Friday, November 04, 2011

English for the English; Englishes for the rest?

Does England have any control of what is called "English" or will, as one Telegraph reader wittily claims, "The English ... have as much control over English as the Italians have over pizza and Indians over chicken korma"?

It might seem like a strange question, given that the general consensus is that English (the language) derives from England (the nation), but it's one that is increasingly being asked as new varieties of English spring up all over the world, each with its own distinct character and linguistic identity.

We've already seen that many English speakers get very worked up about "their" language being taken over by Americanisms, but what about when their language is picked up by Malaysians, Indians, Nigerians, and Chinese? For many, these varieties of English are judged as inferior, broken, stripped down and poorly learnt versions of the original and best form, but that's a view that was never popular among linguists and has been the subject of some fairly strongly-worded arguments in English teaching circles over the last twenty or so years.

For a long time, this neo-colonialist view - that a world English (singular) should be taught and that English English was the gold standard - seemed to be the mindset of many English educators (and perhaps their students too) where the focus was very much on teaching Johnny Foreigner the right sort of English.

But then came along Braj Kachru with his circle model of World Englishes (Note the plural!):

The model has the "traditional bases" of English at its centre - the inner circle - and then widens to include countries in the outer circle where English has had an historical or political role, before moving into the expanding circle where English is generally used as a "lingua franca", a language of convenience to communicate between people who do not have English as their first language.

The model is not without its critics though, and some have argued that it neglects the "norms" of English and lets the Englishes at the fringes drift too far away from the core linguistic values of a standard Global English. In fact, Kachru debated this with Randolph (now Lord) Quirk (founder of the Survey of English Usage at UCL, where I work, so I must be careful what I say!).

From the other side of the linguistic divide, the model has been criticised for not being radical enough. It still places England and the USA at its heart and therefore creates the impression that the English language of the expanding circle orbits around them, that England is still at the centre of the universe.

Now, while Jeremy Clarkson and most of the Conservative Party would probably agree with that notion, sitting in the snug bar of a Tunbridge Wells gentleman's club and polishing their miniature soldier figurines,  it's hard to see how England can really claim any ownership over the Englishes spoken beyond its own borders. Even within those borders the language is in a state of constant flux and has a rich history of regional, social and ethnic variation, and that's before you even set foot on an ocean liner to cross the Atlantic or a prison ship to reach Australia.

The most recent debate has been over just this issue, with Dr. Mario Saraceni, a linguist from Portsmouth University, arguing in the September 2011 edition of Changing English (as reported here) that it's time to get away from the mindset that English is "spreading" and that "the psychological umbilical chord linking English in the world to its arbitrarily identified spatio-temporal and cultural centre be decidedly and conclusively severed". It's a bit of a mouthful, as you can see, but he's essentially calling for a clean break to be made between England and English.

To support his case, he quotes Henry Widdowson who said "How English develops in the world is no business whatever of native speakers in England, or the United States, or anywhere else. They have no say in the matter, no right to intervene or pass judgement. They are irrelevant."

In the interview below, Saraceni talks about a student of his, from Malaysia who says he feels like English is a "borrowed language", an idea that Saraceni develops in his paper, arguing that "Language is intimately connected to one's intellect and one's perception of Self and the idea of using a borrowed language, especially when this language is one's main language, has significant implications for the way one sees him/herself in relation to those considered to be the legitimate owners of that language".

In a sense (and I hope I'm getting this right) we shouldn't really be talking about anyone owning the language, that we should grow up and be less sentimental about what is essentially a tool for billions of people.

That's all well and good, but we know from previous language debates that arguments over language are rarely contained to the words, the sounds and the grammar of a language, but are much more often about our views of other people, their habits, their cultures and our own prejudices. So, in that context and to many linguistic nationalists on the comment pages of the Mail or the opinion pages of the Telegraph, what Saraceni says here is incendiary stuff.

Dr Mario Saraceni from University of Portsmouth on Vimeo.

Black British English vs MLE

The latest episode of Lexis is out and it features an interview with Ife Thompson about lots of issues connected to Black British English, i...