Who Owns English?

Oh, bummer! You wanted a quick and easy answer to your question, and now here is this long essay and you're thinking TL;DR. OK, long story short: no one owns English; there is no single standard for it, though American and British English are the main dialects in the world today; they are both very influential in different spheres but the future of World English will be largely determined by people who speak it as a second language. Think about reading the essay. You might learn something!

This following work first appeared in Vocabula Review (June 2003) and was later anthologized in Vocabula Unbound. For reprinting and other usage permissions, please contact the author. One more thing, if your name is Gill and you live in France, please write again! Your message was in my spam folder and I deleted it accidentally. Now I can't get it back. Thanks!

Who Owns English?

© 2003 by Orin Hargraves

all rights reserved

For God's sake, do not speak of British English! The English of Britain is the Queen's English,

otherwise known as English – of which there are many variants commonly denominated to the

area in which they are spoken or perhaps misspoken!”

“There is no such thing as the Queen’s English. The property has gone into the hands of a joint stock

company, and we own the bulk of the shares.”

Anyone reading these two quotes might guess that they are entries in a contemporary debate about the tensions between American English and British English — the two leading dialects of what is now the world’s first language. In fact these two statements were made about 100 years apart. The first is from a Briton’s response to a 2001 New York Times article that noted, with amusement, that the Briticism bespoke was gaining currency in American English. The second observation was made by Mark Twain just before the turn of the 20th century, in his book of travel essays, Following the Equator. The wide separation in time and the contradiction between these two observations by champions of their respective dialects, one a Briton and one an American, attest to the longevity and the entrenched views that characterize the debate about who owns English.

No one can dispute English’s rise to the top of the language league tables. It is the first language of nearly 400 million people, and the second language of another 300 million. 750 million people are learning English today; by the year 2050 it is expected that half the world’s speaking population will be proficient in it. 85% of the world’s international organizations use English as an official language; the English content of the Internet dwarfs that of most other languages by powers of ten. Of the 20 leading countries in world trade, seven have English either as an official or semiofficial language; no other language appears more than twice in that same list of countries. For half of every twenty-four hour cycle on the planet, while China sleeps, English is the most spoken language in the world.

Mind-numbing statistics of this ilk can be rolled out indefinitely but they all point to the same fact: English is not first among equals in the world’s languages today, it is simply first. In the vast majority of bilateral or multilateral communication contexts where two languages are involved, one of the languages is English. Number crunchers have succeeded in translating this phenomenon into an economic metaphor that gets the attention of movers and shakers: the gross language product, or GLP: that is, the money generated by language-related commerce in the world. There are various ways of arriving at the figure, each of which involve manipulations that only a statistician is capable of performing, but the result is always the same: more trade is carried out in English than in the next three or four languages combined, which are some combination of German, Japanese, Spanish, French, or Chinese, depending on how you arrive at the final figures.

But whose English is it, anyway? For the purposes of generating round figures, it is both accurate and sensible to treat English today as one language: all of its major dialects are entirely mutually intelligible in written form and largely so in verbal form; English is written in a single alphabet, and the core of its grammar and vocabulary are commonly understood, when not identical, in all varieties. Behind the behemoth that is English, however, are its many constituents, the dialects of modern English today; and among these dialects are the two titans, American and British, that vie, in a highly civilized and subtle manner, for world domination. The coming decades, when English is expected to receive a declining market share of the world’s babble, will be crucial in determining whether one of these dialects is going to trounce the other in terms of influence, and which one it will be.

How has it happened that a dialect of English, what many would regard as but one child of noble parentage, should grow up to overwhelm the native form of the mother tongue, and even — in the view of some alarmists — threaten her with extinction? The story has been unfolding for 400 years. As in the case in many parent-child relationships, the seeds of later developments in the relationship were sown at birth, and those who would seek to understand the relationship between British English and American English today might be surprised to find that the attitudes characterizing it manifest in only a small handful of minor variations that have remained constant during the four centuries that the languages have been growing, in some ways together, and in some ways apart.

