Object.is), two incompatible ways to represent an empty value (
null), and did not have a way to define a block-scoped variable for the first 20 years of its existence. And those quirks are just the start! There are so many questionable “features” that any valid JS code has an equivalent expressed with only
I also write in English, a bad human language. “Writing in English is like throwing mud at a wall”—everyone who’s ever tried to do so will agree.
There is little rhyme or reason to this chaotic tongue. After a thousand years of stealing every useful word or rule that they encountered, our linguistic predecessors passed down to us a patchwork abomination that’s almost impossible to “fluently” learn unless you grow up with it.
Typically illustrative is the common rhyme: “I before E, except after C.” Guess what? This rule is exactly incorrect: out of 350,000 common English words, a researcher found that 75% break this rule. You’re three times as likely to be right if you invert our most famous grammatical mnemonic than if you follow it!
What is to explain these similarities of my main two languages? They are both so ugly, but universal. So messy, yet omnipresent. Why haven’t better languages taken their place‽ And why didn’t nicer ones have it initially?
- They did not gain prominence because of any linguistic merits, but were boosted to the top by attachment at the hip to a conquering force.
- Their popularity extends even beyond their sponsors’ territory because they are Schelling points: everyone uses them because everyone uses them.
- Their massive user bases make many variations, which enable evolution; both stay competitive by adapting smoothly to users’ changing needs.
Allow me to elaborate.
1. Initial spread
The British had the largest colonial empire the world has ever seen, and English was their language. As Britain declined, its daughter America took the global reins, still speaking English. For the last two centuries, whenever people want to interface with global power—in business, science, military, or culture—they have learned English.
English did not spread because it was aesthetically pleasant, and has not replaced Latin and French as the global lingua franca because of its (lack of) excellent grammar. No, it rules because its speakers have ruled the world for the last 200 years. The need to learn it to work with England and America has, alone, attracted (or compelled) multitudes.
2. Widespread popularity as a common tongue
English is the primary language of business, and of science, and of the Internet. It’s no coincidence, then, that it is the most common second language in the world: if you’re going to learn a new language, of course you choose the one that opens up the most opportunities!
So artists and writers and meme-makers and businesspeople operate primarily in English… because of the massive audiences sitting ready to receive and pay them for their content. And two people in strange countries who need to communicate are each more likely to speak English well than the other’s language—so they do. This only reinforces its status.
3. Enduring evolution
On the English side, social media fuels the constant creation and proliferation of new words (or meanings of old words) like “based”, “rizz”, and “yeet.” (They make it all the way to the dictionaries, too— as of September 2022, “yeet” is in Merriam Webster, and Apple Notes no longer yells at me for typing it!) This is memetic evolution: it’s just variation and selection. New words spread if they are useful, and old words die if they are not. The speed of this change is a function of the variation, which is a function of the population size: English has the most people, so English is the most flexible and modern language, suitable for talking about the world in real time as it changes.
Technically, English is one of three main “procedural” languages that the European Commission uses, alongside French and German: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/MEMO_13_825 ↩︎
The dominance of English-based programming languages is not widely known, but almost total. An illuminating example: the only Chinese-native programming language I could find hasn’t had a new release for almost three years, and is almost wholly unused. Its codebase and documentation are written in TypeScript and English, respectively. ↩︎
In 1938, the British empire controlled 33.6 million km^2 of land (just over 20% of total land area); the closest rival colonial powers were Spain (peaking at 12.3 million km^2 in 1760) and France (peak: 12.1 million km^2 in 1938). Population numbers tell a similar but even more dramatic story: Britain was sovereign over 23% of all humans at its 1938 peak, while the nearest colonial power is France with a paltry 8% way back in 1812. (These data are from Walter Scheidel’s “The Scale of Empire: Territory, Population, Distribution” (2021).) ↩︎
America has controlled the world’s economy for at least the last 60 years, arguably even more than Britain ever did to the world’s land or people. Despite only having around 5% of the world’s population, in 1960 our GDP accounted for 39% of the world total; in 2020 this figure has declined, but is still an astronomical 24%. ↩︎
the “react” package was taken over by FB with version 0.8.0 on 2013-12-19; there are older package versions, but previously it was some other guy’s project. Before this, the Facebook project was at “react-tools”, first published as 0.3.0 on 2013-05-29 ↩︎