English in Pop Culture: The Language of Music, Movies and TV Shows

Published on: March 29, 2024

The English language is fascinating. Through the years, this powerful and poetic language has shaped some of our most compelling narratives. Classic poems and novels get the bulk of the attention, but recent pop culture phenomena also deserve recognition.

Through examining the English language in the context of music, movies and TV, we can learn a lot about how we use it in our daily lives and how it is now used on a global scale. To that end, we will provide a deep dive into pop culture language, touching on everything from the evolution of lyrics to English phrases in movies and on TV.

English in Music: A Universal Language

Music is frequently referred to as a universal language, and still, the majority of the songs we currently hear on the radio feature the English language. This was not always the case; as such, during the Baroque and Classical periods, the most iconic composers resided in Vienna.

In the late 1800s, inventions such as the phonograph and the gramophone paved the path for popular music, which was frequently produced within New York’s Tin Pan Alley. This thrived because of everything that set it apart from its classical predecessors: while classical music called for individuality, popular music catered to the preferences of mass audiences.

Other cutting-edge musical movements also found their origins in English-speaking regions: jazz in New Orleans, for instance, or blues from the Mississippi Delta. Pop and rock eventually headed overseas but could not escape English language dominance — the Beatles sparked the British Invasion and cemented the UK’s status as a musical powerhouse.

None of this is to say that artists from other regions are incapable of finding mass appeal. Throughout time, popular musicians or bands from non-English speaking countries (ABBA or BTS, for example) have largely found success by singing in English rather than their native tongues.

There are many historical reasons for English’s prominence in music, but linguistic characteristics also come into play. English is simpler than many languages because it doesn’t have gendered nouns or precise vowels, despite having some grammatical complexities. This makes it far more flexible, so it’s easier to write meaningful lyrics.

The Cinematic Impact: English in Movies

Many amazing films are produced in France, South Korea and India, but there’s no denying that the biggest box office hits are often thoroughly American. This relates, in part, to the early success of the film industry in Hollywood. Movie producers flocked there during the early 20th century because, at the time, the West Coast offered the most cost-effective filming opportunities.

As the industry shifted to “talkies,” many films struggled to take hold in foreign-language markets, as the technology of the time did not accommodate dubbing. Foreign-language versions of English films were previously produced alongside one another, but the original English versions were generally far more entertaining and more likely to feature the best talent of the era.

These days, the opposite approach is just as common: popular films from all around the world are remade in English. The Ring represents the ultimate example of a film that achieves great success in one country before making an equally powerful impression on American audiences, although many other remakes have also attempted to bring the Asian horror phenomenon across the pond.

Similarly, many directors and producers who have proven successful in various global markets have managed to expand their notoriety by moving into English language movies. Canadian director Denis Villeneuve is one who successfully made the switch from French language films to the shocking Hollywood hit Prisoners, which was followed by a string of critically acclaimed movies.

As with music, the relative simplicity of English goes far in the film world. Again, its flexibility allows for impressive creative interpretation. Meanwhile, the language’s shift toward colloquialism allows for many catchy English phrases in movies that ultimately translate to everyday usage.

Television’s Global Reach: English in TV Shows

Television broadcasting, like cinema, largely found its origins in the US. In television’s early years, broadcasts were pioneered by RCA subsidiary NBC, which initially catered to a select audience in New York. The industry saw a brief halt during World War II but came back even stronger in the 1950s.

In the same vein, cable TV originated in the U.S. It began as Community Area TV (CATV), which aimed to bring television to the most remote areas of Oregon, Pennsylvania and Arkansas. Today, cable provides numerous opportunities to cater to audiences of all types, and yet, many top shows hold mass appeal because of the easily understood English dialog.

Many iconic shows have brought English to TV screens across the globe while also helping shape the world’s perception of Americans. Powerful examples include:

  • FriendsWidely cited as one of the top-watched American TV shows among English language learners, Friends took the world by storm. This sitcom captured the colloquial charm of the English language in a way that few other shows before or since have managed to convey. The predictable use of catchphrases has played heavily into its mass appeal, and it remains hilarious despite this repetition.
  • The Wire. Its global audience might not be as vast as English sitcoms such as Friends, but The Wire deserves recognition for its revolutionary use of dialect. A Guardian review of the show refers to it as the “most systematic and subtle in its observation of the way shared vocabularies define groups and structure worlds.”
  • Game of Thrones. Offering a unique glimpse into the power of multilingualism (but in a fantasy world), Game of Thrones relies on English for its “Common Tongue,” but also involves fictional languages such as Dothraki and High Valyrian.

