English on the Edge

by Terence MacNamee

English has entered uncharted waters. It is now no longer a national language; but it still has a character. Yet this character is in peril, even as English seems to triumph on the world stage. It is spreading itself too thin and losing its substance. As the quantity in terms of spread and speakers is going up, the quality is going down.

A lot of books have been written on “good English” in the past, and used by writers as a sort of Bible. Graves, Gowers, Fowler might be cited. But their world was different. They were all Englishmen. Essentially, they were trying to get other English, or British, or Commonwealth writers to say what they meant in clear and simple English. (They left the Americans to their own devices.)

Things are different now. Not only are English speakers struggling to write quality English, but also people who have learned English and find themselves needing to write in it. The focus has shifted to the periphery of the English-speaking world. And what counts as the periphery? For many of the British, the periphery would include North America, still considered as “mission territory”; for everyone else, it would include continental Europe, India, the rest of Asia, Africa, and South America.

What is now called “world English” masks a development which native English speakers anywhere are not going to like: a version of the language without their input and not even intended for their use or consumption.

As the number of learners (ESL speakers) gains on the number of native speakers, soon to overtake them, as English writing has increasingly to be aimed at the ESL speakers, and even produced by them, the language is in peril of losing its… soul, perhaps?

This can be stated almost as a law: in proportion as a language expands its geographical reach, the quality of the language declines. What happened to Latin is a cautionary tale. The Latin that spread around the Roman Empire eventually broke up into separate languages in medieval Europe. This was presumably because, as the Empire fell apart under the pressure of migrating tribes, most of the speakers of Latin were now second-language speakers. But there is also something more subtle involved: the loss of a centre, the fact that the centre loses control of the periphery.

Coming back to our present situation, English needs not just to adapt itself ceaselessly to the periphery; this adaptation needs to be balanced by constant surges of re-energization from the core. And what is the core? For the English, it is the standard language in England; but I would make so bold as to say that it is also the racy, sinewy, conservative dialects in Britain and Ireland.

Injecting energy from this neglected dialect core can bring about a badly-needed reform of English usage. The language has grown so cumbersome and wordy that it needs to be weeded out. Writers have forgotten the skill of calling a spade a spade. As George Orwell said decades ago, our use of language is becoming more and more unconscious; we speak unconsciously and in shallow shopworn terms, because we are really not thinking for ourselves; we are numbed where once we were expressive.

To my mind, our goal ought to be to put some life back into English before it is too late – to struggle against the inertia that tends to turn it into a dead weight, a characterless muttering, a language that no longer expresses anything that really matters to the human soul.