ELNG 200

The Language of Empire

The British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) 2002 documentary entitled “The Adventure of English” is an eight-part series that explores the development of the English language – from its sixth century European origins to the modern day. Episode 7, entitled “The Language of Empire” focused specifically on how English became the worlds most predominant language through its colonialist spread during the expansion of the British Empire between the late 16th century to the early 18th century. The series uses examples from India, Asia, the Caribbean, and Australia to highlight two main dynamics that have helped shape modern English – the adoption of new words into the English language as it interacted with other languages and cultures and the establishment of localized dialects that have all unique grammar and colloquialisms. While the Language of Empire narrows its scope down to one specific period, it nicely contextualizes how British interests spread English and how it was enriched through foreign interaction. 

The Language of Empire, however, does not provide a strong baseline of what English was like prior to British expansion, which is key to understanding how the language evolved throughout the period. English traces its roots back to the dialects of the Germanic invaders at the start of the 5th century and until the mid-sixteenth century, it had been spoken primarily in Europe (Baugh and Cable, 2010). However, by the 1600s the language had evolved significantly from these early roots. This is particularly evident when examining early English literature.  From Beowulf, written in old-English, the Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales written in middle-English, by the time Britain started colonial expansion, the language had already changed dramatically (Baugh and Cable, 2010). Mid-sixteenth century English is often referred to as early modern English and is best characterized by the works of William Shakespeare and other Elizabethan writers (Lewis, 1944)

Given this baseline of comparison, the Language of Empire provides a strong illustration of how English had been influenced through its interaction with foreign language and culture. A key highlight is how foreign words were incorporated into English through mutually beneficial trade practices. Often, nouns were simply interchanged between English and foreign languages when no other word existed. For instance, nouns for fabrics discovered throughout the Middle East, such as muslin and calico, were incorporated into English – where they became commonplace. The documentary lists numerous examples of noun transfer from local languages where the British Empire established colonies, including India, Asia, the and Caribbean. One interesting point that the documentary raises is how word transfer may have been easier than expected because most Indo-European languages descend from the same roots in ancient Sanskrit (Bragg 2003).

            On top of the adoption of foreign words, the documentary highlights how as time went on, English power dynamics shifted to take on a more dominant role with its colonies. For instance, the documentary uses Thomas Mcaulay’s “minute” as an early example of how British colonists establishing English as the predominant language for education and trade. It states: “the dialects spoken among the natives of India contain neither literary or scientific information and are moreover so crude that it would not be easy to translate any valuable information into them” (Bragg, 2003). As individuals from other cultures and ethnicities learned English, they developed dialects and colloquialisms specific to their region. This is because local speakers are influenced by the sounds and grammatical structure of their own languages and therefore adapt English to match the sounds and pronunciations, they are accustomed to. Examples of these creole languages include Jamaican patois and Australian English. The Language of Empire is quick to highlight the important role these local dialects played in enriching the Modern English that spoken throughout the world today.

            Taken on its own, the Language of Empire provides a snapshot of one aspect of how the modern English language has been shaped. One large area that is not covered in the documentary is how other European languages, such as French and Spanish, influenced English as they too spread across the world during the European colonialist era. It does, however, point out that English spread was harmful to other foreign languages, such as name Native American languages that were all but wiped out. Overall, the documentary does an accurate job highlighting one important historical narrative – British colonialism, helped shape and spread the modern English language.

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