I was trying to find an explanation as to why all the characters speak English, and this popped into my head. Could a disease (bacterial or viral or whatever) affect only people who don’t speak English?
Physical Publications in English were treated with the antidote:
So the real goal is to have the virus go everywhere, but have only English-speakers survive (?)
Evil foreign-language-hating maniacs with ties to the publishing industry studying extinct viruses decide to unleash a virus on the world. They develop a world-killer virus from one that no one has been exposed to in thousands of years because it killed everyone exposed to it.
But they don't want EVERYONE killed - just the ignorant, uneducated, and people who don't speak English. So they produce a harmless but immunogenically similar virus as a form of inoculation and spray it on millions of books printed in English. All the fortunate English-speaking bibliophiles out there who buy books (possibly newspapers?) printed in English are exposed to the harmless version and develop antibodies.
- Or maybe the maniac is an author who wants everyone in the world to have read his book, and has the harmless virus sprayed on HIS books (all in English) so everyone who survives has read his work. A biologist, perhaps?
MUAHAHAHAHAH!!! (maniacal handwashing)
After the virus is unleashed and wipes out the vast majority of humanity, English speakers (and a small number of people with natural immunity or who handled the English books but couldn't read them) are all that are left. Even people who survive who can't speak English join other survivors who can, and all non-English languages are reduced to curiosities.
"Could a disease .. affect only people who don’t speak English?"
In the real world? No.
It could be tailored to effect those with specific genetic markers (so, different 'races') and there can be a strong correlation between those genetic markers & the geographic location of the majority of those with those markers and thus the langauge most commonly spoken by them.
But that isn't the same thing at all.
To catch every ethnic group for who English is not their primary / ancestral langauge you would need multiple of these tailored viruses rather than just one.
There would be large populations of non-english speakers in West Europe and Eastern Europe you likely would not be able to tailor one of these individual viruses for that wouldn't also wipe out large numbers of 'native' English speakers.
Very large numbers of English speaking Australian, American, Canadian and UK citizens (etc, did I miss any?) of non European descent would also be caught and killed by one or more of those tailored viruses.
So no, what you've asked for can't be done based on the langauge spoken.
A lucky misunderstanding
The disease was discovered by Dr. Mark B. Painter, and is therefore known worldwide as "Painter's disease".
English speakers often misunderstood the name, and believed the disease to be related to paints, especially "stronger" ones like on walls and cars. The symptoms were scary enough that many moved to (unpainted) countryside cabins.
This is of course incorrect, but the disease was highly contagious, and the accidental isolation meant that a much greater proportion of English speakers survived, in many pockets around the globe.
Most other communities collapsed, and the English speakers dispersed to help the survivors. The stark population reduction, coupled with new pressure to communicate with the rescuers, meant that within a generation virtually everyone spoke English as a first or second language.
And this is why the worst curse in the English language nowadays is "go paint yourself".
You can replace "Painter" with any other family or region name that could be understood as an English word. Maybe eating/avoiding certain foods works well, or being exposed to cold/heat, certain animals, etc.
Make it an outbreak of Mass Hysteria. Have it spread by people saying a certain phrase. After being exposed to that phrase a person starts saying it too. You can add other symptoms that start after the initial exposure. Since the spread is caused by spoken words anyone that doesn't understand the language will be unaffected.
For example, patient zero starts saying "everything is on fire". This spreads to other people who continue to repeat it and spread the "disease". An additional symptom could be people acting/believing they are burning. A person speaking a different language would be unaffected since they have know idea what the other people are saying.
Frame flip: The killer meme does not affect the non-English speakers directly. It energizes the English speakers into a pattern that causes the horrible results.
There are a number of potential variations and diversifications possible. Here are just a few.
- Violence of some kind is programmed in and triggered by some key. I won't link it, but there is the "church scene" from the movie "Kingsman." (If you go searching for it, spoiler, it is pretty amazingly graphic violence.) The trigger could either be a known English word, possibly a word only heard when non-English persons are present. Or it could be a non-English word or phrase.
- Violence could be programmed in but left suppressed. It could break out only in certain situations such as a large enough crowd with enough of both English and non-English speakers nearby. Crowded shopping areas or sports arenas or such.
- An ever building hatred of non-English speakers could build up due to the killer meme. I'm picturing something like NAZI ideology, but with even less consciousness involved.
- The violence could be direct, as in brute physical aggression. Or it could be indirect, such as poison. It could be surgical, such as assassination of key figures in other culture, particularly those persons who would help the other culture achieve prosperity.