From the time that the dialects split, or rather from the time that there was first an awareness that they had split, there have been two main views, one held on each side of the Atlantic, that have continued uninterruptedly for nearly 400 years now. Historical events have at different times caused allegiance to these views to wax and wane in the public, but neither has ever completely died out. Today they constitute stereotypes to which time has imparted the imprimatur of truth.

The dominant British view, which began to develop in England as soon as English travelers visited the colonies and returned home to tell their tales, has been that American English is a barbaric deviant of proper English. There was evidence of this opinion even before there was much focused talk of revolution in the colonies, and with the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the gloves were off. John Witherspoon, a Scottish clergyman who otherwise supported the American cause in every way, lamented the quality of American language repeatedly in his writings, at one point observing that his refined senses were subjected daily to “errors in grammar, improprieties and vulgarisms which hardly any person of the same class in point of rank and literature would have fallen into in Great Britain.”

From there, the situation only got worse. The ink on the US constitution had hardly dried before English media pundits, writing in the journals of the day, decried “the corruptions and barbarities which are hourly obtaining in the speech of our trans-atlantic colonies.” From that day to this, it has been a fashion among British cognoscenti, imagining themselves purists of English, to rail against American English. A time-honored method of doing this is to disparage Americanisms — especially the ones that creep into the Queen’s English. In fact you only need to read the quality British press for a few weeks before you find one writer or another, usually a columnist, in high dudgeon about the latest apparently inadvertent use of a blatant Americanism by some Briton who was formerly believed to be immune to the taint. To take a recent example, Matthew Engel, writing in the Guardian in January 2002, was up in arms at the fact that a BBC correspondent had used gotten, where any proper royalist could only use got in the same context. While the irregular past participle of get has ancient credentials in English, it survives in American English by virtue of its currency in early colonial times; it soon after died out in British English. Mr. Engel goes on to say that this gaffe “was quickly followed by [the late Labour cabinet minister] Barbara Castle's attack on Tony Blair, for railroading his cabinet.” It is hard to imagine here on what basis he protests, since the preferred British term railway does not have a verbal form.

The American view on British English is the counterpart of the British one, and in many ways a reaction to it. This standpoint (to use a word that was once derided as an unfortunate Americanism) has equally deep historical credentials and proceeds from entirely natural motives. The defiant American stance, evident even in colonial times and very soon afterwards relentlessly championed by Noah Webster in his many writings, is that American English has a claim to independence and release from British tyranny that is as strong as the claim of its people. He wrote in his Dissertations on the English Language in 1789, that “Great Britain, whose children we are, and whose language we speak, should no longer be our standard; for the taste of her writers is already corrupted, and her language on the decline. . . [L]et reason and reputation decide, how far America should be dependent on a transatlantic nation, for her standard and improvements in language.”

American writers throughout the centuries have continued to defend this view against the British form of the mother tongue as some kind of inviolable authority: Rupert Hughes, the 20th century author and screenwriter, was passionate in his defense of American English: Writing in Harper’s Magazine in 1920, he declaims:

it is the commonest thing imaginable for an American author to wonder if the word that interests him is good “English,” or, as the dictionaries say, “colloquial U. S.” The critics, like awe-inspiring and awe-inspired governesses, take pains to remind their pupils that Americanisms are not nice, and are not written by well-bred little writers. When you stop to think of it, isn’t this monstrously absurd, contemptible, and servilely colonial?… Why should we permit the survival of the curious notion that our language is a mere loan from England, like a copper kettle that we must keep scoured and return without a dent?

He goes on to insist that American English not be considered it a vulgar dialect of English, but a separate language in its own right.

It has been necessary for writers on both sides of the Atlantic to defend these views so vehemently through the centuries because there have been dissenters on both sides, and they have been weighing in with their take on the situation from the get-go.

The ongoing minority view among Americans — a view that is fomented wherever you find Anglophilia, classism, or undue reverence for the past — is that British English is in fact superior to its colonial children. The premise of this view is that English, before export, existed in pristine purity, but then suffered defilement when put in the mouths of those who had left — or worse, never set foot on — the native shores. Under this view, American English is subject to special opprobrium because it has shown so little respect for its origins; it departed more decisively than some other dialects that have shown continuing reverence for British English, such as Australian or South African. This view has enjoyed remarkable tenacity through generations of American men who have generally been viewed as erudite and slightly intimidating by contemporaries, and as pedants by those who followed them.

