English is named after the Angles, one of the Germanic tribes that migrated to the area of Great Britain a long time ago (Britain’s earlier inhabitants were called Celts). The words England and English both derive from Anglia, a peninsula of Germany in the Baltic Sea (even today, one of England’s regions continues to be called East Anglia).
English, as a language, has been developing for almost 1,500 years (see this site’s Anthology and Chronology of English Literature). English vocabulary has been significantly influenced by Norse (a North Germanic language), and to an even greater extent by Latin and French.
Early Modern English began in the late 15th c. with e.g., the introduction of the printing press to London, and the printing of the King James Bible. Modern English has been spreading around the world since the 17th c. by the worldwide influence of the British Empire and, by way of all types of printed and electronic media from the U.K. (and latterly, the U.S.A. too).
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01. — The History of English
This video clip provides a short (succinct) ‘satirical’ overview, but as it is published by the Open University it is also authoritative in terms of the ten eras it segments the development of the language in to. Below the video, you will find a full transcript for each of the ten periods (and/or chronological themes) covered.
Source: Open University (2011). The History of English
01. — The Norman Conquest
1066. True to his name, William the Conqueror invades Britain, bringing new concepts from across the channel like the French language, the Doomsday book and the duty free Galois’s multipack. French was de rigeur for all official business, with words like ‘judge’, ‘jury’, ‘evidence’ and ‘justice’ coming in and giving John Grisham’s career a kick-start. Latin was still used ad nauseam in Church, and the common man spoke English – able to communicate only by speaking more slowly and loudly until the others understood him. Words like ‘cow’, ‘sheep’ and ‘swine’ come from the English-speaking farmers, while the a la carte versions – ‘beef’, ‘mutton’ and ‘pork’ – come from the French-speaking toffs – beginning a long running trend for restaurants having completely indecipherable menus. The bonhomie all ended when the English nation took their new warlike lingo of ‘armies’, ‘navies’ and ‘soldiers’ and began the Hundred Years War against France. It actually lasted 116 years but by that point no one could count any higher in French and English took over as the language of power.
02. — Anglo-Saxon
The English language begins with the phrase ‘Up Yours Caesar!’ as the Romans leave Britain and a lot of Germanic tribes start flooding in, tribes such as the Angles and the Saxons – who together gave us the term Anglo-Saxon, and the Jutes – who didn’t. The Romans left some very straight roads behind, but not much of their Latin language. The Anglo-Saxon vocab was much more useful as it was mainly words for simple everyday things like ‘house’, ‘woman’, ‘loaf’ and ‘werewolf’. Four of our days of the week – Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday were named in honour of Anglo-Saxon gods, but they didn’t bother with Saturday, Sunday and Monday as they had all gone off for a long weekend. While they were away, Christian missionaries stole in bringing with them leaflets about jumble sales and more Latin. Christianity was a hit with the locals and made them much happier to take on funky new words like ‘martyr’, ‘bishop’ and ‘font’. Along came the Vikings, with their action-man words like ‘drag’, ‘ransack’, ‘thrust’ and ‘die’, and a love of pickled herring. They may have raped and pillaged but there were also into ‘give’ and ‘take’ – two of around 2000 words that they gave English, as well as the phrase ‘watch out for that man with the enormous axe.
03. — Shakespeare
As the dictionary tells us, about 2,000 new words and phrases were invented by Shakespeare. He gave us handy words like ‘eyeball’, ‘puppy-dog’ and ‘anchovy’ – and more show-offy words like ‘dauntless’, ‘besmirch’ and ‘lacklustre’. He came up with the word ‘alligator’, soon after he ran out of things to rhyme with ‘crocodile’. And a nation of tea-drinkers finally took him to their hearts when he invented the ‘hobnob’. Shakespeare knew the power of catchphrases as well as biscuits. Without him we would never eat our ‘flesh and blood’ ‘out of house and home’ – we’d have to say ‘good riddance’ to ‘the green-eyed monster’ and ‘breaking the ice’ would be ‘as dead as a doornail’. If you tried to get your ‘money’s worth’ you’d be given ‘short shrift’ and anyone who ‘laid it on with a trowel’ could be ‘hoist with his own petard’. Of course it is possible other people used these words first, but the dictionary writers liked looking them up in Shakespeare because there was more cross-dressing and people poking each other’s eyes out. Shakespeare’s poetry showed the world that English was a language as rich vibrant language with limitless expressive and emotional power. And he still had time to open all those tearooms in Stratford.
04. — The King James Bible
In 1611 ‘the powers that be’ ‘turned the world upside down’ with a ‘labour of love’ – a new translation of the bible. A team of scribes with the ‘wisdom of Solomon’ – ‘went the extra mile’ to make King James’s translation ‘all things to all men’, whether from their ‘heart’s desire’ ‘to fight the good fight’ or just for the ‘filthy lucre’. This sexy new Bible went ‘from strength to strength’, getting to ‘the root of the matter’ in a language even ‘the salt of the earth’ could understand. ‘The writing wasn’t on the wall’, it was in handy little books and with ‘fire and brimstone’ preachers reading from it in every church, its words and phrases ‘took root’ ‘to the ends of the earth’ – well at least the ends of Britain. The King James Bible is the book that taught us that ‘a leopard cannot change its spots’, that ‘a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’, that ‘a wolf in sheep’s clothing’ is harder to spot than you would imagine, and how annoying it is to have ‘a fly in your ointment’. In fact, just as ‘Jonathan begat Meribbaal; and Meribbaal begat Micah. And Micah begat Pithon’, the King James Bible begat a whole glossary of metaphor and morality that still shapes the way English is spoken today. Amen
05. — The English of Science
Before the 17th c. scientists weren’t really recognised – possibly because lab-coats had yet to catch on. But suddenly Britain was full of physicists – there was Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle – and even some people not called Robert, like Isaac Newton. The Royal Society was formed out of the Invisible College – after they put it down somewhere and couldn’t find it again. At first they worked in Latin. After sitting through Newton’s story about the ‘pomum’ falling to the ‘terra’ from the ‘arbor’ for the umpteenth time, the bright sparks realised they all spoke English and could transform our understanding of the universe much quicker by talking in their own language. But science was discovering things faster than they could name them. Words like ‘acid’, ‘gravity’, ‘electricity and ‘pendulum’ had to be invented just to stop their meetings turning into an endless game of charades. Like teenage boys, the scientists suddenly became aware of the human body – coining new words like ‘cardiac’ and ‘tonsil’, ‘ovary’, and ‘sternum’ – and the invention of ‘penis’ (1693), ‘vagina’ (1682) made sex education classes a bit easier to follow. Though and ‘clitoris’ was still a source of confusion.
