Whence English?

Perhaps you have heard of “World English.” This is not a single language, but a concatenation of versions of English, as spoken in America, England, Australia, southern Africa, the Caribbean, India, Pakistan and neighbors, Hong Kong, Belize — all over the world.  Each version is different in vocabulary, accent, and sometimes in syntax.

Standard British English used to be the Queen of English, and everybody else was a poor second, but that is changing.  This year, for example, three Indian authors were listed for the Man Booker prize:  Amitav Ghosh (for the 2nd time by my calculation), Rahul Bhattacharya, and Jahnavi Barua.  Since V. S. Naipaul’s listing in 1971, 13 Indian authors have been listed, and several have won this prestigious award.  Some of them won multiple times. I believe Salman Rushdie holds the record (4) for Indian-influenced authors writing in English. Authors from Africa, the Caribbean and other parts of the English diaspora have also been listed, though in lesser numbers.

I once heard Anundhati Roy (winner, 1997) interviewed on the radio, and found it difficult to understand her.  How was it possible to understand her writing perfectly and her speech only with difficulty?

I don’t have an exercise to go with this posting.  It is simply an observation to encourage humility.  When I worked in a law firm, few lawyers spoke other languages. “Why should I?  Everybody speaks English!” They would say. That is a stupid statement, and yes, I do mean “stupid” with no modifying niceties.

Perhaps we should be more humble as well when asking who owns the English language.

2 Responses to “Whence English?”

  • Bekah Palmer says:

    World English is a tricky thing. I did some research about teaching English as an International Language and being sensitive to World Englishes, and now I can’t decide if it is better to teach Standard AmE / BrE or if I should try to include aspects of International English as well.

  • Ann Evans says:

    I would ignore the word “Standard.” Standard language models are just shortcuts, a lazy way to refer to a variety of dialects and variations. What makes, say, African-American Vernacular English, or Southern English, or Cockney any more valid than the “Standard?” I would make it more sociolinguistic, showing the historical and artistic influences (and others) which make an English variety the way it is. A comparison of grammars would be fascinating, and so would exercises in which students found differing vocabulary — “lift” vs. “elevator,” “singlet” vs. “undershirt,” etc.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *