The History of the English Language: Story of Power and Emergence of World Englishes

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much attention my previous blog post ‘Accents of the English Language‘ has received! I realised that most native English speakers have probably grown up speaking only in one accent, and still do – the question ‘what accent am I speaking English in?’ has likely not crossed their minds. In fact, maybe not much thought has been given to the English language itself.

I’ve decided to post an essay below that I wrote in my first year of university about global English and its intimate associations with the exercise and distribution of power. I begin by quickly summarising the complex history of the English language and its astounding worldwide expansion, followed by the various power struggles of the English-speaking nations. I conclude with expounding the concept of World Englishes, and agreeing with Marko Modiano who declares that ‘all forms of the language are “authentic”‘.

British-American flag(Though I don’t mention it in the following essay, Modiano has also talked about the Mid-Atlantic English which I personally speak – I explain about it in my aforementioned blog post – remarking that it adapts to the global status English has attained. Describing it as a mix of features of British and American English, Modiano explains that the speaker can make adept language choices according to particular situations, which is ‘best suited for cross-cultural communication’.

This can theoretically open the door for the elimination of the endorsement of only either British or American English, discrediting the forbidden idea of merging. You can only imagine the horror of a Monty Python episode being filmed in American English and the reactions to such a heresy. But in the near future, maybe it won’t be that absurd.)

It’s a fascinating topic especially for those interested in finding out more about why English has become so widespread and the implications it has for us English speakers, whether native or non-native.

~

The History of the English Language: Story of Power and Emergence of World Englishes
by Justin Lau

If one were to conduct an interview of a hundred people of multiple nationalities, asking them what they believed to be the world language, the majority would likely answer: ‘English’. Though the issue of English as ‘the world language’ is arguable, it is truly ‘a world language’ as evidenced by its prevalent global spread, mass usage as an undisputed lingua franca, and its transformation into an international language. However, this attained status has attracted severe criticism, many accusing the controversial background behind its rise in importance. How did 5 million native English speakers increase to 250 million in just 300 years,[1] and furthermore to over a billion speakers worldwide?[2] Through its multifaceted history of colonialism and imperialism, English has certainly become global through an oppressive exercising of power by dominant countries that have enforced the superiority of a standardised English; though many postcolonial responses condemn such supremacy, some have chosen instead to use English as a beneficial asset for the support of their aspirations.

imperialism-cartoon-1882-grangerThe phenomenon of global English traces its way back to the colonial expansion of the British Empire beginning in the late 16th century.[3] According to Bhatt, English first weaved its way into Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, before further establishing itself in the new nations of the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.[4] With no sign of slowing down, English soon found a way into communities with already established languages, resulting in ‘regional-contact varieties of English’ in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.[5] India, China, and Nigeria were some of the many countries bombarded by the unrelenting British. Leith explains the motives for colonisation as revolving around their thirst for power: economic, through profits made in trading, and political, encouraged by rivalries with fellow European nations, including Portugal and Spain who had made a head start.[6] This resulted in successful trading companies, such as the East India Company, which enjoyed ‘a monopoly on India’s wealth for over two centuries.’[7] Europe had the world at its feet to discover, conquer, and exploit, and the British, who arrogantly believed ‘they were doing everyone a favour’[8] – on their own irrational grounds, of course – were extensively and unashamedly involved.

global-graphics-20_1234496aKnowles observed various patterns in the spread of English during the British Empire’s quest for territorial acquisitions. Countries such as America and Australia followed the first pattern, in which the language ‘was transplanted by native speakers’.[9] He communicates how ‘the settlers paid little attention to the languages of the original inhabitants’,[10] heavily implying the forceful, superior nature of their method of inculcation when interacting with the indigenous population. Ultimately, English prevailed as the main language. The second pattern was clearly seen in countries such as India and Singapore, where though English was introduced alongside ‘existing national languages’,[11] it was subsequently adopted as an official language, boosting its merit as a rising global tongue. However, this resulted in ‘a decline in respect for other languages’ while English’s status of superiority accompanied the idea that it was the ‘key to all improvements’.[12] Its rampant aggressiveness did not halt there, leading to the view that those who could only speak ‘broken’ English were ‘human beings who did not have a proper language at all.’[13] Indeed, the British must have been terrified at the thought of an overwhelming number of gibberish-speaking Neanderthals occupying their planet. Already, the beginnings of such a thought penetrated the newfound colonies, contributing to a flawed mindset that still exists today.

201768The United States was the British Empire’s successor, initiating its far-flung territorial expansion in the 19th century throughout North America and even to the Philippines.[14] Once again, motivations were ‘economic and political’, which were shrewdly hidden behind the justification of spreading ‘religion and civilization’;[15] but regardless of the reason, this movement was entirely spurred on by a desire for authority. America’s consequent emergence as a superpower due to its ‘natural and human resources’ after World War II was immensely important, Graddol commenting on how ‘English might have declined […] had it not been for the dramatic rise of the US in the 20th century as a world superpower.’[16] The extent of their overarching influential reach was demonstrated in the establishment of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, as well as their execution of the Marshall plan and involvement in the Korean and Vietnamese war.[17] Likewise, America was involved in the establishment of the United Nations, World Health Organization, UNESCO, and UNICEF;[18] Crystal estimates that 85% of international organisations use English as a working language.[19] Very few places in the world were left untouched and unscathed. With such economic and political strength, other countries were required to adopt English in order to communicate and establish connections with the world superpower. Even today, America’s cultural influence through media and communications is indisputable as evidenced by the brewing excitement worldwide in anticipation of the latest Hollywood films.

literacy-cartoon-252x300The issue only continued its complex evolvement. English infiltrated the world through the mighty empires of Britain and the United States, and this resulted in the creation of Standard English, which is often ‘believed to be inherently superior, more logical and even more beautiful than others.’[20] And as unfortunately prejudiced as this may seem, ‘people’s intelligence, personality and employability are often assessed by their linguistic conformity.’[21] This raises the question of whether English is still as readily oppressive in today’s modern societies. Phillipson coined the controversial term of ‘linguistic imperialism’,[22] which Honey succinctly summarises as attributing to English ‘favourable attributes and denying similar attributes’ to other languages.[23] In other words, the unrelenting promotion of the language’s importance only serves to assert ‘cultural inequalities between English and other languages.’[24] Knowles presents George Sampson’s view on Standard English as this: ‘people who depart from the standard are not to be regarded as proper English speakers’.[25] Outspoken linguists including Phillipson have firmly criticised this effort to maintain a Standard English, and Honey informs that the goal of such advocates is to ‘enhance the traditional power base of a particular social élite’,[26] with Gupta echoing this view.[27] The British colonies were not only overpowered by human force, but were also faced with linguistic forms of ‘coercion’ and ‘oppression’.[28] As to be expected, this did not resound well.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o made the following powerful statement: ‘I do not want to see Kenyan children growing up in that imperialist-imposed tradition of contempt for the tools of communication developed by their communities and their history. I want them to transcend colonial alienation.’[29] This undoubtedly echoes the thoughts of many in postcolonial situations. The rise of ‘the empire of English’[30] and the increasing pattern of ‘monolingualism’[31] threatens with the inevitable risk of annihilating local and native languages, which in turn directly correlates with the destruction of whole cultures and identities. Pattanayak forcibly remarks upon how English ‘accentuates the divide’ between the developed elite and the developing masses, even claiming English as the ‘carrier of values antithetical to indigenous cultures’ that results in indigenous languages moving ‘towards certain death.’[32] Bitter responses against the exploitation of colonies reverberate ferociously to this day.

Jamica Kincaid

Jamica Kincaid

Jamaica Kincaid, a writer from Antigua, appropriately conveys the frustration and hatred on behalf of the local people: ‘But what I see is the millions of people, of whom I am just one, made orphans: no motherland, no fatherland, no gods […] and most painful of all, no tongue.’[33] Her sardonic remark about the people of Antigua being ‘like that of an animal […] before the English rescued us’[34] carries a heavy tinge of animosity regarding the thorough takeover by the English-dominant nations, whose claim as correct and rightfully superior overlooks the humanity of the non-English speaking. Can any peaceful compromise be reached?

chinua-achebe

Chinua Achebe

Despite the harsh backlash, there are a few who have moved forward from their grudge and sought to embrace their current state. It is irrefutable that English is now a lingua franca, and the developed, widespread language of English can essentially fulfil the ‘need for an international language’.[35] The Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, an influential and outspoken supporter of English, does not deny the disruption caused by Britain’s selfish colonialism, which led to ‘racial arrogance and prejudice’.[36] Yet he wisely comprehends that English is a valuable ‘means of communication which can unite various groups in Nigeria and in Africa as a whole.’[37] With the stage already set in place, Achebe admits ‘there is no other choice’ but to use the language he has been given.[38] He realises the ‘appropriateness of indiginized varieties of English for articulating linguistic voices’[39] in order to convey his beliefs and observations. This also occurs in India, where Paul describes how ‘English is very much a part of themselves and their daily lives.’[40] Though some view English ‘as a tool of the Indian elite […] and an unmistakable form of neo-colonialism’,[41] many argue that the permeation of English cannot be helped, and instead can play a substantial role in sharing experiences through a common language. Paul cites “An Introduction”, a poem by Kamala Das, which appropriately describes the growing view in postcolonial countries:

Don’t write in English, they said,
English is not your mother-tongue. Why not leave
Me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins,
Every one of you? Why not let me speak in
Any language I like? The language I speak
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses
All mine, mine alone.[42]

English has assimilated into more societies than one might be willing to admit. This leads to an extremely important and emerging trend of world Englishes, which will shape the future of the language.

5360924_origEnglish is no more controlling and exploiting. Rather, the exact opposite is occurring with many countries grasping, shaping, and forming their own English, resulting in the emergence of what Pennycook calls ‘world Englishes’.[43] Initially, English from either Britain or the United States carried a certain prestige, but with the language now distinctively incorporating components and properties of foreign cultures and languages, it is now likewise being shaped by non-native speakers.[44] Modiano claims that ‘competent non-native speakers are now capable […] of developing and defining the language.’[45] Vocabulary once unique to a specific setting is now commonly used: for example, apartheid from South Africa. This indicates an adoption of a previously enclosed language and an adaption into various local, indigenous cultures. Linguists observe a growing trend of ‘anti-Americanism’ with America gradually losing its international reputation,[46] and Australian English becoming less like Received Pronunciation, suggesting a ‘desire among speakers to differentiate themselves from models associated with Britain.’[47] This phenomenon can be perceived as a natural response in order to eliminate connections with the English empire. One may not always subscribe to the absolutes of English proceeding from Britain or the United States, and with such a diverse, flourishing mix, there are multiple theories of English rejecting its originators and embracing its potential successor: English, an international language.

worldstandardenglishModiano fully backs such a claim, boldly remarking that ‘all forms of the language are “authentic”’.[48] Examining the Singaporean English influenced by Chinese dialects, Malay, and Tamil, or the Nigerian English influenced by Yoruba, Igbo, and Hausa,[49] one may hold the opinion that these ‘are the result of imperfect learning’.[50] Though some may object to what they perceive as a butchering of the traditional English standards, it is undeniably true that these conformed varieties are still a form of English. And with the flourishing of such varieties, Graddol hypothesises that subsequently the ‘lack of a native-speaker accent will not be seen […] as a sign of poor competence.’[51] What may have initially been despicable to the colonised people is now appreciated for its usefulness. Countries are beginning to realise how English can promote equality and fair opportunities for all. They can now use the language that once oppressed them to support their goals and aspirations instead. Leith believes that English ‘has finally passed out of the hands of the “native-speaking” countries’ to ‘become a resource to be exploited, culturally and commercially, by many countries across the world.’[52] English once learnt by a resentful Afrikaans-speaking community in the nineteenth century has now emerged as South African English, which has ‘acquired the status of a local standard of pronunciation.’[53] The acculturation of English into indigenous cultures provides a new power, especially in the means of communication with the rest of the world. Achebe describes his as a ‘new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings.’[54] As for Indian novelists, the language used ‘tilts neither towards British nor American English’, but rather ‘a vibrant language enriched by Indian experience.’[55] This is the rise of English, not as an infamously exploiting power, but rather a certified power cultivated and uniquely exercised by all.

HilburnYodaTo deny the oppressive history behind the dominance of English is pure folly, but to suggest that it continues to exercise power over unsuspecting people is even more foolish. English is declining in its previous contexts of power in Britain and the United States and is rising in an entirely new environment that involves the awakening of the entire world. Bauer reports that English speakers have often been reluctant in learning other languages,[56] and this could potentially be a detrimental deficiency. Graddol makes the bold assumption that in this new climate, native speakers who were considered the authoritative standard might now be at a heightened disadvantage, as compared with the appearance of notably capable bilingual and multilingual speakers.[57] Even Crystal is conscious of the emphasis moving away from ‘the legacy of colonialism’ to ‘functional specialization’.[58] English is no longer purely a language of the British, but instead has turned into ‘an English which is at once universal’ with the ability to divulge one’s ‘peculiar experience’[59] regardless of race or nationality. English as an international tool of communication has opened up a world of opportunities and vibrant connections. One thing that has not changed, and for the better, is its distinction as ‘the language of social aspiration and economic advancement.’[60] Crystal quotes Lysandrou and Lysandrou as saying: ‘If English can facilitate the process of universal dispossession and loss, so can it be turned round and made to facilitate the contrary process of universal empowerment and gain.’[61] And it is this empowerment on a worldwide scale that will allow English the liberty to thrive for many years to come, providing a medium for all to voice their dreams and ambitions, as well as to accomplish them.

~

[1] David Crystal, English as a global language, 2nd edn. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 31.
[2] Crystal, English as a global language, p. 61.
[3] Dick Leith, ‘English – colonial to postcolonial’, English: history, diversity and change, ed. David Graddol, Dick Leith and Joan Swann (London: Routledge, 1996), 180-221, at p. 181.
[4] Rakesh M. Bhatt, ‘World Englishes’, Annual Review of Anthropology, 30 (2001), 527-50, at p. 529.
[5] Bhatt, ‘World Englishes’, 527-50, at p. 529.
[6] Leith, ‘English – colonial to postcolonial’, 180-221, at p. 181.
[7] Dick Leith, A Social History of English (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul: 1983), p. 186.
[8] Laurie Bauer, An Introduction to International Varieties of English (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002), p. 18.
[9] Gerry Knowles, A Cultural History of the English Language (London: Arnold, 1997), p. 139.
[10] Knowles, A Cultural History of the English Language, p. 139.
[11] Knowles, A Cultural History of the English Language, p. 139.
[12] Knowles, A Cultural History of the English Language, p. 140.
[13] Knowles, A Cultural History of the English Language, p. 140.
[14] Stephan Gramley, The History of English: An Introduction (Oxon: Routledge, 2012), pp. 158-9.
[15] Gramley, The History of English: An Introduction, p. 159.
[16] David Graddol, The Future of English? (UK: The British Council, 1997), p. 8.
[17] Graddol, The Future of English?, p. 9.
[18] Bhatt, ‘World Englishes’, 527-50, at p. 532.
[19] Crystal, English as a global language, p. 87.
[20] Knowles, A Cultural History of the English Language, p. 17.
[21] Knowles, A Cultural History of the English Language, p. 17.
[22] Robert Phillipson, Linguistic Imperialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 47.
[23] John Honey, Language is Power: The Story of Standard English and its Enemies (London: Faber and Faber, 1997), p. 253.
[24] Phillipson, Linguistic Imperialism, p. 47.
[25] Knowles, A Cultural History of the English Language, p. 147.
[26] Honey, Language is Power, p. 4.
[27] Anthea Fraser Gupta, ‘Colonisation, Migration, and Functions of English’, Englishes Around the World 1: General Studies, British Isles, North America; Studies in Honour of Manfred Görlach, ed. Edgar W. Schneider (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1997), 47-58, at p. 57.
[28] Honey, Language is Power, p. 4.
[29] Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers, 1986), p. 28.
[30] Phillipson, Linguistic Imperialism, p. 1.
[31] Phillipson, Linguistic Imperialism, p. 17.
[32] D. P. Pattanayak, ‘Change, Language and the Developing World’, Change and Language (Bristol: Multilingual Matters, 1996), 143-52, at p. 150.
[33] Jamaica Kincaid, A Small Place (London: Virago Press, 1988), p. 31.
[34] Kincaid, A Small Place, p. 30.
[35] Knowles, A Cultural History of the English Language, p. 154.
[36] Chinua Achebe, ‘English and the African Writer’, Transition, 18 (1965), 27-30, at p. 28.
[37] Gramley, The History of English: An Introduction, p. 359.
[38] Achebe, ‘English and the African Writer’, 27-30, at p. 30.
[39] Bhatt, ‘World Englishes’, 527-50, p. 537.
[40] Premila Paul, ‘The Master’s Language and Its Indian Uses’, The Politics of English as a World Language: New Horizons in Postcolonial Cultural Studies, ed. Christian Mair (Amsterdam: Rodopi B.V., 2003), p. 359.
[41] Paul, ‘The Master’s Language and Its Indian Uses’, p. 360.
[42] Paul, ‘The Master’s Language and Its Indian Uses’, p. 361.
[43] Alastair Pennycook, ‘Beyond Homogeny and Heterogeny: English as a Global and Worldly Language’, The Politics of English as a World Language: New Horizons in Postcolonial Cultural Studies, ed. Christian Mair (Amsterdam: Rodopi B.V., 2003), 3-17, at p. 8.
[44] Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable, A History of the English Language, 5th edn. (Oxon: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 2009), p. 404.
[45] Marko Modiano, ‘Rethinking ELT’, English Today, 16/2 (April 2000), 28-34, at p. 30.
[46] David Graddol, English Next (UK: The British Council, 2006), p. 112.
[47] Leith, ‘English – colonial to postcolonial’, 180-221, at p. 201.
[48] Modiano, ‘Rethinking ELT’, 28-34, at p. 34.
[49] Baugh and Cable, A History of the English Language, p. 323.
[50] Baugh and Cable, A History of the English Language, p. 319.
[51] Graddol, English Next, p. 117.
[52] Leith, ‘English – colonial to postcolonial’, 180-221, at p. 212.
[53] Leith, A Social History of English, p. 194.
[54] Achebe, ‘English and the African Writer’, 27-30, at p. 30.
[55] Paul, ‘The Master’s Language and Its Indian Uses’, p. 365.
[56] Bauer, An Introduction to International Varieties of English, p. 18.
[57] Graddol, English Next, p. 114.
[58] Crystal, English as a global language, p. 24.
[59] Achebe, ‘English and the African Writer’, 27-30, at p. 29.
[60] Leith, A Social History of English, p. 155.
[61] Crystal, English as a global language, p. 25.

