Tuesday, April 26, 2005

What Is English?

Is it the English of London or of New York, of San Antonio or Newark, Sydney or Dublin, Nairobi or New Delhi? And the English of whom in those places? Everyone? Only certain people? Is it the language of Merriam-Webster, or of the BBC, or the Queen, or Tom Brokaw, or Madonna, or Snoop Doggy-Dog, or the University of Oxford? Is it an element in foreign policy, or a device for the exercise of cultural imperialism? Is it a means of bridging the smaller languages to promote communication and bring economic advancement? Is it a device for excluding those who have not had the good fortune to learn it? Is it inherently superior to other languages or a language that just got lucky? Is there such a thing as correct English, and is such proper English superior to other forms?

Evidently the answers that one finds in grammatical studies, or in standard dictionaries, cannot reflect the full diversity of language in its social setting. While the abstract study of language is crucially important, there is a very real danger that we will conclude that Spanish is something in a textbook, that French is to be found inside a dictionary, that Chinese is hidden in a box of CDs. The study of language as a social phenomenon, as something constantly changing, constantly being renegotiated, gets relatively little attention. But language is in fact an institution that has a massive bearing on our lives, in all kinds of ways.

posted by kennyB 15:36

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