- The effects could either be unconscious, such that those infected are unaware of it. Or it could be overt, such that they are aware. If aware, they could either attempt to resist, maybe work on a cure. Or they could find they don't want to resist, and actually attempt to spread the infection further.
Based on 'whatever'... this could be a variant of David Langford's Basilisk - basically an image that crashes your mind when seen, or other cognitohazards. Mind altering substances (e.g. alcohol intoxication) is a reasonably good antidote, and perhaps English has certain unique characteristics (likely phonological or syntactical) that slightly tweak your mind and work like a vaccination if used for prolonged periods.
Speculating one step further, the cognitohazard attacks the part of mind that makes conscious grammar perception/generation - monolingual speakers (and those who learn a foreign language by immersion) are not vulnerable, thus 90% of the anglosphere (minus unfortunate linguists) is intact, but everyone else who happens to learn foreign languages "the school way" is dead. And by today, that makes almost everyone with at least some elementary school education.
The disease works through shibboleths, like this way:
— Ok, so do you think that this patient is ill?
— No! Ai is realthi! Ai promiz que mee doo pronunze prerffekt inglish, ai iswear. Mai inglish és gud. Yo never spuke oter langage ever!
— Oh, no! It seems that you have been infected by the virus! Sorry, the guards will take you to our ICU and the doctors will take care of you. Relax, nothing bad will ever happen to you, our doctors are the best! We really care for your health! Guards, take him!
— NOU! PLIZ NO, NOOO, NOOOOOOOO!!!! - HEY, DUNTI PUL MAI ARMI! - RELISE MAI ARMI NAW! - U AR HURTENDO MEE! RELISE ME PLIZ. - MEE DUNTI WANNA GO! ¡POR DIOS LETI MEE GO! NOOOOU! - RELISE MEE! U IS RURTIN MEE. - STOPI DRAGGIN MEE! LETI MEE GO LETI MEE GO, PLIZ!!! - NOO NOOOOO NOOOOOOOOO - ¡HIJOS DE PU** DE MIER**! ¡USTEDES QUEIMARAN TODOS EN EL INFIERNO! ¡MALDITOS!
BANG! BANG! BANG!
— Report: The doctors tried everything to save him at the ICU, but unfortunately the virus claimed yet another life!
Let me refer you to the fifth game of the famous "Meta Gear Solid" video game franchise.
As part of the story, the main villain researches on "vocal coord parasites" (https://metalgear.fandom.com/wiki/Vocal_cord_parasite). The idea: By simulation evolutionary selection processes in a lab, the researchers develop various sub-species of parasites which are trained to massively procreate if being exposed to very specific vibrations. They claim (and its unclear to me to which extend this could work in our real world) that each language has its very distinct sounds and hence very distinct vibrational movements produced in the speaker's vocal coords. As such, they are able to create a set of diseases which only spread in those human beings which speak the language the respective parasites are trained for.
The main villain plans to use this to sell "ethnic weapons" which can be used to only kill people based on their mother tongue. Very evil, indeed.
The Cure is Only Available in that Language
Either they were deliberately mistranslated into other languages so that only people who followed the English instructions will survive, or the conspirators are cruder about it and interview people in English before giving them the cure.
Of course, not everybody who speaks English obeys the instructions of government health authorities in a pandemic, either. So they would die too. This evil conspiracy might or might not consider that a drawback.
It’s Something that Correlates Strongly with one Culture
For example, there’s something in the Western diet or lifestyle that gives immunity, like for example dairy products or pork, in a country where the kind of person who’d follow suit would learn English too and those who stayed more traditional would not know it. This is even more plausible for a language less international than English is today, especially one spoken only by a religious minority.
I suggest you to change how you look at the given problem.
It's not that the virus affects only non-English speakers because there is somethig biologically distinct about non-English speakers as such. It's that people who are biologically distinct from other people in certain way, and only they, are not allowed to learn and speak English. For an example, maybe it's world where all females speak English among themselves, all males speak Mandarin among themselves and Hindi is used for communication between people of different sexes (or maybe people of different sexes don't communicate with each other at all). Thus in such world a virus that affects only males will also affect only non-English speakers. Then after death of all males there will be a female-only world and they all will speak English (and new males quickly die in their infancy or even in the wombs of their mothers, as the virus infected all females, but doesn't harm them. So the virus is still in the population).
The most realistic way for a virus to affect people differently depending on which language they speak, is via the fact that different languages are spoken in different places. It's much more plausible for a disease to affect people differently because they live in different places, than because they speak different languages.
