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.

One of the runestones in Heavener, OK
One of the runestones in Heavener, OK

The Norsemen

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.

James Town

James Town Island, today
James Town Island, today

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.

German Colonization

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 1750

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What lessons can we learn from history about the power of corporations? 22 comments

Izzy Anne profile image

Izzy Anne 6 years ago

A classical Marxist interpretation!

I think a lot could be said about language policy in the last two centuries. I know that German was widely spoken, but banned for public use during the First World War.


classicalgeek profile image

classicalgeek 6 years ago Author

I'm sorry, I fail to see what is even remotely Marxist about stating that corporate enterprises in colonization were more successful than government-backed enterprises in colonization, especially since all this took place long before Marx. Perhaps you could clarify your comment.

For the record, I am the owner of five small businesses and live in the United States, a capitalist country. I am also of German-American descent, and my family suffered not just language persecution, but persecution both socially and in business during both of the World Wars.


Izzy Anne profile image

Izzy Anne 6 years ago

It is marxist to say money (the material conditions) was the most important thing in the decision of a country to speak a certain language.


classicalgeek profile image

classicalgeek 6 years ago Author

I think you must have misinterpreted what I wrote. I never claimed that money was the reason that motivated Americans to speak English. In fact, Spanish colonies were far more lavishly financed than any of the others, as they had the support of both the Monarchy and the Church.

What I researched led me to believe that the financing STRUCTURE of the corporation turned out to be far more powerful than just the amount of money put into colonization. It is the way in which colonies were financed that led to their success or failure (although those that never had any finances or any kind of support were mostly doomed).

In fact, as far as I am aware, there is no "decision" about what language to speak in the United States. I am aware that there is a movement to make English the official language of the United States but I have never seen anything about this actually becoming law. Instead, English is the de facto language of the United States because British colonies were more successful. Again, this has nothing to do with the amount of money, but with the financial structure behind the colony. Indeed, I state it was as much the social pressure from a number of individuals who were personally invested, as the ability to draw upon financing in the private sector, that was responsible for the success of the British colonies.

You might compare this to different financial structures in setting up businesses: a corporation, a partnership, a sole proprietorship, etc. Although each business may have the same amount of financing, the way in which the business is structured will have a powerful effect on the success of failure of the business.


myownworld profile image

myownworld 6 years ago from uk

Fascinating read! I love traveling and knowing how cultures and languages evolve so really enjoyed reading this! Don't they call it 'American English' instead of just English? (Spellings are definitely easier than the British ones!) Thank you for sharing this!


classicalgeek profile image

classicalgeek 6 years ago Author

Check out the slideshow of the evolution of territories--when compared with a timeline it's a very useful tool for understanding just how the British-based colonies evolved to expand to most of North America.


Urbane Chaos profile image

Urbane Chaos 6 years ago from Wister, Oklahoma

This truly has to be one of the best articles that I've ever read. It's fascinating to see how the progression of the modern day United States came about, and how many different cultures existed here. Besides the few you've mentioned here, there were thousands of Native American languages spoken even before the mighty Europeans arrived. I read somewhere that the continent even had visitors from the classic Rome, although I don't know how much of that is truth.

Absolutely fascinating article.. Thanks for sharing!


classicalgeek profile image

classicalgeek 6 years ago Author

Indeed, I mentioned in the very first paragraph the thousands of languages spoken in bold type--I didn't think I needed to specify that they were Native American languages. :)

I'm very happy you enjoyed my article. I'm looking forward to writing the rest of my history articles!


sophs 6 years ago

Brilliant read, I relly enjoyed this, very informative well done :-)


pinkhawk profile image

pinkhawk 6 years ago from Pearl of the Orient

...wow, whatta history! oh that's why... thank you for sharing, this is really great. :) :) :)


Dale Mazurek profile image

Dale Mazurek 6 years ago from Canada

What a great read. The time you put into this is so obvious. In all honesty I learned a lot from reading your hub.

Your hub is now listed on my blog.

Dale


wyanjen profile image

wyanjen 6 years ago from Wyandotte Michigan

So interesting! Thanks for this hub. I've read it through twice. :)

Jen


classicalgeek profile image

classicalgeek 6 years ago Author

Thank you all for your comments--I have another project in the works, but I will be back to writing hubs again soon!


Aussieteacher profile image

Aussieteacher 6 years ago from Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.