06. — English and Empire
With English making its name as the language of science, the Bible and Shakespeare, Britain decided to take it on tour. Asking only for land, wealth, natural resources, total obedience to the crown and a few local words in return. They went to the Caribbean looking for gold and a chance to really unwind – discovering the ‘barbeque’, the ‘canoe’ and a pretty good recipe for rum punch. They also brought back the word ‘cannibal’ to make their trip sound more exciting. In India there was something for everyone. ‘Yoga’ – to help you stay in shape, while pretending to be spiritual. If that didn’t work there was the ‘cummerbund’ to hide a paunch and – if you couldn’t even make it up the stairs without turning ‘crimson’ – they had the ‘bungalow’. Meanwhile in Africa they picked up words like ‘voodoo’ and ‘zombie’ – kicking off the teen horror film – and even more terrifying, they brought home the world’s two most annoying musical instruments – the ‘bongo’ and the ‘banjo’. From Australia, English took the words ‘nugget’, ‘boomerang’ and ‘walkabout’ – and in fact the whole concept of chain pubs. Between toppling Napoleon (1815) and the first World War (1914), the British Empire gobbled up around 10 millions square miles, 400 million people and nearly a hundred thousand gin and tonics, leaving new varieties of English to develop all over the globe.
07. — The Age of the Dictionary
With English expanding in all directions, along came a new breed of men called lexicographers, who wanted to put an end to this anarchy – a word they defined as ‘what happens when people spell words slightly differently from each other’. One of the greatest was Doctor Johnson, whose ‘Dictionary of the English Language’ which took him 9 years to write. It was 18 inches tall and 20 inches wide – and contained 42,773 entries – meaning that even if you couldn’t read, it was still pretty useful if you wanted to reach a high shelf. For the first time, when people were calling you ‘a pickle herring’ (a jack-pudding; a merryandrew; a zany; a buffoon), a ‘jobbernowl (loggerhead; blockhead) or a ‘fopdoodle’ (a fool; an insignificant wretch) – you could understand exactly what they meant – and you’d have the consolation of knowing they all used the standard spelling. Try as he might to stop them, words kept being invented and in 1857 a new book was started which would become the Oxford English Dictionary. It took another 70 years to be finished after the first editor resigned to be an Archbishop, the second died of TB and the third was so boring that half his volunteers quit and one of the ended up in an Asylum. It eventually appeared in 1928 and has continued to be revised ever since – proving the whole idea that you can stop people making up words is complete snuffbumble.
08. — American English
From the moment Brits landed in America they needed names for all the plants and animals so they borrowed words like ‘raccoon’, ‘squash’ and ‘moose’ from the Native Americans, as well as most of their territory. Waves of immigrants fed America’s hunger for words. The Dutch came sharing ‘coleslaw’ and ‘cookies’ – probably as a result of their relaxed attitude to drugs. Later, the Germans arrived selling ‘pretzels’ from ‘delicatessens’ and the Italians arrived with their ‘pizza’, their ‘pasta’ and their ‘mafia’, just like mamma used to make. America spread a new language of capitalism – getting everyone worried about the ‘breakeven’ and ‘the bottom line’, and whether they were ‘blue chip’ or ‘white collar’. The commuter needed a whole new system of ‘freeways’, ‘subways’ and ‘parking lots’ – and quickly, before words like ‘merger’ and ‘downsizing’ could be invented. American English drifted back across the pond as Brits ‘got the hang of’ their ‘cool movies’, and their ‘groovy’ ‘jazz’. There were even some old forgotten English words that lived on in America. So they carried on using ‘fall’, ‘faucets’, ‘diapers’ and ‘candy’, while the Brits moved on to ‘autumn’, ‘taps’, ‘nappies’ and NHS dental care.
09. — Internet English
In 1972 the first email was sent. Soon the Internet arrived – a free global space to share information, ideas and amusing pictures of cats. Before then English changed through people speaking it – but the net brought typing back into fashion and hundreds of cases of repetitive strain syndrome. Nobody had ever had to ” anything before, let alone use a ‘toolbar’ – And the only time someone set up a ‘firewall’, it ended with a massive insurance claim and a huge pile of charred wallpaper. Conversations were getting shorter than the average attention span – why bother writing a sentence when an abbreviation would do and leave you more time to ‘blog’, ‘poke’ and ‘reboot’ when your ‘hard drive’ crashed? ‘In my humble opinion’ became ‘IMHO, ‘by the way’ became ‘BTW and ‘if we’re honest that life-threatening accident was pretty hilarious!’ simply became ‘fail’. Some changes even passed into spoken English. For your information people frequently asked questions like “how can ‘LOL’ mean ‘laugh out loud’ and ‘lots of love’? But if you’re going to complain about that then UG2BK.
10. — Global English
In the 1500 years since the Roman’s left Britain, English has shown an unique ability to absorb, evolve, invade and, if we’re honest, steal. After foreign settlers got it started, it grew into a fully-fledged language all of its own, before leaving home and travelling the world, first via the high seas, then via the high speed broadband connection, pilfering words from over 350 languages and establishing itself as a global institution. All this despite a written alphabet that bears no correlation to how it sounds and a system of spelling that even Dan Brown couldn’t decipher. Right now around 1.5 billion people now speak English. Of these about a quarter are native speakers, a quarter speak it as their second language, and half are able to ask for directions to a swimming pool. Modern hybrids of English have really caught on. There’s Hinglish – which is Hindi-English, Chinglish – which is Chinese-English and Singlish – which is Singaporean English – and not that bit when they speak in musicals. So in conclusion, the language has got so little to do with England these days it may well be time to stop calling it ‘English’. But if someone does think up a new name for it, it should probably be in Chinese.
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02. — The Persistence of English
If you measure the success of a language in purely quantitative terms, English is entering the twenty-first century at the moment of its greatest triumph. It has between 400 and 450 million native speakers, perhaps 300 million more who speak it as a second language—well enough, that is, to use it in their daily lives—and somewhere between 500 and 750 million who speak it as a foreign language with various degrees of fluency. The resulting total of between 1.2 billion and 1.5 billion speakers, or roughly a quarter of the world’s population, gives English more speakers than any other language (though Chinese has more native speakers). Then, too, English is spoken over a much wider geographical area than any other language and is the predominant lingua franca of most fields of international activity, such as diplomacy, business, travel, science, and technology.
But figures like these can obscure a basic question: what exactly do we mean when we talk about the “English language” in the first place? There is, after all, an enormous range of variation in the forms of speech that go by the name of English in the various parts of the world—or often, even within the speech of a single nation—and it is not obvious why we should think of all of these as belonging to a single language. Indeed, there are some linguists who prefer to talk about “world Englishes,” in the plural, with the implication that these varieties may not have much more to unite them than a single name and a common historical origin.
To the general public, these reservations may be hard to understand; people usually assume that languages are natural kinds like botanical species, whose boundaries are matters of scientific fact. But as linguists observe, there is nothing in the forms of English themselves that tells us that it is a single language. It may be that the varieties called “English” have a great deal of vocabulary and structure in common and that English-speakers can usually manage to make themselves understood to one another, more or less (though films produced in one part of the English-speaking world often have to be dubbed or subtitled to make them intelligible to audiences in another).
But there are many cases where we find linguistic varieties that are mutually intelligible and grammatically similar, but where speakers nonetheless identify separate languages—for example, Danish and Norwegian, Czech and Slovak, or Dutch and Afrikaans. And on the other hand, there are cases where speakers identify varieties as belonging to a single language even though they are linguistically quite distant from one another: the various “dialects” of Chinese are more different from one another than the Latin offshoots that we identify now as French, Italian, Spanish, and so forth.
