinery of Language comes in. Six foundational ideas—diction, grammar, syntax, logic, punctuation and rhetoric—that can be variously applied to analyze, refine or repair every sentence, every idea, that one wishes to communicate.

If an English writer struggles to describe their idea, and is becoming so frustrated that they can’t function or finish what they are doing—fisselig, in German, by the way—they could step back and see which part of the Machinery of Language could help.

Perhaps their logic is unclear. Maybe their rhetoric isn’t strong enough to convince their audience. Applying the Machinery—and improving one’s skill with those tools—is essential in getting the most out of our mischievous mother tongue.

By fine-tuning your skills with the Machinery of Language, you can wield English with the precision and flair of a seasoned expert. You can shine with a nonchalance that hides the degree of difficulty behind your words. You can exude that sort of effortless ease, that … sprezzatura.