Even today the view among some Americans that their language is inferior to the British variety cannot be said to have died out completely. Its champions have nearly always been, and continue to be academics (or academic wannabes), the sort who still insist that you shouldn’t split an infinitive or end a sentence with a preposition, and who cite musty old grammar books as their authorities. This view probably reached its apotheosis in Richard Grant White, the 19th century journalist and Shakespearian scholar who passed up no opportunity to denounce any form of innocent innovation in language, especially one that would oblige him to reconsider the classical British way in which he had mastered it. He used the pulpit provided him by the Atlantic Monthly, the Galaxy, and Harper’s to alert readers to any attempt to tinker with the language. Here he is in the Galaxy (February 1874), railing against the use of the word eventuality to mean a possible occurrence or contingent event:

Eventuality is certainly a poor word at best, at least for English-speaking folk to use. It belongs to a class which might well be swept out, or kept out, of the language, and which [newspaper reporters] do use in a very unadmirable and unenglish way.”

Interestingly, this sense of eventuality is the only meaning of the word that enjoys any currency today.

The counterpart minority view in Britain, which is anathema to Little Englanders and other purists but which has enjoyed champions from the time of the Declaration of Independence, is that American English is in fact quite serviceable at least, and perhaps even superior to its island mother. A very early English visitor to the colonies seemed to support Webster’s contention that English in the motherland had lost its former glory. Writing in 1777, Nicholas Creswell observed that “though the inhabitants of this country are composed of different nations and different languages, yet it is very remarkable that they in general speak better English than the English do.” While this was then and continues to be a minority view, it has maintained credentials on the strength of those who have espoused it over the centuries: Virginia Woolf, writing in 1925 in the Saturday Review of Literature, said that

Americans are . . . instinctively making the language adapt itself to their needs. In England, save for the impetus given by the war, the word-coining power has lapsed; our writers vary the metres of their poetry, remodel the rhythms of prose, but one may search English fiction in vain for a single new word. It is significant that when we want to freshen our speech we borrow from America—poppycock, rambunctious, flipflop, booster, good mixer—all the expressive ugly vigorous slang which creeps into use among us first in talk, later in writing, comes from across the Atlantic. Nor does it need much foresight to predict that when words are being made, a literature will be made out of them.”

What are the specific qualities of British and American English that the pundits find so laudable or objectionable? Curiously, there is little disagreement about what the differences are; the disparity of views arises in deciding whether these differences constitute virtue or vice. The most vehement disparagers of American English point a finger at its inventiveness, which may result in a word being pressed into use as a different part of speech from the one it was born in, without prior notice. They also object to the willingness of American speakers and writers to be experimental without regard to tradition or the past: for anyone who worships the past and its achievements, such experimentation is disrespectful at the very least.

The champions of American English, on the other hand, applaud these very qualities as the ones that give the dialect its strength and vitality: according to their argument, a language that fails to adapt to changing times or that refuses to jettison what is no longer useful is a language without a future. It is difficult to argue with this very sensible point of view and some writers, as a result, are unable to determine which camp of the English debate they wish to reside in: they end up offering, in the same breath, both praise and disparagement for the qualities of American English. The Guardian’s Matthew Engel, whom we just saw in angst at creeping Americanisms in public language in Britain, goes on to say in the same article that “American English is smarter, sharper, more malleable than our own” — and in so doing, he is essentially echoing the view expressed by Virginia Woolf 75 years earlier.

This same sentiment from an American can be felt in the words of Walt Whitman, a man who both espoused and exemplified the innovative qualities of American English. Writing in the Atlantic in 1904, he said “The Americans are going to be the most fluent and melodious-voiced people in the world—and the most perfect users of words. . . . The English Language is grandly lawless like the race who use it,—or, rather, breaks out of the little laws to enter truly the higher ones. It is so instinct with that which underlies laws and the purports of laws it refuses all petty interruptions in its way.”