Philosophers sometimes compare languages to games, and the analogy is apt here, as well. Trying to determine whether American English and British English or Dutch and Afrikaans are “the same language” is like trying to determine whether baseball and softball are “the same game”—it is not something you can find out just by looking at their rules. It is not surprising, then, that linguists should throw up their hands when someone asks them to determine on linguistic grounds alone whether two varieties belong to a single language. That, they answer, is a political or social determination, not a linguistic one, and they usually go on to cite a well-known quip: “a language is just a dialect with an army and a navy.”
There is something to this remark. Since the eighteenth century, it has been widely believed that every nation deserved to have its own language, and declarations of political independence have often been followed by declarations of linguistic independence. Until recently, for example, the collection of similar language varieties that were spoken in most of central Yugoslavia was regarded as a single language, Serbo-Croatian, but once the various regions became independent, their inhabitants began to speak of Croatian, Serbian, and Bosnian as separate languages, even though they are mutually comprehensible and grammatically almost identical.
The English language has avoided this fate (though on occasion it has come closer to breaking up than most people realize). But the unity of a language is never a foregone conclusion. In any speech-community, there are forces always at work to create new differences and varieties: the geographic and social separation of speech-communities, their distinct cultural and practical interests, their contact with other cultures and other languages, and, no less important, a universal fondness for novelty for its own sake, and a desire to speak differently from one’s parents or the people in the next town. Left to function on their own, these centrifugal pressures can rapidly lead to the linguistic fragmentation of the speech-community. That is what happened, for example, to the vulgar (that is, “popular”) Latin of the late Roman Empire, which devolved into hundreds or thousands of separate dialects (the emergence of the eight or ten standard varieties that we now think of as the Romance languages was a much later development).
Maintaining the unity of a language over an extended time and space, then, requires a more or less conscious determination by its speakers that they have certain communicative interests in common that make it worthwhile to try to curb or modulate the natural tendency to fragmentation and isolation. This determination can be realized in a number of ways. The speakers of a language may decide to use a common spelling system even when dialects become phonetically distinct, to defer to the same set of literary models, to adopt a common format for their dictionaries and grammars, or to make instruction in the standard language a part of the general school curriculum, all of which the English-speaking world has done to some degree. Or in some other places, the nations of the linguistic community may establish academies or other state institutions charged with regulating the use of the language, and even go so far as to publish lists of words that are unacceptable for use in the press or in official publications, as the French government has done in recent years. Most important, the continuity of the language rests on speakers’ willingness to absorb the linguistic and cultural influences of other parts of the linguistic community.
THE EMERGENCE OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE
To recount the history of a language, then, is not simply to trace the development of its various sounds, words, and constructions. Seen from that exclusively linguistic point of view, there would be nothing to distinguish the evolution of Anglo-Saxon into the varieties of modern English from the evolution of Latin into modern French, Italian, and so forth—we would not be able to tell, that is, why English continued to be considered a single language while the Romance languages did not. We also have to follow the play of centrifugal and centripetal forces that kept the language always more or less a unity—the continual process of creation of new dialects and varieties, the countervailing rise of new standards and of mechanisms aimed at maintaining the linguistic center of gravity.
Histories of the English language usually put its origin in the middle of the fifth century, when several Germanic peoples first landed in the place we now call England and began to displace the local inhabitants, the Celts. There is no inherent linguistic reason why we should locate the beginning of the language at this time, rather than with the Norman Conquest of 1066 or in the fourteenth century, say, and in fact the determination that English began with the Anglo-Saxon period was not generally accepted until the nineteenth century. But this point of view has been to a certain extent self-justifying, if only because it has led to the addition of Anglo-Saxon works to the canon of English literature, where they remain. Languages are constructions over time as well as over space.
Wherever we place the beginnings of English, though, there was never a time when the language was not diverse. The Germanic peoples who began to arrive in England in the fifth century belonged to a number of distinct tribes, each with its own dialect, and tended to settle in different parts of the country—the Saxons in the southwest, the Angles in the east and north, the Jutes (and perhaps some Franks) in Kent. These differences were the first source of the distinct dialects of the language we now refer to as AngloSaxon or Old English. As time went by, the linguistic divisions were reinforced by geography and by the political fragmentation of the country, and later, through contact with the Vikings who had settled the eastern and northern parts of England in the eighth through eleventh centuries.
Throughout this period, though, there were also forces operating to consolidate the language of England. Over the centuries, cultural and political dominance passed from Northumbria in the north to Mercia in the center and then to Wessex in the southwest, where a literary standard emerged in the ninth century, owing in part to the unification of the kingdom and in part to the singular efforts of Alfred the Great (849–899), who encouraged literary production in English and himself translated Latin works into the language. The influence of these standards and the frequent communication between the regions worked to level many of the dialect differences. There is a striking example of the process in the hundreds of everyday words derived from the language of the Scandinavian settlers, which include dirt, lift, sky, skin, die, birth, weak, seat, and want. All of these spread to general usage from the northern and eastern dialects in which they were first introduced, an indication of how frequent and ordinary were the contacts among the Anglo-Saxons of various parts of the country—and initially, between the Anglo-Saxons and the Scandinavians themselves. (By contrast, the Celtic peoples that the Anglo-Saxons had displaced made relatively few contributions to the language, apart from place-names like Thames, Avon, and Dover.)
The Anglo-Saxon period came to an abrupt end with the Norman Conquest of 1066. With the introduction of a French-speaking ruling class, the written use of English was greatly reduced for 150 years. English did not reappear extensively in written records until the beginning of the thirteenth century, and even then it was only one of the languages of a multilingual community: French was widely used for another two hundred years or so (Parliament was conducted in French until 1362), and Latin was the predominant language of scholarship until the Renaissance. The English language that re-emerged in this period was considerably changed from the language of Alfred’s period. Its grammar was simplified, continuing a process already under way before the Conquest, and its vocabulary was enriched by thousands of French loan words. Not surprisingly, given the preeminent role of French among the elite, these included the language of government (majesty, state, rebel); of religion (pastor, ordain, temptation); of fashion and social life (button, adorn, dinner); and of art, literature, and medicine (painting, chapter, paper, physician). But the breadth of French influence was not limited to those domains; it also provided simple words like move, aim, join, solid, chief, clear, air, and very. All of this left the language sufficiently different from Old English to warrant describing it with the name of Middle English, though we should bear in mind that language change is always gradual and that the division of English into neat periods is chiefly a matter of scholarly convenience.
Middle English was as varied a language as Old English was: Chaucer wrote in Troilus and Criseyde that “ther is so gret diversite in Englissh” that he was fearful that the text would be misread in other parts of the country. It was only in the fifteenth century or so that anything like a standard language began to emerge, based in the speech of the East Midlands and in particular of London, which reflected the increased centralization of political and economic power in that region. Even then, though, dialect differences remained strong; the scholar John Palsgrave complained in 1540 that the speech of university students was tainted by “the rude language used in their native countries [i.e., counties],” which left them unable to express themselves in their “vulgar tongue.”
