Native English speakers grow up with an edge, but the edge is one of two on the same sword. English is not the most common first language in the world. Mandarin Chinese and Spanish both have more native speakers. As a second language, however, English is unmatched with some 1 billion speakers and they are spread around the world. Largely as a legacy of the colonial aptitude of the British in the 18th and 19th centuries, and then of American influence in the 20th century, nations in which English is at least one of the official languages exist on every continent – even Antarctica if you count the scientific outposts – as well as numerous island outposts. Knowing the language is a big asset, so it is widely studied elsewhere. It has become the language of international commerce and air travel. The internet has hastened its global spread: some 60% of the content is in English. While that percentage surely will diminish as net access spreads, the role of English will remain outsized on the net for the foreseeable future.
The downside to being native speakers of English is something that can be overcome but, due to normal human laziness, commonly isn’t. Not needing to become at least marginally fluent in another language in order to get by at home and (in most cases) abroad, most Anglophones don’t. Even though another language is a requirement in high school and (generally) college, without regular use the skills (if any) acquired by students soon fade. My own high school Spanish evaporated long ago; my Latin, strangely, has fared somewhat better, but that is not as useful as one might imagine. Hence the common joke:
Q: If a polyglot is someone who speaks many languages, what do you call a person who speaks only one?
A: An American.
(I’ve heard the same joke with “Englishman” as the answer.)
The history of any language is interesting in its own way. Lithuanian, for example, is interesting for having evolved less than most: it is believed to be closer to proto-Indo-European than any extant language and shares some grammatical forms with Sanskrit that have vanished from other European tongues. The history of English couldn’t be more different from that. The accidents of history remolded it time and again while expanding it from a minor regional dialect to its current global reach. A readable and compendious book on the subject is The Story of English by Joseph Piercy.
The language has been an unlikely survivor, in large part because of its ability to absorb and transform. Britain had been highly Latinized during the centuries as a Roman province, but the Angle, Saxon, and Jute invaders brushed all that aside with surprising speed. Their North Germanic tongue became what we now call Old English, which then survived (while absorbing vocabulary from) the Viking invasions. It survived in turn (while transforming into Middle English) the Norman Conquest despite the aristocracy speaking French for many years afterward. It survived and was enriched by the deliberate Latinization of the early Modern English period. It survived and thrived in the turbulent history that followed. Given its 184 page length, Piercy's book contains a lot of information, citations, and quotes about all this. Recommended.
A good complement to Piercy is The Vulgar Tongue: Green’s History of Slang by Jonathan Green. Slang, after all, is the leading edge of language. It is notoriously hard to define, but we know it when we hear it – at least until it becomes part of the “legitimate” language, if it ever does. Some slang has survived yet remained slang for centuries. Some is absorbed into polite speech. Most comes and goes in a few decades. There are few people who know the subject better than Jonathon Green, author of Green’s Dictionary of Slang (with 110,000 entries and 415,000 citations) and consultant for the OED. In The Vulgar Tongue he relates the history of slang rather than compiling definitions, though naturally this requires numerous examples. There are side excursions into regional (e.g. Australian), ethnic, and social group (e.g. jazz and beatnik) slang. The subject has attracted scholars from the time English became a literary enough language to have a polite form along with a vulgar one. (During the Norman period, arguably there was no slang: all English was the common tongue.) In the 18th century, for example, along with Samuel Johnson’s landmark dictionary was Francis Grose’ A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785). The word “slang,” which of course is not slang, first appears in a dictionary title in 1859. Green’s book is also recommended, especially in conjunction with Piercy.
The core of literary English actually has been remarkably stable since the 17th century. Shakespeare remains easily readable, much as high school students might demur to that assessment. His style might not be simple, but beyond a small percentage of archaic words the content poses no real obstructions. The language has added numerous words and phrases since then but has subtracted relatively few. It would be fun to hear English spoken in a century to find out if polite speech remains the same, what current slang still infuses everyday speech, what sounds laughably archaic to the then speakers, and what has been added and from where. I suspect that for me this is an unlikely prospect.
Clip from Ball of Fire (1941). Gary Cooper is an ivory tower English Professor tasked with writing an article on slang for a new encyclopedia. He wishes to interview nightclub performer Barbara Stanwyck (who mistakes him at first for a detective) for her expertise on modern slang.