If you want this to happen in the modern world, then consider that English-speaking countries are either wealthy nations, or former colonies of those nations, many of which retain some economic ties; and wealthy countries where English is not an official language also tend to have more people who can speak English. Also in the real world, access to healthcare and particularly vaccinations is somewhat dependent on wealth and geography.
So if a virus wipes out only non-English speakers, it's probably because those are the people who didn't have access to a vaccine for it. Imagine something like the COVID-19 pandemic, but with a much deadlier virus, more competent responses by wealthy Western nations*, and less sharing of vaccines with other nations.
*This might be the least plausible part...
On the other hand, if you want this to happen centuries ago, then it's much easier: in the real world, explorers and colonisers spread diseases in places they went to, which the people there had no immunity to, because those places had no history of those diseases. So you could have a deadly plague which England survived, and then later became asymptomatic carriers as they went around the world, killing everyone else.
If you want to make it even truer to history, your colonisers could intentionally infect the populations as part of an eradication campaign. Depends how dark you want to make your story, though.
I'm surprised nobody has mentioned Snow Crash yet. The conceit is... nonsense, but it could be not that with a little handwaving.
The central premise is this: if modern spoken languages are comparable to a modern programming language like Python, there exists a spoken language that is analogous to binary, or BASIC,or some other low-level language. Instructions in this language are understood by all humans, and are fulfilled without intervention from "high level" safeguarding processes; in computers that would be things like garbage collection, protecting files based on access permissions, and type checking, but for humans the "software" that exists between this low-level language and, say, English, are the lessons learnt from a lifetime of context, experience, knowledge, and instinct. If someone told you to put your hand in a fire, you have an internal process that prevents you from doing so, call it isThatHot.exe, if it returns true, take no action.
Extending that idea, it's not impossible that different languages require different "compilers" to translate information into instructions. For example, word order is not the same between languages. I look at kanji and I see no information, but someone with the correct compiler knows it's a word.
Make your infection a "virus" that affects specific versions of the compiler. When you are exposed to a particular input, e.g. a phrase or written word, which would likely not be in English or the low level language, but akin to a specifically-created garbage input, it causes a short-circuit in the brain that is interpreted as a payload of this low-level language. The payload cuts the person off from their higher language centres, rerouting things internally so they can only communicate using words from the low-level language (of which they currently know 0) and nouns. It rewires their panic response so they blindly recite the payload, even if they don't know what it means.
Bam, you've got yourself a near-mute who infects people with their muteness just by being nearby and upset.
I imagine a virus that spreads by forming polyps in the very specific part of the tongue. The polyps form and burst, spreading the virus during talking or coughing, then fester and kill the host.
By coincidence, they form on the specific part of the tongue that touches the teeth during formation of the th (/θ/ or /ð/; dental fricative) sound. Speakers, when making this sound, naturally disrupt the formation of the virus eruption site with a gentle scraping of the teeth against the budding polyp when making the th sound. Speakers that do not form the th sound regularly give the virus just enough of an advantage to form the polyp and spread and fester.
Because only 8% of languages use /θ/ or /ð/, English being the dominant one, it's potentially pretty close to your target demographic. There may be some Spanish or Arabic speakers enjoying the same resistance. (Consult the Wikipedia articles for voiceless or voiced dental fricatives to see languages in this category.)
Disclaimer: I myself give this idea an almost 0 out of 10 for plausibility, because statistically speaking, I don't think it would result in a significant bias; maybe only very very slightly, like 51% of survivors spoke English. But I thought it would be fun to contemplate something about the English language itself that could have a direct physiological connection to a virus. So I chose to explore the idea of the mechanics of forming a phoneme unique to English.
Information is the virus
Frame shift: Transmittable diseases spread from person to person by transfer of the contagious material. In biology, this is usually bacteria or viruses. However, language is a social construct that is unrelated to biochemistry, in the same way that 5G telecoms are unrelated to viruses.
Language can have its own contagious material. We see it every day, with new content 'going viral' repeatedly, especially fake news. And one such famous example was 5G causes COVID-19. It's a completely false statement, yet it travelled across society and caused all sorts of violence and issues.
Limit to specific languages
For your requirements, we just need to add a little extra. Poetry and similar content are often difficult to translate to other languages in an identically-effective way of delivery. Translated, words may not rhyme, have the same syllables, or have the exact same second-meanings.
Therefore, it could be that your required linguistic contagion depends on certain language constructs or attributes that aren't present in English. Of course, it's a lot easier to make it effective in only one language, but pushing the envelope of believability a bit is unlikely to cause disbelief here.
An additional attribute of language that you can play with is the cultural understanding that comes with practitioners of the language, depending on their skill level and other societal factors.