~

Bibliography:

Primary:

  • Achebe, Chinua, ‘English and the African Writer’, Transition, 18 (1965), 27-30.
  • Kincaid, Jamaica, A Small Place (London: Virago Press, 1988).
  • Thiongo’o, Ngũgĩ wa, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers, 1986).

Secondary:

  • Bauer, Laurie, An Introduction to International Varieties of English (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002).
  • Baugh, Albert C. and Thomas Cable, A History of the English Language, 5th edn. (Oxon: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 2009).
  • Bhatt, Rakesh M., ‘World Englishes’, Annual Review of Anthropology, 30 (2001), 527-50.
  • Crystal, David, English as a global language, 2nd edn. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
  • Graddol, David, English Next (UK: The British Council, 2006).
    • The Future of English? (UK: The British Council, 1997).
  • Gramley, Stephan, The History of English: An Introduction (Oxon: Routledge, 2012).
  • Gupta, Anthea Fraser, ‘Colonisation, Migration, and Functions of English’, Englishes Around the World 1: General Studies, British Isles, North America; Studies in Honour of Manfred Görlach, ed. Edgar W. Schneider (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1997), 47-58.
  • Honey, John, Language is Power: The Story of Standard English and its Enemies (London: Faber and Faber, 1997).
  • Knowles, Gerry, A Cultural History of the English Language (London: Arnold, 1997).
  • Leith, Dick, A Social History of English (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul: 1983).
    • — ‘English – colonial to postcolonial’, English: history, diversity and change, ed. David Graddol, Dick Leith and Joan Swann (London: Routledge, 1996), 180-221.
  • Modiano, Marko, ‘Rethinking ELT’, English Today, 16/2 (April 2000), 28-34.
  • Pattanayak, D. P., ‘Change, Language and the Developing World’, Change and Language (Bristol: Multilingual Matters, 1996), 143-52.
  • Paul, Premila, ‘The Master’s Language and Its Indian Uses’, The Politics of English as a World Language: New Horizons in Postcolonial Cultural Studies, ed. Christian Mair (Amsterdam: Rodopi B.V., 2003), 359-65.
  • Pennycook, Alastair, ‘Beyond Homogeny and Heterogeny: English as a Global and Worldly Language’, The Politics of English as a World Language: New Horizons in Postcolonial Cultural Studies, ed. Christian Mair (Amsterdam: Rodopi B.V., 2003), 3-17.
  • Phillipson, Robert, Linguistic Imperialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).

© Justin Lau, 2014

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