The author of How English Became English (Oxford University Press, 2016), Simon Horobin, is Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford. It’s small (see picture with a pen to indicate comparative size), few in pages (about 165) but considerable in content. The sub-title is ‘A Short History of a Global Language’ but it’s more than a history because Horobin also reflects on the future of the language. Also, almost en passant, he clarifies certain terms and concepts. I’m no linguist, and this is not a review: I write as a layman to draw attention to the book; to share some thoughts and to raise a few questions. Page reference in what follows is to this text.
Horobin begins with Old English, CE 650-110, and then moves on to Middle English, 1100-1500. (Chaucer, the so-called Father of English Literature, lived from 1343-1400.) Even during the period of Early Modern English (1500-1750), English functioned as a local language: communication on a national level was in French and Latin (p. 75). The Romans occupied Britain for about four hundred years: one of their contributions was the founding of Londinium, present-day London. A far more significant contribution was the introduction of Christianity and Latin which language, together with French after the Norman Conquest of 1066, has heavily influenced English. Latin though termed a dead language is alive with some English-speakers: as the Irish poet Seamus Heaney (1939-2013; Nobel Prize winner) was dying, he managed to text a two-word message to his wife in Latin, the language he loved: Noli timere. “Don’t be afraid.” But more than the past, it’s English in the present which is of the greater interest.
Christianity, the religion of a small group in an obscure part of the Roman Empire, became a world religion when persecution shaded into toleration and, finally, to conversion: imperial Roman territories followed suit with the Emperor Augustine sending Christian missionaries to England in 597 CE. As with the spread of Christianity, empire plays an important role in the spread of the English language. England ruled over the most extensive empire the world has known to date, and with imperial rule and colonial possession (America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) went the English language (and Christianity). L. L. Zamenhof (1859-1917) created a language, Esperanto, to foster international understanding and peace: Esperanto means “One who hopes”. That artificial language did not gain international ‘currency’ but in the English language the world now has a living Esperanto. Dr Johnson in his dictionary of 1755 defines English as belonging to England but one cannot say that English is today a world language and still claim it’s the privileged possession of a particular people. It’s unfortunate that the same word applies to a language and to a people. Indians do not speak a language known as Indian, nor Pakistanis one known as Pakistani. In James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, when meeting with an Englishman, we have this reaction: “The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. My soul frets in the shadow of his language.” (I take up this feeling of inferiority below, in discussing accent.) And yet Irish Joyce is now recognised as one of the major figures in English literature. ‘English literature’ means ‘Literature in the English language’, and in that sense Jean Arasanayagam (her funeral takes place today: Friday, 2nd August 2019) is an English writer; more precisely a Sri Lankan English-writer. But a Christian Burgher married to a Hindu Tamil and living in Sinhalese Buddhist Kandy; in danger of her life during anti-Tamil riots and the pogrom of 1983, identity was never “a given” to her. Selfhood was something she thought earnestly and passionately about, as her poetry makes poignantly and powerfully clear. Arasanayagam’s experience is not rare, and several writers from various parts of the world have written on the theme of exile (external or internal) and alienation. At random, Kamala Markandaya’s novel, The Nowhere Man comes to mind. Indeed, it has been said that, to varying degree, we are all foreigners and lonely, sojourning through a strange world.
“Today English is the primary language in some sixty countries” (p. 142). India has a republican constitution and a few states, including Tamil Nadu, have English as an additional official language. But who is a native-speaker of English? If I say, “Native American” I refer to a group, to an ethnicity but “native” has several denotations and the one I would choose and mean in the context of language is “natural”. A native speaker of English is one to whom English is natural. Therefore, it can be said there are many native-speakers of English in Sri Lanka. But it must be borne in mind that not all native speakers of English have an acceptable level (let alone a high degree) of native-speaker competence: as one who once lived in England and still is a British citizen; as one who has taught English in England, I know this at first-hand. So too with all languages: not every Sinhalese has native-speaker competence in Sinhala. And yet native speakers do have an intuition about their language, and so we can go to them with the SWANS (Sounds Wrong to a Native Speaker) test. As Horobin has it, a native speaker may not be able to explain the rules of grammar but, between “The yellow little book” and “The little yellow book”, she or he will not have difficulty in identifying the accepted form. As with ‘native language’, so too the phrase ‘first language’ is not necessarily meant in a biographic-chronological sense, that is, the language acquired first in life by an individual. Take for instance the case of a child being adopted and growing up in an environment totally different in geographic and cultural, social and linguistic terms. In the film ‘Lion’, a little Indian boy adopted by an Australian couple, returns as a young man; meets with his now aged mother but can’t speak with her, he having long lost his original language. An individual’s first-language is that language in which she is best able to express herself: the difference between ‘native language’ and ‘first-language’ is not hermetic. As for the phrase ‘mother tongue’, it appears that those with a serious interest in language no longer use it – even as in general practice, BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini) have given way to the more neutral, and therefore inclusive, BCE (Before the Common Era) and CE (Common Era). Of course, ‘Common Era’ includes the present.
Etymologically, the term diglossia means speaking two languages but in sociolinguistics it refers to a situation where two distinct varieties of the same language, a high and a low form, exist within the same speech-community. (Both Sinhalese and Tamil are characterised by diglossia.) This leads us to the five levels of language (very formal, formal, neutral, informal or casual, and vulgar or slang) and to the concept of register. Register is language in actual use, and is the result of the coming together of several different factors such as subject of discourse, social context, age of interlocutors, intention etc. The ‘control’ a person has of register is a measure of his or her command of that language. Mixing registers can lead to strange effects, intended or unintended. I recall a worker in Africa very politely informing me: “Bwana [Sir] the tap is buggered”.
