Why Do Americans Speak English?
What makes for successful colonization?
English today is the predominant language of the United States of America. Yet it was not always so--at one time there were thousands of languages spoken in what is now the United States, and most of those languages were spoken by indigenous Americans. Even in recorded history, the present-day United States was colonized by the Norse, the Dutch, the Portuguese, the French, the Spanish, the Swedish, and the English. Why did the English colonization outperform the colonization attempts by other countries? This is a curious aspect of American history that is often overlooked by teachers and textbooks of American history.
If you've never wondered about why Americans speak English, it's a fascinating concept to explore. I'm an amateur historian and have done research in American history, and have even taught it as a class. So put on your thinking caps, and be prepared for a look at just why the English language was so successful in the history of America
Indigenous American Languages
It's impossible to know how many languages were lost in the colonization of the United States--languages that were spoken by indigenous Americans. Although some indigenous American languages survive, and linguists are doing their best to preserve these languages, the number of indigenous Americans speaking them are steadily dwindling. Still, many of the languages spoken by indigenous Americans are beginning a resurgence, as the teaching of indigenous American languages is no longer discouraged by the United States government to the same degree as it has been in earlier times.
The Norse were the first Europeans to attempt to colonize the American continent. The earliest confirmed historical record of the Norse in north America was the voyage of Bjarni Herjólfsson (who discovered the American continent when he was accidentally blown off-course), followed by explorations by Eric the Red's son, Leif "the lucky" Ericsson. Despite proof that the Norse established a settlement on the East coast, and that the Norse explored (and probably settled) as far inland as present-day Oklahoma, Norse settlements did not thrive, and there's little evidence of a Norse presence in north America beyond 1400 A.D.
The Norse colonization effort of the American continent did not succeed, because there was no attempt at permanent colonization. The Norse came to exploit timber and furs, but their attempts to co-exist with indigenous American peoples were fraught with misfortune, and although the Norse had successfully colonized and warred with local inhabitants of other countries like England, perhaps the reward was just not worth the effort. So the Norse peoples made little impact upon American history and were never serious contenders for the country's language.
Portuguese Colonization of the North American Continent
The Portuguese established a colony in 1521 at Terra Nova in Labrador. However, they failed to maintain it with adequate shipments and contact, and it was eventually abandoned in favour of their efforts in modern-day Brazil and elsewhere, and for this reason, Portuguese never played an important role in American history.
French Colonization of the North American Continent
The French were the third country to attempt colonization of the North American continent, Charlesfort on Parrish Island, in 1562. The founder sailed back to Europe for supplies for the colony, where he was arrested. Without supplies, the survivors set sail back to France after a year, became lost at sea, and finally the ones who did not perish at sea were rescued in English waters.
The French tried again, this time establishing Fort Caroline in 1564, at the site of modern-day Jacksonville, Florida. It was destroyed by the Spanish after only a year. The Spanish built their own fort of the same site, which was destroyed by the French in 1568. Although the French attempted to re-establish the fort, it was abandoned the next year.
At last, the French were successful in establishing permanent colonies in Canada, beginning with Tadoussac, and did not attempt colonization outside of a limited area of the north-east until 1684, when they established two Forts Saint-Louis, one in Texas, and the other in Illinois, that were both unsuccessful. Their next successful colonization did not occur until 1699, when they were again able to establish colonies in modern-day Louisiana.
Most of the French colonization efforts failed from lack of supplies: although the founders of the colonies attempted to arrange them, in most cases they were prevented through war or misfortune from establishing regular shipments. However, the French colonization efforts played a large role in American history, and at one time it seemed as though French might become the dominant language of the U.S.