But a different view of the same license is expressed by JYT Greig, in his 1929 book Breaking Priscian’s Head: “The Americans are determined to hack their way through the language, as their ancestors through the forests, regardless of the valuable growths that may be sacrificed in blazing the trail.” This judgment is echoed in contemporary British writer Frank Johnson, who noted recently in the Daily Telegraph the tendency of Americans to coin words that, had they bothered to examine the available stock, would be found unnecessary: “fraudster is a case of syllable inflation from American English, where fraud would be completely adequate; likewise fiefdom, which was apparently unknown in the Middle Ages, when fief was considered adequate.”

The laissez-faire attitude that Americans take toward their language (apparently not available to Britons) is undoubtedly one of the factors that has imparted such robustness to the dialect. As is the case of any organism uprooted from its natural environment, if it is to survive in the new one it must adapt to local conditions, and that is what American English has done. Henry James, in his 1905 commencement address at Bryn Mawr, “The Question of Our Speech” noted that English came to America in innocence but was soon subject to an ordeal: “grafted, in short, on a social and political order that was both without precedent and example and incalculably expansive.” The social conditions under which American English has grown up have liberated it in many important respects from the conditions imposed upon its source.

A striking example of this is the lack of a coercive class system in the US, which is more or less responsible for the fact that there is no American equivalent of “received pronunciation” or RP: the standard accent of British English that is associated with the educated upper middle class and is free of any regional color. Mastery of RP is less important in Britain today than it was in the past, and anyone living there would agree that RP has lost its stranglehold as a key to power and material success. It is no longer necessary, for example, to take elocution lessons in order to master this way of pronouncing English (and thereby slip into the mainstream of middle-class success). But not so long ago it was: even former British prime ministers Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher, both of whom had working-class parents, took lessons to erase the regional and class markers from their speech. Perfect pronunciation aside, however, there are still strict but unwritten standards of English mastery in Britain today: virtually every Briton would agree that no one with such an apparently tenuous grasp on grammatical, intelligently used English as George W. Bush or his father has could ever succeed in public life in the United Kingdom; certainly not in national politics.

The United States, by way of contrast, has no cultural, moral, or functional equivalent to RP. A person’s ability to use language eloquently is simply not a criterion that makes or breaks a person’s chance of success, and Americans need look no further than the Oval Office to see that this is true. This fact is one of the arrows in the quiver of those who regard American English as inferior, but it is also a factor that has led to American English’s success: it has been free to grow unfettered by the need to conform to existing models. In his 1928 book Modern English in the Making, George McKnight makes an interesting analogy that illustrates the limitations of what he regards as the apprenticeship model prevailing in industry and in society and language in Britain, in which the conscious imitation of established models is seen as the only route to competency and mastery. Then he goes on to point out:

In America the very lack of men trained through apprenticeship has in many instances led to the return to experimentation and the application of pure theory, leading not infrequently to improvements in methods. In the speech of Americans unversed in the elegance of expression gained through social apprenticeship, likewise, may not experiments in modes of expression and the application of theoretical principles be expected to lead to improvement in expression?”

As evidence of this, he cites the 19th century spelling reforms of Noah Webster, the success of which are now far beyond doubt.

The rise of American English to the spot it enjoys today, the “dominant world variety,” (those are the words of David Graddol, a Briton who heads up a consulting firm called the English Company) has of course not come about entirely on the qualities of the dialect alone. Few would dispute the notion that American English rules today more by might than by right, and that it is the quantity rather than the quality of American English that has elevated it to its current status. The United States has, and annually produces, more native speakers of English than any other country; and that’s before you even get to the ways in which American English insinuates itself into every corner of the globe. But before we follow it into these corners, a look at the conditions that led to English being a contender for the title of world language is instructive.

English (or Middle English, as it was then) made its first tentative steps as a language with legs as early as the 12th century into Ireland, but it wasn’t until its export to the colonies of the New World, starting in the early 17th century, that the stage was set for it becoming a language with a large international following. The North American colonies tolerated the rule of Britannia for a remarkably short time, but there was never any serious question of throwing out the rulers’ language along with the rulers: in the first census taken in the fledgling United States in 1790, 90% of Americans were descendants of English colonists. Various proposals that other languages, such as Hebrew, Greek, French, and German, should be made the official language of the new nation never made any headway.