The language itself continued to change as it moved into what scholars describe as the Early Modern English period, which for convenience’s sake we can date from the year 1500. Around this time, it began to undergo the Great Vowel Shift, as the long vowels engaged in an intricate dance that left them with new phonetic values. (In Chaucer’s time, the word bite had been pronounced roughly as “beet,” beet as “bate,” name as “nahm,” and so forth.) The grammar was changing as well; for example, the pronoun thee began to disappear, as did the verbal suffix-eth, and the modern form of questions began to emerge: in place of “See you that house?” people began to say “Do you see that house?” Most significantly, at least so far as contemporary observers were concerned, the Elizabethans and their successors coined thousands of new words based on Latin and Greek in an effort to make English an adequate replacement for Latin in the writing of philosophy, science, and literature. Many of these words now seem quite ordinary to us—for example, accommodation, frugal, obscene, premeditated, and submerge, all of which are recorded for the first time in Shakespeare’s works. A large proportion of these linguistic experiments, though, never gained a foothold in the language—for example, illecebrous for “delicate,” deruncinate for “to weed,” obtestate for “call on,” or Shakespeare’s disquantity to mean “diminish.” Indeed, some contemporaries ridiculed the pretension and obscurity of these “inkhorn words” in terms that sound very like modern criticisms of bureaucratic and corporate jargon—the rhetorician Thomas Wilson wrote in 1540 of the writers who affected “outlandish English” such that “if some of their mothers were alive, they were not able to tell what they say.” But this effect was inevitable: The additions to the standard language that made it a suitable vehicle for art and scholarship could only increase the linguistic distance between the written language used by the educated classes and the spoken language used by other groups.
DICTIONARIES AND RULES
These were essentially growing pains for the standard language, which continued to gain ground in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, abetted by a number of developments: the ever-increasing dominance of London and the Southeast, the growth in social and geographic mobility, and in particular the introduction and spread of print, which led both to higher levels of literacy and schooling and to the gradual standardization of English spelling. But even as this process was going on, other developments were both creating new distinctions and investing existing ones with a new importance. For one thing, people were starting to pay more attention to accents based on social class, rather than region, an understandable preoccupation as social mobility increased and speech became a more important indicator of social background. Not surprisingly, the often imperfect efforts of the emerging middle class to speak and dress like their social superiors occasioned some ridicule; Thomas Gainsford wrote in 1616 of the “foppish mockery” of commoners who tried to imitate gentlemen by altering “habit, manner of life, conversation, and even their phrase of speech.” Yet even the upper classes were paying more attention to speech as a social indicator than they had in previous ages; as one writer put it, “it is a pitty when a Noble man is better distinguished from a Clowne by his golden laces, than by his good language.” (Shakespeare plays on this theme in 1 Henry IV [3.1.250, 257–58] when he has Hotspur tease his wife for swearing too daintily, which makes her sound like “a comfitmaker’s wife,” rather than “like a lady as thou art,” who swears with “a good mouth-filling oath.”)
Over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, print began to exercise a paradoxical effect on the perception of the language: even as it was serving to codify the standard, it was also making people more aware of variation and more anxious about its consequences. This was largely the result of the growing importance of print, as periodicals, novels, and other new forms became increasingly influential in shaping public opinion, together with the perception that the contributors to the print discourse were drawn from a wider range of backgrounds than in previous periods. As Samuel Johnson wrote: “The present age . . . may be styled, with great propriety, the Age of Authors; for, perhaps, there was never a time when men of all degrees of ability, of every kind of education, of every profession and employment were posting with ardor so general to the press….” This anxiety about the language was behind the frequent eighteenthcentury lamentations that English was “unruled,” “barbarous,” or, as Johnson put it, “copious without order, and energetick without rule.” Some writers looked for a remedy in public institutions modeled on the French Academy. This idea was advocated by John Dryden, Daniel Defoe, Joseph Addison, and most notably by Jonathan Swift, in a 1712 pamphlet called A Proposal for Correcting, Improving, and Ascertaining [i.e., “fixing”] the English Tongue, which did receive some official attention from the Tory government. But the idea was dropped as a Tory scheme when the Whigs came to power two years later, and by the middle of the eighteenth century, there was wide agreement among all parties that an academy would be an unwarranted intervention in the free conduct of public discourse. Samuel Johnson wrote in the Preface to his Dictionary of 1775 that he hoped that “the spirit of English liberty will hinder or destroy” any attempt to set up an academy; and the scientist and radical Joseph Priestly called such an institution “unsuitable to the genius of a free nation.”
The rejection of the idea of an academy was to be important in the subsequent development of the language. From that time forward, it was clear that the state was not to play a major role in regulating and reforming the language, whether in England or in the other nations of the language community—a characteristic that makes English different from many other languages. (In languages like French and German, for example, spelling reforms can be introduced by official commissions charged with drawing up rules which are then adopted in all textbooks and official publications, a procedure that would be unthinkable in any of the nations of the English-speaking world.) Instead, the task of determining standards was left to private citizens, whose authority rested on their ability to gain general public acceptance. The eighteenth century saw an enormous growth in the number of grammars and handbooks, which formulated most of the principles of correct English that, for better or worse, are still with us today—the rules for using who and whom, for example, the injunction against constructions like “very unique,” and the curious prejudice against the split infinitive. Even more important was the development of the modern English dictionary. Before 1700, English speakers had to make do with alphabetical lists of “hardwords,” a bit like the vocabulary improvement books that are still frequent today; it was only in the early 1700s that scholars began to produce anything like a comprehensive dictionary in the modern sense, a process that culminated in the publication of Samuel Johnson’s magisterial Dictionary of 1755. It would be hard to argue that these dictionaries did much in fact to reduce variation or to arrest the process of linguistic change (among the words that Johnson objected to, for example, were belabor, budge, cajole, coax, doff, gambler, and job, all of which have since become part of the standard language). But they did serve to ease the sense of linguistic crisis, by providing a structure for describing the language and points of reference for resolving disputes about grammar and meaning. And while both the understanding of language and the craft of lexicography have made a great deal of progress since Johnson’s time, the form of the English-language dictionary is still pretty much as he laid it down. (In this regard, Johnson’s Dictionary is likely to present a much more familiar appearance to a modern reader than his poetry or periodical essays.)
THE DIFFUSION OF ENGLISH
The Modern English period saw the rise of another sort of variation, as well, as English began to spread over an increasingly larger area. By Shakespeare’s time, English was displacing the Celtic languages in Wales, Cornwall, and Scotland, and then in Ireland, where the use of Irish was brutally repressed on the assumption—in retrospect a remarkably obtuse one—that people who were forced to become English in tongue would soon become English in loyalty as well. People in these new parts of the English-speaking world—a term we can begin to use in this period, for English was no longer the language of a single country—naturally used the language in accordance with their own idiom and habits of thought and mixed it with words drawn from the Celtic languages, a number of which eventually entered the speech of the larger linguistic community, for example, baffle, bun, clan, crag, drab, galore, hubbub, pet, slob, slogan, and trousers.
The development of the language in the New World followed the same process of differentiation. English settlers in North America rapidly developed their own characteristic forms of speech. They retained a number of words that had fallen into disuse in England (din, clod, trash, and fall for autumn) and gave old words new senses (like corn, which in England meant simply “grain,” or creek, originally “an arm of the sea”). They borrowed freely from the other languages they came in contact with. By the time of the American Revolution, the colonists had already taken chowder, cache, prairie, and bureau from French; noodle and pretzel from German; cookie, boss, and scow and yankee from the Dutch; and moose, skunk, chipmunk, succotash, toboggan, and tomahawk from various Indian languages. And they coined new words with abandon. Some of these answered to their specific needs and interests—for example, squatter, clearing, foothill, watershed, congressional, sidewalk—but there were thousands of others that had no close connection to the American experience as such, many of which were ultimately adopted by the other varieties of English. Belittle, influential,reliable, comeback, lengthy, turn down, make good—all of these were originally American creations; they and other words like them indicate how independently the language was developing in the New World.
