I have an article coming out today in The Guardian about the English language and what (if anything) can be said about what it means to be English today. It’s an opinion piece so it’s short and cannot cover everything. There are a couple of areas of particular importance that I would like to explore a little further so I thought I would put together a blog. It’s rough and ready, but I hope you get something from it.
English as a global language
That English is a global language is without doubt, but the reason for its global dominance should be explored. It is inextricably connected to the combined forces of British colonialism throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries and American dominance throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. There has been a lot of discussion about “Linguistic Imperialism”, so I think it is worth quoting the linguist David Crystal here in full (author of English As A Global Language, 2003):
“A language has traditionally become an international language for one chief reason: the power of its people – especially their political and military power. The explanation is the same throughout history. Why did Greek become a language of international communication in the Middle East over 2,000 years ago? Not because of the intellects of Plato and Aristotle: the answer lies in the swords and spears wielded by the armies of Alexander the Great. Why did Latin become known throughout Europe? Ask the legions of the Roman Empire. Why did Arabic come to be spoken so widely across northern Africa and the Middle East? Follow the spread of Islam, carried along by the force of the Moorish armies from the eighth century. Why did Spanish, Portuguese, and French ﬁnd their way into the Americas, Africa and the Far East? Study the colonial policies of the Renaissance kings and queens, and the way these policies were ruthlessly implemented by armies and navies all over the known world. The history of a global language can be traced through the successful expeditions of its soldier/sailor speakers. And English . . . has been no exception.”
Considering recent conversations about the British Empire and its legacy, I thought it was important to draw attention to Crystal’s words in relation to language. Indeed, the linguistic study that triggered my article explicitly linked the English language with empire (it was titled “The Fall of Empire: The Americanization of English”).
Just a few days ago, the writer, Sunny Singh, reflected on her childhood in India by pointing out that: “Even after 70 years of independence, the structural mortal wounds remain though they are slowly healing”. The legacy of colonialism is still with us.
Of course, we shouldn’t take a teleological view of history. It was during the period that I study, the seventeenth century, that the seeds of the British Empire were sown. Yet, while there might have been a hope of global dominance during this time – Oliver Cromwell had the aim of creating a Grand Protestant Alliance and carving up the world between the English and the Dutch – there was no real reason to suppose the English and later British would forge an empire on the scale and shape that it did. In short, there is plenty of nuance to the history of empire that often gets lost in debates on social media.
To give a flavour of the nuance, I spoke to Dr Misha Ewen, a research fellow at the Folger Institute in Washington DC. She is an expert on the Virginia Company at the start of the seventeenth century and the early colonialism of America. Speaking about early encounters, she explained that: “English colonists had violent as well as cooperative encounters with the Native Americans. Trade of sorts with the indigenous population—including knowledge and material exchange—was essential and made the cultivation of [the colony’s staple commodity] tobacco and permanent settlement in Virginia viable.”
To the east, English colonialists had to compete with European rivals. Dr Jonathan Healey is a historian at Oxford University, currently researching East Asian trade networks. He told me that “To a large extent they [English traders] were ignored. In Japan, they had a hard time distinguishing themselves from the Dutch, and they especially needed to show that they weren’t Spanish or Portuguese. The main reason being that the Iberians were trying to convert Japan to Catholicism.” Even at this early stage, cultural transference occurred. Healey spoke of a case in Hirado where the English “gave New Year’s gifts to local Japanese and Chinese friends. There’s even a reference to the daimyo (lord) of the town eating an English pie in 1617.”
Accents and Received Pronunciation
The other area I wanted to touch on briefly was the question of accents and the evolution of Received Pronunciation. As I mention in my piece, there is an argument to be had that Americans today speak with an accent that is more in tune with early modern English than we do today. This is to do with the use of the letter ‘r’ and whether it is spoken in a rhotic or non-rhotic way (it should be noted that in New York and Boston there is a level of non-rhotic speaking).
Contrary to the impression TV and film give, up until the eighteenth century, people did not speak with “Queen’s English”. In fact, James I and his son Charles I had Scottish accents and regional dialects were not just accepted, they were the norm. Evidence suggests that RP was developed in England during the mid to late eighteenth century to entrench class systems. It gave people of a certain class a way to judge others quickly without knowing anything else about them. In this manner, it was also a vehicle for social advancement. One of the best onscreen examples I have seen in recent years is that of the Warleggan family in the BBC show Poldark – the nephew speaks very differently to his uncle.
The legacy of RP is huge and is still with us today. It is a hallmark of the class system that still pervades British life. Perhaps the most powerful elucidation of this comes from Thomas Sheridon (1762): “All other dialects, are sure marks, either of provincial, rustic, pedantic, or mechanic education; and therefore have some degree of disgrace annexed to them.”
Anyway, I am sure I will add a few more thoughts to this as the day progresses. I would like to, for example, raise some questions about English and British stereotypes and how they mask the full nature and make-up of England and Great Britain (particularly when it comes to public figures such as film stars and politicians). Akala made an interesting short film about British Values which you can view here. I would also like post more about the relationship between England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, which I have touched upon, but was unable to fully examine. I may put some links up for further reading.
Enjoy your day!