Persistence of English

“The Persistence of English”
— Geoffrey Nunberg, Stanford University
article as a PDF file

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 creolized 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 Englishspeaking 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. (Thirteenthcentury 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 Englishspeaking 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 Englishlanguage 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 stigmatized 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 speechcommunity 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.