Very interesting. There is quite a difference between American English and British English, and not just the accent. I'm an Aussie so we are more aligned with Britain our English has a strong British influence, though Aussie English is slightly different. It also depends which state you come from. I'm a South Aussie and we tended to be more British than the other states. Thanks for your post.


classicalgeek profile image

classicalgeek 6 years ago Author

Thanks, Aussieteacher, for your comment, although I am not sure what the minor differences that have developed between British and American English over the past 200+ years have to do with my article, nor do I quite understand what Australian English has to do with the success of the British in colonizing North America.

Yes, there are some very minor vocabulary differences between standard American English and standard British English, notably having to do with machines invented since the American Revolutionary War (cars, elevators), but this is no more radical than the difference between East Texas English and West Texas English ("poke" vs. "sack," "stock pond" vs. "stock tank"). I have lived in both the United States and England and I am quite familiar with the relatively trivial differences. In fact, I would venture so far as to say that there is a far greater difference in the way that English is spoken in different parts of the United States than there is between standard American English and standard British English.


Kunal More 6 years ago

Cheers for this! Just goes to show how greedy the Europeans are! And yes you were right about the creation of Corporations by the British to run/conquer new colonies. Example 'The British East India Company'.


classicalgeek profile image

classicalgeek 6 years ago Author

The Europeans are not alone in history in being greedy. Slavery in Europe and the Americas would never have existed unless Africans had kidnapped other Africans to sell into slavery; in fact, slavery in Africa persisted well into the twentieth century and may be practiced even today. There's a good, somewhat idealized biography of Florence Baker (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00076F03Y?ie=UTF... ) that documents this quite well.

And the British were not alone in forming corporations; the Dutch East India Company and other corporations were quite successful as well. Where the British were different is in applying the concept of corporations to exploration and acquisition of new lands.


Petra Vlah profile image

Petra Vlah 6 years ago from Los Angeles

Fantastic hub; well written and great information all around with logical explanation and great research.

Captivating read from the very biginning to the the very end. Voted up anf useful and awesome and become a fan of yours all at once. Thank you.


C. Ramsdell 6 years ago

This was grade A. I have to admit, I absolutely love the history of languages, and what you've provided here is an excellent jumping-off point to fuel my research (not for a new hub, just personal interest). Thank you!


JayWolves 5 years ago

Thanks, an interesting read.

I too am an amateur historian and teach History in England. I would like to bring to the equation a couple of formidable factors I believe you may have failed to include. Prior to the discovery of North America by the Europeans the British Empire and its monopolisation of Europe and other colonies such as Africa and expeditions into India were well under way. Many European countries monarchs and noblemen were advised and instructed to learn the English language to make negotiations, and trading with the dominating empire of Britain smoother and more efficient. For example Dutch and French colonies in Africa would use English speaking diplomats to communicate and co-operate.

In addition to this, during an era where an overwhelming proportion of Europe were illiterate; the pressure of understanding, preaching Christianity and interpreting the bible were ever present resulting in many people wanting or being required to learn to read and write. It was understood that the least difficult and time consuming language to absorb was English.

Ad hoc prior to the arrival of these European colonies in North America many of the Dutch, Spanish and French people would have already had an underlying presence and understanding of the English language within their culture. If you like, it became the universal unofficially agreed language of the western world. Just like today where you will find many eastern countries will have a basic understanding of English due to America’s film and music industries as well as global market supremacy. Even though English is not the most widely spoken language today, due to the power it has behind it, it is regarded as the language of business.

I am not suggesting your points are farce, far from it, I agree entirely. However I do feel these particular points I have mentioned are reasons equating equal responsibility if not more.

Thanks again for the read,

regards.


classicalgeek profile image

classicalgeek 5 years ago Author

I don't agree with your second paragraph. Contrary to popular belief, by the time of the European colonization of the Western Hemisphere, a larger proportion of Europeans were literate than otherwise is generally thought (see my hub on Education in the Middle Ages). In addition, beautiful and accurate translations of the Bible existed in most European languages and in Russian (the Russian translation was done before the year 1000 A.D.). Latin was the lingua franca among most educated people in the time before the Enlightenment. Most of the continental European population, as today, spoke a variety of languages.

We each have our own preconceptions and assumptions. I am merely fortunate in that I have a more varied set than most.

What you might have pointed out is that in England, the corporation was nothing new, and therefore this form of venture was a well-established tradition.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

Interesting discussion. I never thought that having corporations with individual investors is what allowed the British to win out in North America.

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