RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Well, that's how they say it in France, but not, of course, how they'd say it across the English Channel. In fact, English is now the dominant language around the world. The British journalist Robert McCrum wrote a book about the triumph of English. He traces it back to a time many centuries ago.
In the year 1066, French armies conquered England, but their language did not. McCrum explains that the reason English prevailed began even further back in the misty days of the first millennium when the language of England wasn't yet English.
Mr. ROBERT MCCRUM (Author, "Globish"): The people who were here before the English, the Britains, were Celts, and they spoke Celtic languages, as their English came on the point of a sword, and it came from Germany, actually from the part of the world which is now Denmark. And the language of these invaders was called Anglo-Saxon and it came across roughly 500 A.D. in a series of raids. And as the chronicler at the time said, the Britains fled from the Anglo-Saxons, and I quote, "as from fire."
But from the linguistic point of view, compared to the Britains they were very pragmatic. Although they came as raiders and were warriors when they landed, they soon became farmers and artisans and kind of pastoral people. And their vocabulary I can't speak to you without using Anglo-Saxon words - words like sheep, earth, plow, dog, wood, field. These are all Anglo-Saxon words. Anglo-Saxon provides the building blocks of the language we use today, and it came from across the sea.
MONTAGNE: This was just the first though.
Mr. MCCRUM: Yes, the thing is, the language that we're now using is really a mongrel. It's layer after layer of overlay. First of all, you have the Anglo-Saxons from Germany. Then you have the Nordic peoples, the Vikings, from Scandinavia. Then you have the French. And see - but a real old(ph) mixture of different kinds.
MONTAGNE: Well, let's talk about the French. That's jumping us ahead some centuries, to 1066 and the Norman invasion, and which you describe as not nearly one of the many invasions, but what, the...
Mr. MCCRUM: It's the mother of all invasions.
MONTAGNE: The mother of all invasions. Why was that such an important moment for England, but also for English?
Mr. MCCRUM: Because the Normans arrived and William's forces crossed the Channel, and the deal was that if they won and it wasn't by any means clear that they would win if they won, they would get land and they'd get property, money, titles, they'd get a whole way of life.
And once they'd won, they imposed themselves on the English with tremendous zeal and actually with some ferocity. If we take a number of Norman words, words like fortress and siege and assault and prison, it was really an invasion of great cruelty and it was very comprehensive, and they wiped out the church, they destroyed the law, they obliterated the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, which was the national history of the time, and they imposed a French way of life completely on the English people for two to three hundred years.
And so English became uniquely, for that time, the language of the common people. It wasn't obliterated, although it vanishes from the written record. It survives underground on the lips of ordinary people, and so it becomes democratized at a very early stage in its development.
MONTAGNE: But by the same token, the French-speaking Normans, who now rule the land, their language, French, was the language of the court and literature. But when it comes to the actual words, some of the examples really are quite vivid that you give - that English, for instance, was fire, work, strong, heart, and that French that was being used at the time are glory, cordial, fortune, guile, and sacred.
Mr. MCCRUM: Much more sophisticated. The French, they were forced to settle because they couldn't go back. Having won the conquest, it was a final step for them and they Frenchified, as it were, the English society. By the same token, they were also Anglicized, and so there was this trade between these two sides.
MONTAGNE: What was it that you could say about English that gave it staying power?
Mr. MCCRUM: It's very hard to pin down, but it's very interesting to compare the history of French language overall with English. French on the whole came from outside, somewhere(ph) like India, and they would impose the language on the schools, in the way that they did in England, in fact. They would impose the language and the culture in a very imperialistic way, top down. And the English did it the reverse. It was always bottom up. The troops would arrive, and the language would flow from again, from the ordinary people. But it wouldn't be imposed from above by government.
Now, I'm not saying for a minute that the British Empire was a benign or a culturally beneficial thing for many parts of the world. Clearly the British Empire has much to answer for. But at the level of language, the way in which it operated was very effective from the point of view of spreading English.
MONTAGNE: Why is it important to understand how English evolved? I mean, does it tell us something about ourselves today?
Mr. MCCRUM: I think it's important to know about this subject because, after all, English is now everyone's second language. It is completely global. It is the default position. If one foreigner meets another foreigner and they can't communicate, they are very likely to default to English. And so we might as well know where it came from. If one knows one's history, one is likely to make a better job of the future. So it's a very good key to understanding international dialogue.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.
Mr. MCCRUM: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: Robert McCrum has just written the book "Globish: How the English Language Became the World's Language."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.