How Colonialism Spread Languages: Summary & Examples

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The history of language is one inextricably tied to the history of colonialism. In this lesson, we'll examine this past and see what role empire had in linguistic development, and visa versa.

Colonial Languages

Fun fact: the English language is named for the Angles, an ethnic group who (along with the Saxons) were ancestors of the English people. Here's another fun fact: the Angles never lived in Hong Kong.

So why is English spoken so widely there? Many of the most-spoken languages around the world are European, with the number of speakers vastly outweighing the population of that language's country of origin. For example, researchers estimate that between 900 million and 1.5 billion people on Earth speak English. Yet the population of England is only 53 million. The truth is that the history of world languages is interchangeable with the history of colonialism. In the end, it may not have been guns or steel that defined the influence of empires, but the ways we speak.

A Brief History of Language and Colonialism

This lesson is primarily devoted to colonialism from the 16th through 19th centuries, but before we get there we need to acknowledge that language and imperialism have been linked for a very long time. In the Roman Empire, for instance, Latin was embraced as the de facto language of administration in colonies across Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. In some cases, Latin became so entrenched that it replaced Celtic and Germanic languages and formed new languages (like Spanish, French, or Portuguese) that are maintained to this day.

Map of countries that heavily speak English or a Romance language; a virtual map of colonialism

In the 15th century, Portugal sailed down the coast of Africa and Spain sailed across the Atlantic. Both established colonies, both became very wealthy, and other European nations raced off to colonize the world. As they did, their languages followed them. This is why Spanish is spoken across Central and South America, the Caribbean, and the Philippines, and Portuguese is a dominant language in many parts of Africa as well as Brazil. French is spoken throughout Africa, as well as parts of Polynesia and the Caribbean, and English can be heard in North America, Australia, South Africa, Hong Kong, and India.

Role of Language in Colonialism

Each of these languages has its own colonial history, and each helped spread European empires. As with the ancient Romans, early modern European empires used their own tongues as the administrative language, requiring local chiefs and officials to master it as well. Colonial languages were the language of politics, which meant that a lack of fluency was a natural barrier preventing many colonized people from gaining political power.

However, European empires of the 16th to 19th centuries often did something that Rome did not: they tried to completely transform the colonized land into an exact replica of their homeland.

When Spain began colonizing Mexico, or England started colonizing Jamestown, the goal was to translate Spanish and English culture into new spaces. They brought in European architecture, cooked European recipes, and spoke their native, European languages. Language played a critical role in this form of colonialism, marking a cultural claim to conquered lands, not just a political one. Of course, how this was achieved looked different across the world. In North America, the English generally adopted a tactic of killing or removing Amerindian peoples from the land so that it could be filled with native English-speakers.

Modern mural in Mexico, showing the burning of the Maya books

In Latin America, the Spanish instead decided to forcibly convert Amerindian populations to both Spanish culture and Catholicism (which were essentially interchangeable). In fact, one of the first actions of Spanish conquerors in the Yucatán was to burn all the Mayan-language books as a way to destroy their language and therefore any non-Spanish heritage and identity. At the height of the Inquisition's campaigns to indoctrinate the Americas, speaking a native language like Mayan or Nahuatl could be seen as an act of heresy against the Church and treason against the Crown, and punishments were doled out accordingly. For European empires around the world, cultural change required linguistic change.

Postcolonial Language

So, here's an important question. Mexico's no longer part of the Spanish Empire, right? No, they're not, but they still primarily speak Spanish, just as Americans speak English, Haitians speak French, and Brazilians speak Portuguese.

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