Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Is "English English" the only good English? No.

English is not the sole property of the English.

To write and speak correct English you do not have to live in England or have been taught by an English person.

American English is widely used internationally and many people who grew up speaking other languages decide to learn American English.

There are many other countries that use English as their main language or as a common language that links diverse language groups. For example, the Philippines prides itself on being the second largest English-speaking country in the world.

In some countries, especially in Europe, English is widely taught as a second language and is often pronounced more clearly and spoken with fewer mistakes than you will hear from many English speakers in England.

Indian English, for example, can be particularly florid, even beautiful, with a wide vocabulary and often spoken with exceptional clarity and precision even by people with very little education, even though it is not the main language of most Indians.

Many people in countries like the United States imagine that English is a pure language. It is not.

English is a polyglot language. Its richness results from its multiple roots: Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Danish, French, Greek and numerous other languages. As a schoolboy in England, I delighted in the battered etymological dictionary we were supplied with at grammar school. This showed the origins as well as the meanings and pronunciations of words, reflecting the contributions of the many peoples who made the country their home over the centuries, as invaders, merchants, preachers, artists, refugees and scholars. Words that have entered the English language, including both standard English and slang, come from languages as diverse as Malay (bahasa melayu), Arabic, Yiddish, Mandinka, Quechua, Swahili and Hindi, to name but a few.

The richness of English today reflects not only the continuation of this immigration, but also the media explosion of the past century as a result of new communications technology and globalisation.

The first wave of globalisation was largely achieved by free trade and imperialism, in which Britain played the key role, which is why English is spoken across the globe in places that long ago threw off British rule. The second wave of globalisation, a return to open trading and investment, is symbolised by the Internet and the World Wide Web.

In each country, including the other nations of the United Kingdom, English was not native, but was adopted and adapted.

One of the joys of English is the multiplicity of accents to be heard around the world. Many people vaguely recognise an "American accent", but can't tell the difference between someone from Minnesota and someone from Pennsylvania. But there is one. And linguistic research shows that these accents are constantly, though gradually, changing. There are many distinct local subdivisions of national accents, as is the case with other languages, to varying extents.

English people are pleasantly annoyed when Americans tell them,"I love your accent" because teachers in England spend (or used to spend) so much time ensuring that we have no accent, at least when we speak in public. Of course, this is our misconception. What we call "the Queen's English" or "received pronunciation" or even "BBC English" was originally just a regional accent.

Before the Beatles and subsequent educational reforms, children in England were taught to speak the standard language (Queen's English) at school and discouraged from using a local accent. This practice was justified by the need to enable all citizens to communicate with each other. But it also carried a social message: local accents signified that you belonged to the lower class; received pronunciation could give you access to polite society and the professions.

You may think this is merely a question of meaningless social prejudice, but it did have consequences.

Stephenson, the inventor of the steam locomotive, was nearly rejected when he came to London to present his invention to investors. Their first response to hearing his strong Geordie accent (still an obstacle for other British people visiting North-East England) was to ask if he were some kind of animal.

Winston Churchill, as prime minister during the second world war, criticised the refusal to promote two highly-skilled technicians because they were considered to be lower class. In his memo, he said they were the right people for the job, even though one of them had a slight Cockney accent. There is, he said, no room for social prejudice when a country is fighting for its life. If you are reading this in the rest of the world, where such attitudes are probably unbelievable, watch a DVD of any British war film of the 1940s and listen to the different accents of the officers and the men.

So I do not aim in this blog to promote the use of a (mythically pure) "English English", though this is my own variant of the language and I speak, write and think in it.

I also write in American English for publication in the United States and use American vocabulary in my conversations there. When in England, I say "lorry" and "pavement", in the United States I say "truck" and "sidewalk". I will write a separate post, or perhaps several, on the differences between English and American English, as this is too large a subject for a single paragraph. I will also post a comment on the use of English in the rest of the British Isles, which is understood there but not in the rest of the world.

This subject is one that provokes controversy. Please feel free to comment on it.

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