The effect of the British Empire on the development of English, by English with Stephen

Reasons for English: The Empire Strikes Back

This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast episode that looks at the influence of the British Empire on the development of English

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Hello! This is Stephen with another episode of the English with Stephen podcast. As regular listeners know, this is the podcast that aims to give you everything you need to learn English in under 10 minutes.

Over the last few months, I have been talking about the history of English. How it started among a few tribes that emigrated from a small corner of modern Germany, took over England and then the British Isles and then emigrated to the USA. Along the way, we looked at developments such as the Viking invasions, the French-speaking conquerors from Normandy, the Enlightenment and how the translation of the Bible affected English.

In our last look at this story, we looked at how American English grew as an alternative to British English after the 13 colonies won their independence in 1776.

But of course, this isn’t the end of the story. After losing the United States, Britain did not decide to go home and never leave its wet little island ever again. Britain created a bigger empire. Perhaps one of the biggest empires ever seen.

And they exported English to that empire.

More, after this.

Regular listeners will know that I usually recommend another podcast at this moment. But today I am going to do something a bit different. I am going to recommend a website that you should go and read. It is called Passionate Language Stories, and I think it is just fantastic. The site is run by Irene, who is an English and French teacher from Poland. She tells wonderful stories about her experience of learning English that I think any language learner can relate to. She talks about the challenges she faced and how she overcame them. She also has stories about learning strategies and other techniques for getting better at English. You can find the site at, or I will post a link on my site

At the height of the empire, Britain controlled more about 24% of the earth and 23% of the population. There is a debate in the UK about whether the British empire was a force for good or bad. My view is that there has never been an empire that was a force for good, so why should the British one be any different.

There were a number of approaches that the British state used in order to run its empire. One was to populate the country with British, and later European, emigrants. This is what happened in countries like Australia, New Zealand and Canada. British people either decided to leave for a better life or, in the case of Australia, criminals were forced to live there as part of their punishment.

This is not to say that there were no indigenous peoples in these countries. There were the First Nations in Canada, the Maori in New Zealand and Aborigines in Australia. It’s just the British state kind of ignored them and just took over their land. When it wasn’t ignoring them, the state was probably killing them.

In these countries, English became the language spoken by the majority of people. Canada is a little different because of the existing French-speaking colonists who managed to hold onto their language despite being abandoned to the British as part of a peace deal after one of the many wars between Britain and France.

Another model was one that can be seen in countries like, India, Kenya, and Hong Kong. In these areas, there were just too many people for the British authorities to ignore so they followed a different strategy. They set the rules and the laws for the newly acquired land. They imposed British judges, British administrators, and British military men. This small number of Brits then employed local people to do all the actual hard work of running an empire.

In a number of these countries, once the British had left, English became a sort of lingua franca that could be used between different language communities. For example, India has hundreds of languages so it can be difficult for someone from the north to talk to someone from the south. If they have both learned English, then they can use this as a language of communication.

This has, though, caused a number of problems. If education is performed in a language you don’t understand, then you might lose out. Similarly, if access to the justice system, government, and culture are all in a foreign language, then it gives preference to educated elites.

A third model the British had for running its empire can be seen in countries in the Caribbean. In places like Jamaica or Trinidad, Britain forced millions of slaves to leave Africa to go and live and work on plantations. These slaves did not originally speak English, but they had to use English to talk with their slave owners and to communicate with each other if they didn’t have the same mother tongue.

English is still the language used in these communities, although there are also some pidgin languages as well. The English that is common in the Caribbean is heavily influenced by the vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation and rhythm of African languages.

These are, of course, just the broad outlines of what happened. There is a lot of detail that I cannot go into here. There are also countries that do not fit the nice three models I have described. For example, South Africa had quite a few British people emigrate there, but they also had a number of people who originally came from the Netherlands, not to mention the vast majority of Africans who had lived there long before the Europeans decided that they wanted to make some money out of the land.

It should also be noted that it wasn’t as simple as the British arriving and saying something like “Here this is English, you can use this now, aren’t we nice people?” People were often forced to not speak their original language and there were other policies designed to make people only speak English.

So, what has the effect of all this been on English?

Well, the effects have been huge. I don’t think there is any one country that is now the “owner” of English. Although I come from England, I cannot say that I speak the only “correct” English. The English of Kenya, of Singapore, of Barbados, is just as correct as mine.

The result of this is the enrichment of the language. There are more words from all over the world to describe so many different things. It is virtually impossible to know everything about all the Englishes that are out there.

And I love this.

Each variety of English has its own story. This story is influenced by its interaction with Britain, but this is not the only part of the story. Each type of English tells a story about its peoples, living or dead, its history and its culture.

English is much the better for this variety.

Thank you so much for listening to this episode. I have tried to give a big picture of English around the world, but as I said, I have had to leave out the details. If I have neglected something important, or not mentioned your language community, I hope you will forgive me.

Before I go, please take a second to go check out my website, I’d also appreciate it if you could like, subscribe and share my podcast with your friends.

And don’t forget to go to head on over to Passionate Language Stories for some inspiring ideas for how to learn English. Honestly, you will not regret it.

So long. I hope to speak to you soon.

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