This process was repeated wherever English took root—in India, Africa, the Far East, the Caribbean, and Australia and New Zealand; by the late nineteenth century, English bore thousands of souvenirs of its extensive travels. From Africa (sometimes via Dutch) came words like banana, boorish, palaver, gorilla, and guinea; from the aboriginal languages of Australia came wombat and kangaroo; from the Caribbean languages came cannibal, hammock, potato, and canoe; and from the languages of India came bangle, bungalow, chintz, cot, dinghy, jungle, loot, pariah, pundit, and thug. And even lists like these are misleading, since they include only words that worked their way into the general English vocabulary and don’t give a sense of the thousands of borrowings and coinages that were used only locally. Nor do they touch on the variation in grammar from one variety to the next. This kind of variation occurs everywhere, but it is particularly marked in regions like the Caribbean and Africa, where the local varieties of English are heavily influenced by English-based creoles—that is, language varieties that use English-based vocabulary with grammars largely derived from spoken—in this case, African—languages. This is the source, for example, of a number of the distinctive syntactic features of the variety used by many inner-city African Americans, like the “invariant be” of sentences like We be living in Chicago, which signals a state of affairs that holds for an extended period. (Some linguists have suggested that Middle English, in fact, could be thought of as a kind of creolised French.)
The growing importance of these new forms of English, particularly in America, presented a new challenge to the unity of the language. Until the eighteenth century, English was still thought of as essentially a national language. It might be spoken in various other nations and colonies under English control, but it was nonetheless rooted in the speech of England and subject to a single standard. Not surprisingly, Americans came to find this picture uncongenial, and when the United States first declared its independence from Britain, there was a strong sentiment for declaring that “American,” too, should be recognized as a separate language. This was the view held by John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and above all by America’s first and greatest lexicographer, Noah Webster, who argued that American culture would naturally come to take a distinct form in the soil of the New World, free from what he described as “the old feudal and hierarchical establishments of England.” And if a language was naturally the product and reflection of a national culture, then Americans could scarcely continue to speak “English.” As Webster wrote in 1789: “Culture, habits, and language, as well as government should be national. America should have her own distinct from the rest of the world. …” It was in the interest of symbolically distinguishing American from English that Webster introduced a variety of spelling changes, such as honor and favor for honour and favour, theater for theatre, traveled for travelled, and so forth—a procedure that new nations often adopt when they want to make their variety of a language look different from its parent tongue.
In fact Webster’s was by no means an outlandish suggestion. Even at the time of American independence, the linguistic differences between America and Britain were as great as those that separate many languages today, and the differences would have become much more salient if Americans had systematically adopted all of the spelling reforms that Webster at one time proposed, such as wurd, reezon, tung, iz, and so forth, which would ultimately have left English and American looking superficially no more similar than German and Dutch. Left to develop on their own, English and American might soon have gone their separate ways, perhaps paving the way for the separation of the varieties of English used in other parts of the world.
In the end, of course, the Americans and British decided that neither their linguistic nor their cultural and political differences warranted recognizing distinct languages. Webster himself conceded the point in 1828, when he entitled his magnum opus An American Dictionary of the English Language. And by 1862 the English novelist Anthony Trollope could write: An American will perhaps consider himself to be as little like an Englishman as he is like a Frenchman. But he reads Shakespeare through the medium of his own vernacular, and has to undergo the penance of a foreign tongue before he can understand Molie’re. He separates himself from England in politics and perhaps in affection; but he cannot separate himself from England in mental culture.
ENGLISH AND ENGLISHNESS
This was a crucial point of transition, which set the English language on a very different course from most of the European languages, where the association of language and national culture was being made more strongly than ever before. But the detachment of English from Englishness did not take place overnight. For Trollope and his Victorian contemporaries, the “mental culture” of the English-speaking world was still a creation of England, the embodiment of English social and political values. “The English language,” said G. C. Swayne in 1862, “is like the English constitution … and perhaps also the English Church, full of inconsistencies and anomalies, yet flourishing in defiance of theory.” The monumental Oxford English Dictionary that the Victorians undertook was conceived in this patriotic spirit. In the words of Archbishop Richard Chevenix Trench, one of the guiding spirits of the OED project:
We could scarcely have a lesson on the growth of our English tongue, we could scarcely follow upon one of its significant words, without having unawares a lesson in English history as well, without not merely falling upon some curious fact illustrative of our national life, but learning also how the great heart which is beating at the centre of that life,was being gradually shaped and moulded.
It was this conception of the significance of the language that led, too, to the insistence that the origin of the English language should properly be located in Anglo-Saxon, rather than in the thirteenth or fourteenth century, as scholars argued that contemporary English laws and institutions could be traced to a primordial “Anglo-Saxon spirit” in an almost racial line of descent, and that the Anglo-Saxon language was “immediately connected with the original introduction and establishment of their present language and their laws, their liberty, and their religion.”
This view of English as the repository of “Anglo-Saxon” political ideals had its appeal in America, as well, particularly in the first decades of the twentieth century, when the crusade to “Americanize” recent immigrants led a number of states to impose severe restrictions on the use of other languages in schools, newspapers, and public meetings, a course that was often justified on the grounds that only speakers of English were in a position to fully appreciate the nuances of democratic thought. As a delegate to a New York State constitutional convention in 1916 put the point: “You have got to learn our language because that is the vehicle of the thought that has been handed down from the men in whose breasts first burned the fire of freedom at the signing of the Magna Carta.”
But this view of the language is untenable on both linguistic and historical grounds. It is true that the nations of the English-speaking world have a common political heritage that makes itself known in similar legal systems and an (occasionally shaky) predilection for democratic forms of government. But while there is no doubt that the possession of a common language has helped to reinforce some of these connections, it is not responsible for them. Languages do work to create a common worldview, but not at such a specific level. Words like democracy move easily from one language to the next, along with the concepts they name—a good thing for the English-speaking world, since a great many of those ideals of “English democracy,” as the writer calls it, owe no small debt to thinkers in Greece, Italy, France, Germany, and a number of other places, and those ideals have been established in many nations that speak languages other than English. (13th c. England was one of them. We should bear in mind that the Magna Carta that people sometimes like to mention in this context was a Latin document issued by a French-speaking king to French-speaking barons.) For that matter, there are English-speaking nations where democratic institutions have not taken root—nor should we take their continuing health for granted even in the core nations of the English-speaking world.
In the end, the view of English as the repository of Englishness has the effect of marginalizing or disenfranchising large parts of the English speaking world, particularly those who do not count the political and cultural imposition of Englishness as an unmixed blessing. In most of the places where English has been planted, after all, it has had the British flag flying above it. And for many nations, it has been hard to slough off the sense of English as a colonial language. There is a famous passage in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, for example, where Stephen Daedelus says of the speech of an English-born dean, “The language in which we are speaking is his not mine,” and there are still many people in Ireland and other parts of the English-speaking world who have mixed feelings about the English language: they may use and even love English, but they resent it, too.
