English on the edge (2)

by Terence MacNamee

Who does the English language belong to? The English would say “us of course”. The Americans have been trying to appropriate it for themselves since Noah Webster made a few spelling differences into a matter of national pride. In the meantime, growing cultural differences have had their effect on the language, differentiating it on the two sides of the Atlantic.

Languages have always belonged to national élites; and he who owns language owns discourse. The aristocrat says to the masses: learn to talk like me, and then we can talk. The trouble is, the masses do not have the chance to learn; and if they do learn, they cease to be peasants and forget real peasant concerns. In France, the French language belonged to the Crown in a very special way. The King founded the Académie Française, and told it to watch over his language. The Revolution dispensed with the King but kept his language. Even today, the French language is “in hand”, “under control”. One has the abiding sense that there is someone in charge, someone deciding what is right and what is wrong.

In Britain, English was officially “the King’s English”, of course, but there was a lack of central control like an academy. And once the Americans shook off the British yoke politically, they inevitably did so linguistically too. There was now no core of English, no authority; “the centre cannot hold”.

So English today does not belong to anyone, the way French does. English is an institution with no-one in charge, no-one to say “the buck stops here”. Is this not a sign of freedom? I suppose it is. But it is also a sign of vulnerability to a takeover by faceless interests in the background.

Israeli academic Danny Dor has argued that, far from imposing English on the world, large American companies really impose multilingualism as part of their globalization strategy. They know that their product, or at least the software and documentation that run it, has to be translated into all sorts of “local” languages so that consumers in other countries will use it. He also says that these international players themselves are likely to replace the “local” apparatus of dictionaries and academies as the source of standards for the various national languages. Thus not only English, but other languages too, may cease to belong to their speakers or to their national élites.

In the meantime, English is starting to be appropriated by ESL speakers, who, encouraged by the prevailing anarchy of the language, show all the signs of turning into a separatist movement. For them, English, appropriately streamlined, can become a world language without the approval or input of existing English-speaking élites.

The trouble with English as a world language has always been its intractable core of irregularity and idiosyncrasy. Pidgins, drastically simplified forms of the language, are one answer that has arisen spontaneously. Horrified by this development, the British themselves developed Basic English in the 1930s. This was a rearguard action, attempting to maintain control; it involved cutting down the vocabulary while retaining all the endearing irregularities. But ESL speakers now want to go the next logical step and just simplify the language both in form and vocabulary for their own use. “You don’t own English” they retort to the horrified native speakers. “Who does?” It is a question to which the native speakers have less and less of a convincing answer.