Returning to the levels of language above, it is regrettable that the response of some readers of Colombo Telegraph is downright vulgar. It appears that such responders are either unaware of or indifferent to what their vulgarity reflects on them and, much worse, on Sri Lanka. Rather than engaging seriously with the argument presented, they attack the writer personally, insulting and jeering at her or him, or in fastening upon a point minor and marginal to the main text. Such individuals seem to take pride in their crudity, mistaking vulgarity, even obscenity, for power and wit. Unfortunately, Colombo Telegraph receives so much material that they have neither the resources nor the time to remove the vulgar or, for that matter, delete those contributions which, vulgar and vacuous, contribute nothing worthwhile, nothing at all.
It has been noted that white people consider their skin-colour as the norm (the default-setting, if one will) and the other gradations of pigmentation as inferior deviations: never mind that the ancestors of all of us are African. So too, it seems with some in England and with what is termed RP: Received (‘generally accepted’) Pronunciation. Language schools make commercial profit by promising to inculcate this ‘superior’ accent. If in England it’s said “She doesn’t have an accent”, the lack is a positive. In other words, she speaks like “us”. A Sri Lankan who returns from England after a short stay with what is termed ‘an English accent’ and, what’s more, carefully clings to it, can be suspected of trying to be, in the words of Professor Horobin, “aloof and snobbish”. I know Englishmen – not to mention Sri Lankans – who have studied at Oxford but who, rejecting false social status, do not cultivate the accent associated with that University. I also know several Sri Lankans who have lived in England not for years but for decades, and still speak English as they did in Sri Lanka. As Achebe notes, it’s not that the west projected superiority but that the non-Western world accepted that evaluation and internalised it. With accent, sometimes what appears to be superiority is in fact an inherent inferiority-complex. Implicit Association Tests establish that our attitudes toward things like “race”, colour and gender (we can here add accent) operate on two levels. One is our conscious attitudes, what we choose to believe; our declared values which we use to direct our behaviour deliberately. The second level is that of the unconscious which functions on immediate, automatic associations, before we have even had time to think. (In Sri Lanka, when it comes to ‘racial’ and religious beliefs and attitudes, it seems to be both conscious and unconscious.) Fifty thousand African Americans who took the Race IAT had stronger, more positive, associations with whites than with their own fellow blacks. How could they not? They live in North America, where they are surrounded every day by cultural messages linking white with the superior and the good. You don’t choose to make positive associations with the dominant group, but all around you, that group is being paired with good things. Escape becomes a conscious, ever-vigilant effort. “All speakers of English use an accent” (p. 106). As a light-hearted aside, the Guardian reported a recent survey: British men find English spoken with a French accent most “sexy” while for British women it was Italian.
When in doubt over meaning or spelling we reach for a dictionary and its authority, but language is a democracy, in the hands of those who use it: hence the witticism, “There’s no one in charge, and the lunatics are running the asylum”. First comes language-behaviour; then linguists (more specifically, grammarians) describe usage, and parents and teachers enforce it. This helps to explain the varieties of English in existence today: I gather the variety of English spoken in Singapore is known, and what’s more recognised, as Singlish.
What of the future of English? As the Buddha taught, the only thing permanent is temporariness. Or should we say it’s by changing that things remain (essentially) the same? Today, it’s not uncommon to meet the word “Englishes” but if these Englishes continue to develop independently, will mutual intelligibility be lost? In other words, will English cease to be our Esperanto? What may be reassuring is that the written form of the language changes less quickly than the spoken variety. But even here, the influence of digital communication is not to be underestimated. I was surprised to receive an email message from Jaffna, from an octogenarian like me, which began “u r”, rather than “you are”. See also expressions like GR8 WRK for “Great work” and THX for ”Thanks”. Professor Horobin quotes (p. 11) the version of “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” as rendered by the Bible Society of Australia: “In da Bginnin God cre8d da heavens & da earth”. (I notice with disquiet that my computer does not mark “cre8d” as being incorrect.) Nouns become verbs as in “Google it”; a mouse is associated more with computers than with cats; tweeting is not limited to birds and, as Horobin notes, surfing no longer requires a surfboard. Electronic communication is characterized by creativity and playfulness (p. 129).
Culture, mores, ethos – call it what you will – changes and with that goes changes in language. In as much as, most unfortunately, it’s a given society at a given time that interprets and expresses religious teaching (rather than religious doctrine conditioning social and political behaviour) so it is with language and changing times. My wife, reading Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, noted it was dedicated to “my husband Itzik” and concluded Harari was female. But Professor Harari of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, author of the widely-read Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, is male. Reflecting changed moral and social attitudes, words such as “wife” and “husband” are no longer bound to biology. A note of caution: words can influence social attitudes and behaviour, particularly in the emotionally charged areas of ‘race’, religion and politics. It’s a symbiotic relationship.
Bernard Shaw quipped that America and Britain are two countries separated by the same language. Since the power and influence of a language depends on the power and influence of the people who speak it, will American English replace British English? I have heard Americans say that they speak American (rather than English). As with English and some states in India, will Spanish come to be recognised by some states of the USA as an additional official language? This leads to an aspect I have not considered: bilingualism. There are strong Asian communities in the UK, and the children grow up fluent in one language at home and equally fluent (and accent-free) in English outside. Language is important and interesting in itself but is also a product and reflector of changing times and realities.
Of creative writers we expect not only the fabulation of character and story but the creative use of language, including neologisms and unusual, startling and apt structures and collocations. Creativity means deviation from the normal and the norms: in other words, change. And in non-creative, everyday life and use too, language is constantly being changed, and no academy, no esteemed figure can stop it. Language is a democracy and, as long as a language lives, it will change.