While Britain chalked up its most spectacular colonial failure in what became the United States, it learned from its mistakes and had remarkable success elsewhere, creating throughout the 19th century an empire on which the sun never set, to use the popular cliché. In doing so, the Brits also spread a language with which tongues never stopped wagging. Britain must be credited with creating what we call the Anglosphere — the group of English-speaking countries around the world today that share a core of values such as individualism, the rule of law, and the primacy of individual freedom. But as with some other British inventions (one thinks of television and Viagra), invention alone did not bring glory. Empires are not forever, and when the British one began to wane, the de facto American empire was already up and running. With the emergence of the United States as a political superpower in the wake of the 20th century’s world wars, and continuing with its highly successful exports of science, technology, and popular culture, the advance of American English became unstoppable.

Scholars disagree when trying to pinpoint the moment when American English stepped on the head of its British mother claimed supremacy. Robert McCrum, writing in the Observer in 2001, cites 1977 as the apex of “Anglo-American linguistic hegemony,” the point at which the dialects shared equal power in their influence. Thereafter, he thinks American English in particular acquired “supranational momentum,” but many researchers would put the date far earlier than this. British English certainly maintained its aura of authority well into the 20th century; even H.L. Mencken, author of The American Language and perhaps the greatest champion of American English, wrote in 1921 that

Americans, trained in book English and constantly reading English books and journals, still make their way in British-English comfortably enough, though now and then, I daresay, an English novel daunts them. But the English have a great deal more difficulty with American, and devote a great deal of attention to its peculiarities—often with very ill grace.

Except for the ill grace part, which persists with a vengeance, the situation today is entirely reversed. Americans cannot even be said to be constantly reading, let alone in British publications. And Britons are bombarded by American television, American movies, American bestsellers, and the continuous drone of American English in the news media on the Internet. The cachet of American popular culture – applauded by young people and begrudged by older generations – forces Americanisms into British English today at a far greater rate than Americans ever took on Briticisms. Even the most traditional of Britons, who would sooner choke on their cucumber sandwiches than utter a blatant Americanism, have no trouble at least in understanding American speech and popular writing: today it is ubiquitous and nearly inescapable. This cannot be said of British speech and popular writing, which arrive on American soil and via its airwaves in much more selective doses.

We read of people lining up on the docks in New York in the 19th century in order to read the latest installments in the serialized novels of Charles Dickens. Today there is no such clamoring for anything British in the United States, and the reciprocal image is probably of a queue meandering around Leicester Square in London for the premiere of a Hollywood movie starring Tom Cruise or Jennifer Lopez. Britons today do not clamor (or, as they would insist, clamour) for American English, but they do still clamor for many things American, and many other American products arrive and are digested by them without any clamoring on their part. All of our intangible exports to the UK are delivered in American English, and this results in very lopsided traffic in the dialects today.

Whether they regard it as a barbarian and vulgar dialect or a breath of fresh air infusing their own moribund version of the language, Britons have to contend with the fact that American English is an unstoppable influence on English generally, and on their own dialect in particular. There is a roadsign used in Britain that has no exact American equivalent. It is used in situations where two-way traffic shares access to a single lane, and it indicates very eloquently with arrows, without using words, that oncoming traffic has priority, or as Americans would prefer to say, that oncoming traffic has the right-of-way. When you drive up to the sign, you know that you have to give way, or again as the Americans would say, you have to yield to oncoming traffic.

For a person situated in the United Kingdom, this road sign pretty well illustrates the reciprocal traffic in British English and American English today. It is still a two-way street, but American English has the clear priority, and Britons on the transatlantic English highway often have to stop and wait for the din of American English to die down before there is a chance of a British word making it to the other side.