Language Evolution in Pop Culture

English has long dominated pop culture, but its use has evolved over time. Its rise as the lingua franca — a common language among many types of speakers from many geographic and cultural environments — occurred along with the rise of mass media.

Since then, the English language and pop culture have influenced one another, with many terms and phrases that originated on TV entering the global vernacular. The main change has involved how accessible English media is to people around the world, but the language itself has also evolved, with the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) pointing to colloquialization as an especially noteworthy adaptation.

Our use of English has become more casual recently, and practices once seen as inappropriate, like using contractions, are now common even in formal writing.

According to the OED, the language has “seemed to operate in a more relaxed and tolerant environment” in recent years, perhaps ushered in by its equally relaxed use in mass media.

English as a Bridge in Multicultural Collaborations

English often functions as a linguistic bridge, linking people from many parts of the globe by providing a language that all can understand. This is the world’s most commonly spoken language, with an estimated 1.5 billion speaking it natively or as a second language.

Because so many people from so many cultures speak English fluently, talented individuals from many regions can join forces to produce multicultural works that draw on a variety of fascinating perspectives.

The sleeper hit Jane the Virgin showcased the power of cross-cultural entertainment, mainly in English. It attracted global talent, including Venezuelan producer Jorge Granier and Cuban editor Raul Davalos, among others. Another illustrative example? English in anime. This might not seem like an English phenomenon, but anime has certainly developed a global following. Despite its Japanese origins, English adaptations of Japanese works are increasingly appearing on screen. This often relates to loan words, referencing concepts that are not easily captured through Japanese alone. In other situations, English helps anime stand out.

Challenges and Critiques

English dominance may be the current reality in pop culture, but this may not always be the case — and according to critics, this English-centric environment may actually be harmful. Concerns include the marginalization of those who don’t speak English fluently, plus the potential for language loss as speakers emphasize English learning over other cultural traditions.

Skeptics believe that emphasizing English can be limiting, as it sometimes prevents amazing directors, producers or screenwriters from receiving the respect and notoriety they deserve — unless they eventually give in and make the switch to English. However, this is not always ideal as English simply cannot capture every cultural concept or nuance.

These critiques are certainly valid, and we should absolutely strive for greater representation across a variety of cultural and linguistic environments. This trajectory has been evident in recent years, as seen in the success of the South Korean masterpiece Parasite, which was the Academy Awards’ first non-English winner of the Best Picture award.

If critics see their vision come to life, English will be just one of many languages represented at awards shows, on the silver screen, on the radio and throughout the spectrum of global media consumption. Until then, we can make the most of the opportunities that an English-oriented media landscape provides: cross-cultural connection, strong collaboration and the simple beauty of this extraordinary language.

The Future of English in Pop Culture

English continues to dominate many areas of pop culture, but this is giving way slightly with creatives from all corners of the globe finding ways to achieve notoriety in their native languages.

We’ve already mentioned Parasite, but there are many other success stories, including several from South Korea. The TV show Squid Game set records as a streaming sensation, and, although the previously mentioned BTS has used plenty of English lyrics, Korean lyrics also remain important.

This trend is also evident in the popular music contest Eurovision, which, for years, has been largely English-centric (with a few exceptions). Recently, however, many hit songs have allowed artists to express themselves in their native tongues: the winning song “Zitti E Buoni” turned Måneskin into a global sensation, and Kalush Orchestra captured hearts by blending Ukrainian folk traditions with hip hop.

This trend is also evident in research conducted using streaming platforms such as Spotify, where listeners in many regions increasingly appear to prefer songs in their native languages. Correspondingly, on TikTok, many people prefer content from influencers who speak their native tongue. The platform originated in China, but still supports many languages. Across cultures, TikTok captures the power of the vernacular.

The loss of English’s cultural dominance (on social media and in pop culture) need not limit future English-language works, as there is still plenty of talent among native English speakers, not to mention, stories worth telling. English remains a wonderful collaborative vehicle and an excellent tool for creative expression. It’s also a versatile language that underscores countless career opportunities.

If you are eager to broaden your horizons with a dynamic and versatile college program, consider pursuing your Bachelor of Arts in English at Park University. This is one of many compelling degrees we offer; these programs strive to introduce you to new perspectives alongside expanding your skill set. Reach out today to learn more.

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