Today the view of English as an essentially English creation is impossible to sustain even on purely linguistic grounds; the influences of the rest of the English-speaking world have simply been too great. Already in Trollope’s time there were vociferous complaints in England about the growing use of Americanisms, a sign that the linguistic balance of payments between the two communities was tipping westward, and a present-day English writer would have a hard time producing a single paragraph that contained no words that originated in other parts of the linguistic community. Nor, what is more important, could you find a modern British or North American writer whose work was not heavily influenced, directly or indirectly, by the literature of the rest of the linguistic community, particularly after the extraordinary twentieth-century efflorescence of the English-language literatures of other parts of the world. Trying to imagine modern English literature without the contributions of writers like Yeats, Shaw, Joyce, Beckett, Heaney, Walcott, Lessing, Gordimer, Rushdie, Achebe, and Naipaul (to take only some of the writers who are included in this collection) is like trying to imagine an “English” cuisine that made no use of potatoes, tomatoes, corn, noodles, eggplant, olive oil, almonds, bay leaf, curry, or pepper.
THE FEATURES OF “STANDARD ENGLISH”
Where should we look, then, for the common “mental culture” that English speakers share? This is always a difficult question to answer, partly because the understanding of the language changes from one place and time to the next, and partly because it is hard to say just what sorts of things languages are in the abstract. For all that we may want to think of the English-speaking world as a single community united by a common worldview, it is not a social group comparable to a tribe or people or nation—the sorts of groups that can easily evoke the first-person plural pronoun we. (Americans and Australians do not travel around saying “We gave the world Shakespeare,” even though one might think that as paid-up members of the English-speaking community they would be entirely within their rights to do so.) But we can get some sense of the ties that connect the members of the English-speaking community by starting with the language itself—not just in its forms and rules, but in the centripetal forces spoken of earlier. Forces like these are operating in every language community, it’s true, but what gives each language its unique character is the way they are realized, the particular institutions and cultural commonalties which work to smooth differences and create a basis for continued communication—which ensure, in short, that English will continue as a single language, rather than break up into a collection of dialects that are free to wander wherever they will. People often refer to this basis for communication as “Standard English,” but that term is misleading. There are many linguistic communities that do have a genuine standard variety, a fixed and invariant form of the language that is used for certain kinds of communication. But that notion of the standard would be unsuitable to a language like English, which recognizes no single cultural center and has to allow for a great deal of variation even in the language of published texts. (It is rare to find a single page of an English language novel or newspaper that does not reveal what nation it was written in.) What English does have, rather, is a collection of standard features—of spelling, of grammar, and of word use—which taken together ensure that certain kinds of communication will be more or less comprehensible in any part of the language community.
The standard features of English are as notable for what they don’t contain as for what they do. One characteristic of English, for example, is that it has no standard pronunciation. People pronounce the language according to whatever their regional practice happens to be, and while certain pronunciations may be counted as “good” or “bad” according to local standards, there are no general rules about this, the way there are in French or Italian. (Some New Yorkers may be stigmatised for pronouncing words like car and bard as ‘kah’ and ‘bahd’, but roughly the same r-less pronunciation is standard in parts of the American South and in England, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.) In this sense, “standard English” exists only as a written language. Of course there is some variation in the rules of written English, as well, such as the American spellings that Webster introduced, but these are relatively minor and tend to date from earlier periods. A particular speech-community can pronounce the words half or car however it likes, but it can’t unilaterally change the way the words are spelled. Indeed, this is one of the unappreciated advantages of the notoriously irregular English spelling system—it is so plainly unphonetic that there’s no temptation to take it as codifying any particular spoken variety. When you want to define a written standard in a linguistic community that embraces no one standard accent, it’s useful to have a spelling system that doesn’t tip its hand.
The primacy of the written language is evident in the standard English vocabulary, too, if only indirectly. The fact is that English as such does not give us a complete vocabulary for talking about the world, but only for certain kinds of topics. If you want to talk about vegetables in English, for example, you have to choose among the usages common in one or another region: Depending on where you do your shopping, you will talk about rutabagas, scallions, and string beans or Swedes, spring onions, and French beans. That is, you can only talk about vegetables in your capacity as an American, an Englishman, or whatever, not in your capacity as an English-speaker in general. And similarly for fashion (sweater vs. jumper, bobby pin vs. hair grip, vest vs. waistcoat), for car parts (hood vs. bonnet, trunk vs. boot), and for food, sport, transport, and furniture, among many other things.
The English-language vocabulary is much more standardized, though, in other areas of the lexicon. We have a large common vocabulary for talking about aspects of our social and moral life—blatant, vanity, smug, indifferent, and the like. We have a common repertory of grammatical constructions and “signpost” expressions—for example, adverbs like arguably, literally, and of course—which we use to organize our discourse and tell readers how to interpret it. And there is a large number of common words for talking about the language itself—for example, slang, usage, jargon, succinct, and literate. (It is striking how many of these words are particular to English. No other language has an exact synonym for slang, for example, or a single word that covers the territory that literate covers in English, from “able to read and write” to “knowledgeable or educated.”)
The common “core vocabulary” of English is not limited to these notions, of course—for example, it includes as well the thousands of technical and scientific terms that are in use throughout the English-speaking world, like global warming and penicillin, which for obvious reasons are not particularly susceptible to cultural variation. Nor would it be accurate to say that the core vocabulary includes all the words we use to refer to our language or to our social and moral life, many of which have a purely local character. But the existence of a core vocabulary of common English words, as fuzzy as it may prove to be, is an indication of the source of our cultural commonalities.
What is notable about words like blatant, arguably, and succinct is that their meanings are defined by reference to our common literature, and in particular to the usage of what the eighteenth-century philosopher George Campbell described as “authors of reputation”—writers whose authority is determined by “the esteem of the public.” We would not take the usage of Ezra Pound or Bernard Shaw as authoritative in deciding what words like sweater or rutabaga mean—they could easily have been wrong about either—but their precedents carry a lot of weight when we come to talking about the meaning of blatant and succinct. In fact the body of English-language “authors of reputation” couldn’t be wrong about the meanings of words like these, since it is their usage by these authors that collectively determines what these words mean. And for purposes of defining these words it does not matter where a writer is from. The American Heritage Dictionary, for example, uses citations from the Irish writer Samuel Beckett to illustrate the meanings of exasperate and impulsion, from the Persian-born Doris Lessing, raised in southern Africa, to illustrate the meaning of efface, and from the Englishman E. M. Forster to illustrate the meaning of solitude; and dictionaries from other communities feel equally free to draw on the whole of English literature to illustrate the meanings of the words of the common vocabulary.
It is this strong connection between our common language and our common literature that gives both the language and the linguistic community their essential unity. Late in the eighteenth century, Samuel Johnson said that Britain had become “a nation of readers,” by which he meant not just that people were reading more than ever before, but that participation in the written discourse of English had become in some sense constitutive of the national identity. And while the English-speaking world and its ongoing conversation can no longer be identified with a single nation, that world is still very much a community of readers in this sense. Historically, at least, we use the language in the same way because we read and talk about the same books—not all the same books, of course, but a loose and shifting group of works that figure as points of reference for our use of language.