The views outlined above that Americans and Britons have held about the other’s dialect have been subject to many vicissitudes over the centuries. Not so the matter of influence. Here there is a very clear trajectory of American English increasing, and British decreasing. Of course it cannot be denied that the foundation of English today, its genome if you will, is British. But American English words, phrases, and patterns of usage are like potent viruses in the body of English: they may appear at first as dangerous and foreign invaders, but very soon work their way seamlessly into the blueprint of the host, and go on to perform many useful functions. British writers and intellectuals in the early 19th century who first resisted American coinages were soon enough using them, and within a generation, words of American origin may not even have been recognized as such. HW and FG Fowler, writing in their usage book The King’s English in 1930, noted that “everyone knows an Americanism, at present, when he sees it; how long that will be true is a more anxious question.” The objectionable words they use to illustrate their observation — fix up to mean ‘organize,’ anyway to mean ‘at any rate,’ just to mean ‘quite’ or ‘very’ — are now canonical English without any dialectal labels. Alistair Cooke remarked in a 1935 radio broadcast that the average Englishman uses 30 or 40 Americanisms a day.

This phenomenon, the capacity of American English to worm its way into the greater organism of English, battering down all defenses, goes some way toward explaining why British pundits continue to obsess about it. An informal comparison of the online archives of the four quality British dailies (the Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, and the Independent) with those of four American newspapers (the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and USA Today) turns up an interesting statistic: American English is mentioned roughly twice as often in the British press as British English is mentioned in the American press. We have seen already from the quotations noted above, the whingeing (to use a good British word) tone that characterizes the British view of American English. They resent it but they can’t do anything about it.

Take the case of a small innovation in Apple’s 1999 version of its Mac operating system, OS9. Suddenly the icon for deleting files wasn't called the Wastebasket anymore. It was called the Trash. John Sunderland noted in the Independent that “for British users, accustomed to having an English name for something, this was seen as part of a creeping — or possibly rampant — change worldwide. Some, describing it as a ‘slap in the face’, said they would not buy the new version until Apple relents.” But Apple didn’t relent; the icon is now called “Trash” wherever English is spoken, and the American word has won the day. Britons who have not given up their Macs (one assumes that this is most of them who already had one) can no longer drag and drop their unwanted files into the wastebasket or the dustbin or the rubbish or any other place that might make them feel more comfortable; they have to take them to the trash.

It is telling that the laments of British writers on American English lack any reciprocal complaints from their American counterparts, and it is evidence of the fact that British English today has no significant impact on American English. If a British word or usage does manage to slip into American English, it may be regarded as quaint, amusing, or delightful, but never diabolical or insidious: such qualities are reserved for agents that are actually perceived as being potent. A case in point is the appearance of the British adjective bespoke to denote custom designed computer hardware or software. The New York Times devoted a whole article to it: the implication is that the appearance of a Briticism in American English is like the adventitious appearance of a bird outside of its territory: notice goes up immediately, and crowds gather to observe.

There may be small comfort for British speakers who seek to inject a word now and then into American: the world-shrinking technology that now beams media reports to every digital nook and cranny is giving British English more raw exposure in the American mainstream than it got in the last century. As an example of this, a New York Times correspondent filing an audio report from Zimbabwe in early 2002 mentioned events taking place there “in the run-up to the election.” Most US dictionaries don’t cover this sense of run-up; those that do are likely to label it chiefly Brit. Why would an American correspondent use this phrasing? Probably because she had heard it among her colleagues in journalism there, who may be disproportionately British, or read the phrase in the press there, which can be assumed to be in the thrall of British English. But there the phrase is, raw and unedited, from the lips of an American for American consumption. And it’s a useful locution, firmly established in British English and having no concise equivalent in American English.

Another example of a British word making its way surreptitiously into American English is the noun minder. American dictionaries tend to treat this word as a Briticism, if at all, in the sense of “someone whose job is to look after someone or something.” This is another example of a word that is firmly fixed in British English; indeed, there was even a popular British television series called “Minder” in the 1980s and 90s, about the exploits of a wily, small-time London crook and his uneducated but streetwise bodyguard, or minder. American English has no ready equivalent: handler works in some cases, but for the particular case of Iraqi minders — the security thugs whose presence is thought to intimidate Iraqi scientists and others from speaking the truth — the British term is clearly the best one, and is now being used in US news outlets, with or without quotation marks around it. William Safire, in a recent (February 2003) New York Times article, also notes the increased influence on American of words from British journalism, particularly the phrase the balloon goes up and the use if keen plus an infinitive to mean ‘eager.’

