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The Persistence of English By Geoffrey Nunberg Introductory Essay to the Norton Anthology of English Literature Seventh Edition The triumph of English If you measure the success of a language in purely quantitative terms English is entering the twenty first century at the moment of its greatest triumph It has between 400 and 450 million native speakers perhaps 300 million more who speak it as a second language well enough that is to use it in their daily lives and something between 500 and 750 million who speak it as a foreign language with various degrees of fluency The resulting total of between 1 2 billion and 1 5 billion speakers or roughly a quarter of the world s population gives English more speakers than any other language though Chinese has more native speakers Then too English is spoken over a much wider area than any other language and is the predominant lingua franca of most fields of international activity like diplomacy business travel science and technology But figures like these can obscure a basic question what exactly do we mean when we talk about the English language in the first place There is after all an enormous range of variation in the forms of speech that go by the name of English in the various parts of the world or often even within the speech of a single nation and it is not obvious why we should think of all of these as belonging to a single language Indeed there are some linguists who prefer to talk about world Englishes in the plural with the implication that these varieties may not have much more to unite them than a single name and a common historical origin To the general public these reservations may be hard to understand people usually assume that languages are natural kinds like botanical species whose boundaries are matters of scientific fact But as linguists observe there is nothing in the forms of English themselves that tells us that it is a single language It may be that the varieties called English have a great deal of

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