This sense of the core vocabulary based on a common literature is intimately connected to the linguistic culture that English-speakers share—the standards, beliefs, and institutions that keep the various written dialects of the language from flying apart. The English dictionary is a good example. It is true that each part of the linguistic community requires its own dictionaries, given the variation in vocabulary and occasionally in spelling and the rest, but they are all formed on more or less the same model, which is very different from that of the French or the Germans. They all organize their entries in the same way, use the same form of definitions, include the same kind of information, and so on, to the point where we often speak of “the dictionary,” as if the book were a single, invariant text like “the periodic table.” By the same token, the schools in every English-speaking nation generally teach the same principles of good usage, a large number of which date from the grammarians of the eighteenth century. There are a few notable exceptions to this generality (Americans and most other communities outside England abandoned some time ago the effort to keep shall and will straight and seem to be none the worse off for it), but even in these cases grammarians justify their prescriptions using the same terminology and forms of argument.
THE CONTINUITY OF ENGLISH
To be sure, our collective agreement on standards of language and literature is never more than approximate and is always undergoing redefinition and change. Things could hardly be otherwise, given the varied constitution of the English-speaking community, the changing social background, and the insistence of English-speakers that they must be left to decide these matters on their own, without the intervention of official commissions or academies. It is not surprising that the reference points that we depend on to maintain the continuity of the language should often be controversial, even within a single community, and even less so that different national communities should have different ideas as to who counts as authority or what kinds of texts should be relevant to defining the common core of English words. The most we can ask of our common linguistic heritage is that it give us a general format for adapting the language to new needs and for reinterpreting its significance from one time and place to another.
This is the challenge posed by the triumph of English. Granted, there is no threat to the hegemony of English as a worldwide medium for practical communication. It is a certainty that the nations of the English-speaking community will continue to use the various forms of English to communicate with each other, as well as with the hundreds of millions of people who speak English as a second language (and who in fact outnumber the native speakers of the language by a factor of two or three to one). And with the growth of travel and trade and of media like the Internet, the number of English speakers is sure to continue to increase.
But none of this guarantees the continuing unity of English as a means of cultural expression. What is striking about the accelerating spread of English over the past two centuries is not so much the number of speakers that the language has acquired, but the remarkable variety of the cultures and communities who use it. The heterogeneity of the linguistic community is evident not just in the emergence of the rich new literatures of Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean, but also in the literatures of what linguists sometimes call the “inner circle” of the English-speaking world—nations like Britain, the United States, Australia, and Canada—where the language is being asked to describe a much wider range of experience than ever before, particularly on behalf of groups who until recently have been largely excluded or marginalized from the collective conversation of the English-speaking world.
Not surprisingly, the speakers of the “new Englishes” use the language with different voices and different rhythms and bring to it different linguistic and cultural backgrounds. The language of a writer like Chinua Achebe reflects the influence not just of Shakespeare and Wordsworth but of proverbs and other forms of discourse drawn from West African oral traditions. Indian writers like R. K. Narayan and Salman Rushdie ground their works not just in the traditional English-language canon but in Sanskrit classics like the epic Ra¯ma¯yana. The continuing sense that all English-speakers are engaged in a common discourse depends on the linguistic community’s being able to accommodate and absorb these new linguistic and literary influences, as it has been able to do in the past.
In all parts of the linguistic community, moreover, there are questions posed by the new media of discourse. Over the past hundred years, the primacy of print has been challenged first by the growth of film, recordings, and the broadcast media, and more recently by the remarkable growth of the Internet, each of which has had its effects on the language. With film and the rest, we have begun to see the emergence of spoken standards that coexist with the written standard of print, not in the form of a standardized English pronunciation—if anything, pronunciation differences among the communities of the English-speaking world have become more marked over the course of the century—but rather in the use of words, expressions, and rhythms that are particular to speech (there is no better example of this than the universal adoption of the particle okay). And the Internet has had the effect of projecting what were previously private forms of written communication, like the personal letter, into something more like models of public discourse, but with a language that is much more informal than the traditional discourse of the novel or newspaper. It is a mistake to think that any of these new forms of discourse will wholly replace the discourse of print (the Internet, in particular, has shown itself to be an important vehicle for marketing and diffusing print works with much greater efficiency than has ever been possible before). It seems reasonable to assume that a hundred years from now the English-speaking world will still be at heart a community of readers—and of readers of books, among other things. And it is likely, too, that the English language will still be at heart a means of written expression, not just for setting down air schedules and trade statistics, but for doing the kind of cultural work that we have looked for literature to do for us in the past; a medium, that is, for poetry, criticism, history, and fiction. But only time will tell if English will remain a single language—if in the midst of all the diversity, cultural and communicative, people will still be able to discern a single “English literature” and a characteristic English-language frame of mind.
— § § § —
03. — The Adventure of English
— Melvyn Bragg (2006)
Bragg, M. (2006). The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language. New York: Arcade Publishing
— § § § —
04. — English as a Global Language
— David Crystal (2003 )
Crystal, D. (2003). English as a global language (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Chapters & Sections
— § § § —
05. — What once was no longer is
Even today — the English will say — the words quoted above remain, “among the most familiar as well as the most powerful celebrations of the English nation.” It is the case that the literature of the “Elizabethan era” abounds with similar panegyrics — a public speech or text in praise of someone or something — to a nation secure in its separateness and in its superiority. However, if we dig a little deeper a far more complicated and troubled reality. Most English writers were far from certain of the innate superiority of their nation — or even certain what their nation was.
Britain Is Drowning Itself in Nostalgia
— by Sam Byers (2019) The New York Times
Recently, in the comforting gloom of a half-empty cinema, I found myself subjected to an advertisement for the country in which I live. A series of Britain’s cultural and sporting great and good, interspersed with “normal” people, rode in taxis, strode through the airport and squeezed themselves into economy class. “Dear Britain,” they said, taking turns with the lines while stowing their luggage and settling into their seats. “Dear old Britain. We love you … The way you pick yourself up when things get tough … How you follow your own path … How you tell it like it is (politely, of course!) … You’ve led revolutions of all kinds, yet you won’t shout about it, it’s just not in your nature. Instead, you’ll quietly make history.” At the end, cozily occupying the sweet spot between the roundly unifying and the vapidly uncontroversial, Olivia Colman, who recently won an Oscar for playing Queen Anne, said something about tea.
As an ad celebrating British Airways, an international airline, it’s strikingly devoid of internationalism. As a hymn to the solipsistic backwater we’ve become, it’s painfully apt. If Britain were an airline, we’d be very much like the one British Airways gives us in its ad — idling on the runway, sipping our tea and mumbling our self-congratulatory eulogies, reveling in our isolation because all sense of a destination has disappeared.
The ad speaks to the experience of living in Britain at this moment. It’s not just our political life that feels suffused with the toxicity of Brexit, but also our cultural and even personal lives, too. At dinner with friends and family, on our couches in front of the television, even in our attempts at cinematic escape, there is only one subject of conversation: our departure from the European Union, the need to either oppose it or enact it. As we walk the supermarket aisles, speculating as to the continuing availability of our favorite foods, as we sit with our European loved ones and try to convince ourselves of the security of their stay, as we lay out the day’s medicines and fret about the continuing viability of their procurement, Brexit is inescapable.