Spanish Colonization of the North American Continent
The Spanish colonization of North America began with the founding of a fort near Pensacola in 1559, but it was not until Saint Augustine was founded in 1565 that the Spanish were successful. (Saint Augustine is the oldest European-founded continuously-occupied settlement in North America.) Initially, present-day Florida was claimed not only by the Spanish, but also by the French and the English, and a series of violent attacks kept any but the Spanish from establishing permanent colonies. The Spanish were especially successful at bribing or coercing native populations to revolt against the English and French who attempted to settle in North America, and were able to summon reinforcements from nearby modern-day Mexico and the Caribbean.
Spanish colonization attempts were far more successful in early stages than either the French or the English through nearby reinforcements and cooperation with existing indigenous peoples. In fact, it was not until the nineteenth century that Spain began to lose its grip on its American possessions, largely through a series of independence revolts by descendants of the very populations that had once slaughtered the Spanish enemies. To this day, the Spanish attempts at colonization have profoundly influenced the course of American history.
British Colonization of North America
The British colonization of North America began with several attempts to establish a colony at Roanoke Island, beginning in 1585. The British were at war with the Spanish, and although both countries' efforts at colonization suffered because of this war, the Spanish had not only the support of the indigenous Americans, but colonies nearby which could be called on for soldiers and supplies. In addition, the British had many difficulties dealing with the indigenous Americans, preferring to convert them to Christianity to save their souls, whereas the Spanish converted them by promising them wealth and power.
Dutch Colonization of North America
Beginning in 1614, the Dutch established several trading posts in the northeastern part of North America, near present-day New York, Delaware and New Jersey. Although these were permanent settlements, and were successfully occupied, the Dutch lost several of these settlements when they were taken over by Sweden. The Dutch eventually won some of these back, but Dutch settlements were ceded to the British in 1664. Because these settlements were abandoned early on, the influence of the Dutch on American history is limited.
Although a German accompanied the first Jamestown colonists, the first German colony in North America, Germantown, was founded in 1683. Until the 1760s, thousands of German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania and New York. There were also largely German settlements founded in Virginia in 1714 and 1717, in Louisiana in 1721, and many thousands of Germans settled in South Central Texas in the latter part of the 19th century. (In fact, the term "Pennsylvania Dutch" is a corrupted form of "Pennsylvania Deutsch," with Deutsch being the German word for "German.")
Russian Colonization of North America
Russians first colonized North America in present-day Alaska in 1741, and gradually spread down the Pacific coast into California. The colonies as independent settlements were largely successful, primarily because of the strong identity provided by the Orthodox Church. However, transportation costs made regular shipments to Russia prohibitive, and in 1867 all Russian holdings in North America were sold to the United States for two cents per acre. However, the Russian attempts at colonization have influenced American history, although to a lesser degree, because other countries' colonization efforts were already so well-established.
The British Success
So why were the British more successful than the other colonists?
The answer lies in the underlying structure of the financing of the colonies. French and Swedish colonies had the support of the monarchy and the country's treasury behind them. The Dutch were more successful because they had trade companies backing them.
The Spanish, although lacking in the organization of efforts underlying the founding of colonies, were superbly successful at communication between colonies for reinforcements and supplies. In addition, the Spanish were excellent at building cooperation with indigenous Americans.
But the British had a different kind of backing structure--the corporation. Not only could these corporations draw on private resources outside the treasury, because they collected the wealth of each of the stockholders into a vast pool, but they operated outside the government (such as by hiring privateers). Because there was no one person who could lose interest, but dozens of people whose life savings and family fortunes were invested, there was continual pressure to ensure the colonies succeeded. Investors in the corporations, concerned about the value of their shares, sent private resources above and beyond those of the corporations, called upon their contacts to provide connections and more resources, and the stockholders took a personal interest in the success of a particular colony.
A colony founded by the Spanish or the French could be abandoned if it proved to be too difficult or time-consuming in favour of a colony that was better-situated; the monarch or the Church could decide that their interests were better served elsewhere. But the British corporation stockholders, each personally dependent on the return on their investment in the colonies, were anxious for each colony to succeed. And, ultimately, that is why people in the United States speak English!
European Colonization of North America after 1750Click thumbnail to view full-size
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