The way forward from here might seem inevitable at first glance: American English will conquer all, and British English will eventually have to content itself with being a boutique variety of the language, available only from special outlets and probably at a premium. In a 1997 book by David Graddol, The Future of English, there was already talk of “brand management” for British English in the 21st century to assure its continued viability and “to ensure that the reputation of Britain, and of the British people and their language, is enhanced rather than diminished.” Americans have not even formulated their vision for the future of their dialect, and those who bother at all probably assume that their language will prevail by natural force. They should probably not be so complacent. The wild card in the future of English is those who will speak it not as their mother tongue, but as a second or foreign language, and at present, Britons are considerably better organized than Americans in addressing this crowd.

The Future of English, by way of evidence, is published not by any mainstream American, British, or multinational publisher, but by the British Council, a government-sponsored organization in Britain that might be described as the functional equivalent of the State Department’s US Information Service. There is a sense in which Britons assert ownership of the language, and they do it quite successfully. First, it must be said that they have things you can never take away from them: the King James Bible, Shakespeare, the romantic and metaphysical poets, the great tradition of 19th century novelists. Even with political corrections made to the canon of English in order to de-emphasize its dead and white aspects, the American contribution pales in relation to the British one in terms of grandeur.

It’s also worth noting that the main recognized credentials for teaching English abroad, the RA Certificate and the RA Diploma, are British ones, not American. And British publishers have left their American counterparts in the dust with regard to the publication of ELT dictionaries and teaching materials. Two British publishers in particular, Oxford and Longman, have probably given as much work to American lexicographers working on ELT dictionaries as all US publishers combined have done. The latest and greatest monolingual ELT dictionary, the Macmillan English Dictionary, is published in two editions, one for American English and one for British English; but its editor in chief is a Briton, and the editorial team who put it together was run out of an office in Soho Square, London, using American lexicographers who picked up and submitted their work by email.

Likewise in the area of linguistic research, Britons can point with pride to the British National Corpus, a searchable database of a staggering 100 million words of British English. The corpus is available on line and is an invaluable tool for lexicographers, linguists, and other researchers in language. While there is work underway to erect an American National Corpus, to date it has been more talk than substance. Progress seems to be languishing, only a tiny fraction of the corpus available to search (and only to those who have paid a staggering licensing fee), now more than five years after plans for its compilation were announced.

While American English enjoys many speakers today, the dialect itself has no widely spoken descendants. All other major dialects of English in the world today — Irish, Australian, New Zealand, South African, Caribbean, and Indian — are all direct descendants of British English, and largely conform to British spelling and other conventions. Asian countries where the use of English is on the rise are more likely to look to British English than American English. Consider the case of the English-language Straits Times of Singapore. When deciding where to locate a sub-editing office (that’s copyediting in American-speak) they chose Sydney, after rejecting a location in the Philippines: the English of Singapore is British, and is more closely related to the English used in Australia, while that of the Philippines was thought to be too much influenced by American.

The pressing question for the shapers of English in 2050 is this: what sort of English is it that these 750 million learners want? It may be the case that they don’t want any branded variety of it; they just want the kind that you can use. Barbara Wallraff noted in the Atlantic on line in 2000 that a Chinese program for native engineers in the steel industry had chosen Belgians to teach them English: “they explained they saw it as an advantage that the Belgians, like the Chinese, are not native speakers. The Belgians, they reasoned, would be likely to have a feel both for the intricacies of learning the language in adulthood and for using it to communicate with other non-native speakers.” This view is put more succinctly by Timothy Garton Ash, writing in the Guardian in 2002 and quoting a Czech friend of his: “There are three kinds of English: "The English that Czechs speak with Spaniards or that Italians speak with Finns. There you understand 100%. American English, you understand 50%. And English English, when you understand nothing.”

We are now only a few years away from the day when native speakers of English are outnumbered by those for whom English is a second language. Imagine a conversation between two such people: when a pronoun fails to decline and there is no native speaker there to hear it, does it make a difference? The days of prestige and dominance for all “branded” dialects of English may be numbered, as the chief demand placed on English in this century will be its ability to adapt to the needs of the millions of speakers who use it, without regard to national boundaries and the preferences of those who would assert ownership over the ways it develops.