Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Opinion | Those Brexiting Britons and their bequest to business

In the world of commerce, the extensive reach of English makes it the first truly universal language   

A recent World Economic Forum report on the benefits of being multilingual pointed out that on the internet, English is still the most commonly used language in the world. At 25.4%, its usage is ahead of that of Chinese, which is used by 19.3% of netizens. Both are way ahead of third-placed Spanish, which is used by just 8.1% of the people on the internet. That closely follows the pattern in the offline world, while also adhering to the pecking order of global markets by size. In any case, Mandarin, which is the possible challenger to English, is centred largely in China, Singapore, and Hong Kong, and even among these, English is the national language in the last two.

Indeed, for hundreds of years now, English has been the lingua franca of the globe. In the world of business, its extensive reach makes it the first truly universal language. Starting with Akkadian and Greek, it was Latin that was the first language to legally codify the world of business, in the process giving rise to commercial terms that we use till date. Words like a priori, bona fide, caveat emptor, mutatis mutandis, and pro forma are an integral part of daily commerce. This only serves as a reminder of how much we are in debt to the 2,000-year-old language. Yet, by the end of the 15th century, following the introduction of the printing press to London, the start of what is termed as the Great Vowel Shift and the standardization of spellings, it was English that came to dominate the world.

Today, a combination of native speakers in countries such as the US, Canada and Australia, billions who speak the language comfortably in former British colonies like India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Kenya and Nigeria, and of course millions of others who’ve studied it as a second language, have conferred on English a degree of acceptance almost impossible to match. Thus, even as Britain threatens to exit the European Union, the 28-country bloc has said it has no plans to reduce the extensive use of English for official work.

The dominance of a language is almost directly linked to its associated economic power. A major reason for the ascendancy of English is the authority exercised for over 500 years by two successive English-speaking empires, British and American, a kind of colonization that is sustained by the new empire of the internet where English is the preferred language again.

While post-colonial theory explains the early rise of English as a guarantor of power and hierarchy, the technology- and talent-aggregator role of the US is responsible for the weighted alpha language status of “American". English is the signal processor for many fields in the information hyperloop engendering new nodal sociograms and interconnections that multiply in manifold and unseen pathways.

In that context, it is useful to examine what constitutes the ideal language of business. A 2015 paper titled A Brief History Of The Language Of Business In Three Snapshots by Nigel Holden of the Leeds University Business School, describes it very precisely as, “an occupational communication system with spoken and written modes, which was sensitive to context, capable of bearing specific terminology to describe business operations, and permitting articulate communication at various levels of interaction." Holden’s study concludes that in various eras ranging from the ancient world of the Mediterranean from 500 BCE to 250 CE, the Mediterranean business world from the 14th to 18th centuries, and the contemporary era, the defining feature of business language usage has been the navigation of multilingual realities through ad hoc and improvised translations.

With the decline of Britain as an economic heavyweight, the gripe around English language perpetuating unfair power structures and old colonial narratives is also losing its bite. Thomas Babington Macaulay might have been instrumental in ramming English down the throats of Indians, but since then, millions of Indians, cutting through the gallimaufry of tongues from North to South, East to West, have made it their natural language for communication. To that end, it isn’t a language of the elite any more but a basic skill—much like addition and subtraction are. Indeed various surveys show that only 10-12% of native-born Americans speak a second language beyond English. By all accounts, that works just fine for them as far as their commercial lives are concerned.

In her book The Language Of Global Success: How A Common Tongue Transforms Multinational Organizations, Harvard Business School professor Tsedal Neeley writes, “Language is everywhere. It flows across and touches the entire spectrum of global organizational processes: values, norms, attitudes, customer service work, product design, marketing, hiring, evaluating, and promoting employees, internal reporting, post-merger integration, innovation, process improvements, teaming, and much more." The Q value or communicative value of English is very high because it acts like “hypercollective goods" that create a network of advantages, economic and social as well as transactional.

Of course, eventually we may get the perfect translation software that just processes multiple tongues into a single coherent voice such that everyone can comprehend each other perfectly. Till then, it will just have to be English.

Sundeep Khanna is an executive editor at Mint and oversees the newsroom’s corporate coverage.