Whose English is it Anyway?

In these mad times of discussing #Brexit this blog thought that it would muddy the waters further with this this piece that the blogger wrote sometime ago. The titular question came from a quotation that he read: “[t]here is no such thing as the Queen’s English. The property has gone into the hands of a joint stock company and we (Americans) own the bulk of the shares.” (Twain, 1989 [1897]), and also from reading an article in Quest, ‘Americanize’, Comments on a Queen’s English Society meeting that discussed how American terms were finding their way into the British English Language (Ward 2017). In light of these two pieces this writer will set out to answer this question by using disciplines and perspectives from Language Studies.

Ben Johnson argued that our languages are an aspect of life that makes us human; he tells us that mankind uses their languages to express themselves above the animal world (1947 [1641]). Think briefly how you have used language today. There are many tasks that you might have carried out. This blogger has emailed his boss, spoken to his children, gave a talk at a meeting, sent several SMS text messages and a couple of Tweets. All of these conversations would have also projected nonverbal messages; they would have informed people about him, his education, his social background etc etc.

Language variation is an acknowledgement that the way in which we speak English is variable. We are all unique human beings and so the way that we structure our language use is also unique. English is often described in a single entity perspective, but this description is incorrect. Our rich language has many incarnations: students can study English as a foreign language, works of literature such as Pride and Prejudice is written in English, and all of the conversations that Humphries mentions above were carried out using different levels of English.

Language diversity happens in all walks of life, and at all levels of communication. The production meeting with his colleagues was held in a different realm of understanding to the conversation that Humphries had with his children, and that was different again to the way that he spoke with those in his Creative Writing class. This diversity also happens in the way that we recognise people known to us by the sound of their voice, or the turn of phrase that they use.

Accents and dialects are also part of our language diversity. Accents refer to the way words are pronounced, and contrary to popular belief we all have one. Accents reflect our background, and most of us only realise that we have an accent when we move away from our home (Esling, 1998). The Sociolinguist, Peter Stockwell argues that accents can also inform the listener to the age of the speaker (2002). Dialects act on the grammar of our vocabulary, and broadly speaking they can be identified as regional and or social. At this point, it should be noted that much of the ordinary talk of dialect refers to a non-standard pronunciation of words; a moving away from what is called the Standard British English.

Standard British English is the language used by broadcasters, education and for the most part, official documents. This standard language is considered to be the correct use of English, but Sociolinguists argue that any variation of language should be accepted. They go on to say that all dialectal variations are equal. One consideration of this is the word which is now used to refer to both the singular and plural subjects.

Let us take one example here: You in Standard English, 2nd person singular it is pronounced as you. And in Liverpool it is pronounced as you. In Second person plural, in Standard English it is pronounced as you. In Liverpool it is pronounced as youse.

At the close of the 1800s Twain made the comment that fed our titular question, and since then the use of the English language has grown in popularity. It is now an international language with users spread around the globe (Crystal, 1988). This has caused the English language to be spoken by more than three times the amount of people that speak English as their native language (Crystal 2006).

Rosma Lippi Green argues that the use of standard dictionaries to define English words is based on the power and influence of one section of society – the educated-mother-tongue speakers. Lippi-Green’s book, English with an Accent argues that written and spoken language should have an equal weight in how they are used. Her power and influence argument of the educated argument means that the languages are defined by a minority (Lippi-Green, 1997). One this theme David Crystal argues that Standard English is a language that was constructed some time ago (Crystal 2005)This then suggests that it has been allowed to grow and develop which disagrees with Humphries’ argument elsewhere that ‘Language is powerful; it should be allowed to shape our thinking as it grows and changes meaning’.

 

Crystal, D., (1988) The English Language, Harmondsworth, Penguin.  (2005), The stories of English, London, Penguin. (2006), English Worldwide, in Hogg, and Denison (eds), A History of the English Language Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Jonson, B, (1947[1641]) Timber or Discoveries, in Hereford, and Simpson (eds) The Works of Ben Jonson Vol 8,  Oxford, Oford University Press.

Esling, J.H. (1998), Everyone has an Accent Except me, in Bauer and Trudgill (eds) Language Myths Harmondsworth, Penguin.

Stockwell, P., (2002), Sociolinguists, A Resource for Students. Abingdon, Routledge.

Twain, M, (1989 [1897]), Following the Equator: A Journey around the World Vol 1. New York, Dover.

Ward, R., (2017), Americanize, in Quest 126.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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