But something else is inescapable, too, because Brexit is so bound up with “Britishness”— that never-quite-defined and often nebulous shared culture that has become as impossible to avoid. Brexit is not just an event, it is a feeling — suffocating and dispiriting and freighted with gloom. With no refuge from that feeling, we seek solace in another: national pride.
March 29 was supposed to be the date Britain exited the European Union. In the 33 months since our narrow decision to do that, our political paralysis around the terms of our departure has reached a terminal, possibly fatal state. The deal that Prime Minister Theresa May negotiated with Brussels was robustly defeated in Parliament — twice. Yet now, she must bring it back for a third time. If the deal cannot be agreed upon, we very well might, after a derisory extension of two weeks, leave without a deal at all — an eventuality that Parliament has already rejected as too calamitous.
So we’re all agreed: In our bid to “quietly make history,” we would prefer a deal that does not in fact exist and for which there is no time left to negotiate because we’ve spent all of our time getting a deal we don’t want, meaning that now we’re readying ourselves to sidestep the humiliation of a deal we don’t like by accepting the ruin of a non-deal we don’t like either. We are, in almost every sense, on a plane to nowhere, and because we have nowhere to go, we have to convince ourselves that nowhere is exactly where we wish to be.
With nothing meaningful to say about our future, we’ve retreated into the falsehoods of the past, painting over the absence of certainty at our core with a whitewash of poisonous nostalgia. The result is that Britain has entered a haunted dreamscape of collective dementia — a half-waking state in which the previous day or hour is swiftly erased and the fantasies of the previous century leap vividly to the fore. Turning on the television or opening Twitter, we find people who have no memory of the Second World War invoking a kind of blitz spirit, or succumbing to fits of self-righteous fury because someone has dared to impugn the legacy of Winston Churchill.
At the same time, in our determination to rekindle the embers of our cooling significance, we seem perfectly happy to burn the future of our young for fuel. Efforts by students to counter the colonial arrogance that has been our ruin by decolonizing the curriculum have been met with sputtering, insecure outrage. Recently, a group of students (and future voters) protesting the government’s hopeless stance on climate change were dismissed as mere truants by a leading member of the Conservative Party. We’re so obsessed with our past that we cannot, any longer, even countenance a future. To protect that past, we seem prepared to abandon the future entirely, to tell ourselves that there is no future, just as to British Airways there are apparently no countries to fly to.
The problem with all this self-deluding preservation of the past isn’t just that it’s regressive, or alienating for those of us who don’t spend our time musing on Churchill’s legacy or swelling with pride at our good fortune to accidentally be born British; it’s that it pollutes and stagnates even the discourse that ought to oppose it.
The Brexiteers aren’t alone in wanting to turn back time and behave as if certain significant events never happened. A look at the more unequivocal end of the pro-European Union spectrum of British political life — the die-hard Remainers — finds similar retrospection. The referendum result, they claim, was not a statement but a mistake: the consequence not so much of mass dissatisfaction and a decades-long tabloid project of anti-European propaganda but of a plot to subvert our democracy. Their solution? To hold another referendum, magically erasing both the bitter divisions of the intervening years and the social and political conditions that nurtured anti-European Union rage in the first place.
In an age of hidebound regression, moving forward becomes inseparable from looking backward and inward. Frustrated by what they see as the outdated and ineffective deadlock of the two-party political orthodoxy, a shiny new breakaway faction has emerged in Parliament called The Independent Group. Pressed for clarity on such tiresome details as policy, one of its more significant members, the ex-Tory Anna Soubry, defensively claimed that even to ask such a thing was the “old way” of politics, and that this group is based on “shared values.” The slightest scratch at the surface of those values, however, reveals nothing new whatsoever, with the No. 1 shared value, as listed on their website, turning out to be the drably predictable assertion that “Ours is a great country of which people are rightly proud.” It’s the same old pillar of jingoism and self-regard to which, it increasingly seems, everyone must genuflect before, or even in place of, saying anything else at all.
Here, ultimately, lies the Gordian knot at the heart of Britain’s predicament: To shape from our current inertia a meaningful future, we need to address the brutal reality of the present. We are not quietly leading any revolutions right now, unless one counts as a revolution our project of self-dismantlement.
We’re the world’s fifth-largest economy and likely to sink to seventh this year. Industry and finance are falling over themselves to flee. Nor am I convinced that anyone should be “rightly proud” of a country in which, according to the homelessness charity Crisis, the number of people sleeping on the streets has risen 140 percent since 2010; in which over a million emergency food packages were given to those struggling financially in the 2017-18 financial year; in which over 4 million children are living in poverty; and in which local councils in England face an £8 billion financial black hole by 2025, endangering not only their upkeep of communal spaces, but also their ability to provide adequate care for children, the elderly and people with disabilities.
Indeed, when the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights visited Britain last year, his verdict was damning, depicting not a nation “picking itself up when things get tough” and “quietly making history” but a society in which, as he put it, “British compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, meanspirited and often callous approach.” We are even, in point of fact, going off tea.
Our inability to state difficult truths without first offering some reassuring patriotism accounts, in some ways, for the failure of the Remain argument. In making a negative case against leaving the European Union — that it will cause irreparable harm to the economy, that vital flows of food and medicine may be disrupted, that we will consign ourselves to bit-part status on the global stage — Remainers’ concerns have been dismissed as traitorous fantasy, the manipulative catastrophizing of what Brexiteers call “Project Fear.”
And so, all too often, Remainers reach for the same dreamy jingoism as those who would have us violently depart the European Union with no terms in place. There is no patriotic argument for Remain because Brexit itself is a cautionary argument against blind national pride. It’s precisely this empty, hopeless paradox that in June 2016 led to Prime Minister David Cameron, in a last-ditch effort to persuade voters to side with the European Union, telling us, pathetically, that “Brits don’t quit.” It’s also, one assumes, why in January a group of German political leaders and prominent figures encouraging Britain to stay in the Union wrote an open letter not to make a case for Brussels but to appeal to our beverage-sipping sense of self, writing that if we left, they would miss “going to the pub after work hours to drink an ale” and “tea with milk and driving on the left-hand side of the road” — a gale of pure wind with all the meaninglessness of a British Airways ad.
So here we are, facing more delays and uncertainty. The Defense Ministry reportedly is hunkering down in a nuclear bunker, preparing for “no deal,” a crash headlong into a future from which we mistakenly thought our past would protect us. We are pathologically unable to say what needs to be said: that nostalgia, exceptionalism and a xenophobic failure of the collective imagination have undone us. This is not a time of national pride, it is a moment of deep and lasting national shame. We are unable to lead yet determined never to follow. We have nothing of note to say and yet still refuse to listen. The very forces that have shored up our self-regard and poisoned our place in history are about to erode us from within, and unless we find in ourselves the humility we’ve always abhorred, we face a brutal and potentially permanent humbling.
Cups of tea will neither turn back time nor show us, in their cold and increasingly bitter leaves, the future we’ve failed to imagine: a future in which what limited achievements we might have been proud of — our system of social care, our commitment to protecting the people least able to protect themselves — lie in ruins, and all we can do is sit in the dark, paying our favorite celebrities to chant to us, over and over again, our tattered mantra of virtue.