There are words that combine meanings in some languages that in others take a whole paragraph to explain. To quote Wikipedia:
Hygge is a word in Danish and Norwegian that describes a mood of coziness and "comfortable conviviality" with feelings of wellness and contentment.
This word doesn't exist in English. But perhaps it's an otherwise common word in other languages. Perhaps it's ingrained in the understanding native speakers of other languages but not in English? And this linguistic contagion relies on that fact, therefore rendering (native) English-speakers immune?
Nothing is clean cut though
I understand that this opens up many exceptions, but that also applies to any contagion. Some people caught Covid and became very ill, and yet some of their roommates and family members were completely unaffected. The world is a messy place, and there are always exceptions to the rule.
Virus is an entity exists in thought form
Ok... This is a difficult concept to explain. If you are familiar with cognitohazards, this would be easier. One example I remember, is the weeping angels in doctor who. Basically, they were a creature exists in a form we couldn't really comprehend. If we looked at them with our eyes, they could not move. But if we, even blinked, they could move in that fraction of a second. Cameras wouldn't work because they would move between frames etc...
Now, add the cognitohazard concept to this. Imagine a painting, that only affects people in, say... green light. As long as the painting was not exposed to green light, it wouldn't do anything wrong. But, there is something (Add a believable nonsense, or just call it an alien/magic) in the painting, that "activates" with green light.
Now, lets reverse this and adapt to the language.
Lets assume, there is a sequance of words, sounds, letters, whatever. And this thing, is like a rapidly infecting deadly virus, jumping from host to host in seconds. Killing people in matter of weeks or days. But a specific, complex and not so obvious rule in english, counters this word or sequance or sounds effects, effectively making it harmless.
If we use the painting example, imagine all the english speakers are wearing glasses that filters out green light. So painting's effects wouldn't even reach you.
But how could we kill a non-native speaker? Simple. Use obscure english rules. Here is one that native speakers know, but not all of them know they know. Makes sense?
Add a few rules and structures like these, and then suddenly your sound based virus thing can only be defeated with speaking perfect english with perfect rules. It is the equivalent of doctor who's weeping angels that are constantly watched by humans now.
In this form, only people with perfect english use can survive. Native speakers, good english teachers, scholars, those kinds of people.
That means I would also die as everyone figured out by this point I suppose.
The symptom is speaking gibberish
The disease causes damage in some part of the brain responsible for logically speaking. Say you’re in a parking lot, and some person comes up to you (intending to ask directions or something), saying, "Chicken wings are good, but hot dogs are best with ketchup on them." You might ask what they’re trying to say, but after a while, you would figure out that something is wrong with them and to get away as fast as possible because they might have some mental illness. Since you avoided them, you decreased the chance of infection.
That is because you understand English. You know that randos in parking lots should not make statements about their preferences of condiments on various edibles. However, a person who doesn’t understand English cannot distinguish such statements between normal ones. To them, that person might be asking them for directions! They would probably attempt to state that they cannot understand them. After a while, a Non-English speaker would probably run away too, but they would stay longer than an English speaker, thereby increasing the risk of infection.
One problem that may occur is that both the English speaker and the Non-English speaker would run away. To fix this, maybe make the "gibberish" words swear words. If somebody ran up to you and started swearing, you get out of there very fast, but a person who didn’t know english would get away after more time.
It's the other way around... the disease is language agnostic, but it causes loss of languages around the world due to a:
If you have not yet played Horizon Zero Dawn and don't want spoilers, don't read the rest of this answer.
In Horizon Zero Dawn, the biosphere was wiped out in the late 21st century. The whole of it. Not even roaches made it. This was caused by something called "the Faro Plague".
21st Century scientists knew there was no escaping total anihilation, so they created machines and an AI that would terraform the Earth back into an inhabitable place. The AI would then repopulate flora, fauna and humankind with stored seeds, artificial wombs and lots of frozen embryos and genetic samples.
The last part of the plan involved the master AI teaching the new humans all the stored knowledge of humankind, but due to sabotage the AI only manages to educate the first new generation up to kindergarten and only in its default language, which happened to be English. The AI then released a massive amount of horny, uneducated teenagers into the woods, in what can only be described as an MMORPG version of The Blue Lagoon, except it was neither online nor an RPG.
The game takes place some 600 years after that... event, so there are tribes and even an empire. Given the context in the game, there hasn't been enough time for new languages to evolve yet, though there are already a lot of made up terms such as "sundom" (a kingdom of a sun god) and "werak" (basically a small hunting group within of a tribe).