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Book Review: The English is Coming!: How One Language is Sweeping the World by Leslie Dunton-Downer

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The English Is Coming: How One Language Is Sweeping The World examines the rise of the English language as a true global cultural phenomenon, one which has not only become the international language

The English Is Coming: How One Language Is Sweeping The World examines the rise of the English language as a true global cultural phenomenon, one which has not only become the international language of business, aviation, diplomacy and science, but also one that has absorbed so many words from other languages to make it a language connected to every region of the globe.

The path that the author, Leslie Dunton-Downer, has taken to explore the subject is to pick 30 words and recount their origins, and in doing so, reveal how English has become the language it is today, one which adapts to changing conditions and assimilates new terms within a short span. 

It is an intriguing journey, learning how elements from disparate groups and time periods have come together to build the language that has become the first truly global lingua franca. But the stories presented by Dunton-Downer aren’t dry and scholarly, rather they demonstrate the vibrancy of the English language through intriguing anecdotes and examples. In many ways, it reminds me of James Burke’s Connections and The Day The Universe Changed on a smaller scale, in that by using these specific words, it paints a much broader picture of how English became the language it is today and the historical events that encompassed them, like how the word “bikini” is linked not just to swimwear but the atomic bomb as well, or how the word “blog” is intrinsically linked to a decision Tim Berners-Lee made early in the development of the World Wide Web (or as he had originally referred to it, the Information Mesh).

This approach, of telling the stories of a selected group of words, also means that Dunton-Downer is revealing the narrative history of English in a different way than, say, Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue, who told the story of the language in a more linear manner. In fact, the two books would seemingly complement each other well. There are some longer passages to introduce each set of words which fills in some of the gaps, and it helps establish a fuller picture of the history surrounding English.

The final chapters are devoted to how the English language could develop over the coming decades as non-native speakers from China, the Middle East, and other areas of the world start altering the language around the world with their own spin on things. It is an interesting thought experiment, but as even Dunton-Downer seemed to concede, the next major shift that the English language may take is likely to be one we can’t foresee based on the current global conditions. A new technological breakthrough or the rise of a new regional power may alter the language in ways we cannot imagine.

All in all, The English Is Coming was a fascinating look at the development of the language which is slowly uniting the world, and I highly recommend it for readers who love reading history or about language. It is also the kind of book that will enrich an avid reader’s enjoyment of literature in general.

 

About Matt Caverhill