“Real English” under threat!

Michael Edwards has become the first Brit pure enough to protect the purity of French.

Michael Edwards has become the first Brit pure enough to protect the purity of French.

As a researcher of English as a lingua franca (ELF) and sensible human being, I take offense at linguistic intolerance directed toward second-language users of English. It wasn’t until I moved to Finland that I became aware of the dismissive scorn some English native speakers feel toward the “Bad English” of the lingua franca variety. In particular, I hadn’t before encountered the special kind of prescriptivism emanating from Britain, with its unique claim to being the “owner” and preserver of English.

Linguistic intolerance and ELF were in the news last week in an article by Associated Press reporter Elaine Ganley, entitled “New guardian of French tongue is (gasp!) British“. The story tells about Michael Edwards, a literary scholar who has been elected to become the first British member of the “immortals” of the Academie Francaise, a revered institution dedicated to preserving the purity of French. Most of the article focuses on French, which is described as being under threat from English, but Edwards has some pointed views about English as well, saved for the last few lines of the story:

Then he let go with one more, perhaps truly renegade, thought: “The language really under threat is English.”

Today, he explained, two non-native English speakers will often communicate in a mangled, hybrid English.

“The language chatted around the world is poor English,” Edwards said.

So we see that ELF is a threat to “real English”. Earlier in the story, Edwards claimed that “real English” isn’t a threat to French at all. And yet French is threatened by English, so what kind of English could it be? “Bad English — ‘the sort of universal lingua-anglica which is not proper English and which invades French through all sorts of expressions which are unnecessary,’ he said.” You probably have one of two reactions to these statements: 1) hell yeah! or 2) he sounds like my grandfather!

No need to argue

There’s no point in arguing against linguistic intolerance. And the good news is, you don’t have to. All you have to do is wait. One generation’s “purity” becomes the next generation’s “old-fashioned”, and at 75 years old, the Immortal Edwards will be in good company in his new post:

Immortals are only replaced when one of the 40 dies. The graying institution — where more than half of its members are over 75 and only five of them women — currently has four vacant seats.

“Good English” does not equal imitating a high-class English chap. However, some still strive toward chaphood, and they should look no further than Chap magazine, where smoking a pipe is required and the English must be proper.

This is why I don’t see any need to argue. It’s the same reason why there was no need to argue with members of the Queen’s English Society, who simply gave up their quest to preserve “good English” when not a single person on earth cared enough to fill their positions of chairman, vice-chairman, administrator, webmaster and membership secretary. I don’t see this as an ideological question; it’s a generational one. The day will come when it is broadly acknowledged that the English produced by non-native speakers cannot be dismissed outright as categorically “Bad English”, even if it doesn’t strive to imitate the English of Brits and Americans.

Jus’ the good ol’ boys

Europe has a long tradition of elite boys’ clubs (one of them just elected their new boss in Rome), and what kind of elite society would initiate a new member without some robes and ornamental swords?

Then, he will don a gold-embroidered green suit and take up his ornamental sword in an elaborate ceremony…

I don’t know how many ornamental swords you’ve brandished in your lifetime, but I definitely plan on bringing a blade to my PhD defense. In any case, the image of a bunch of 75-year-old men (and five women) wearing green suits and swords doesn’t exactly evoke images of life in the 21st century. Crazy as it sounds, these Immortals might even be a little bit “out of touch”. Take for instance this gem from the Immortal Edwards, who rightly criticises the pressure on French-speaking academics to publish in English, but what’s actually at risk?

“It’s important that a French philosopher think in French,” he said. If not, that person “might, to put it crudely, become a British philosopher.”

“To put it crudely” is putting it crudely, since the implicit claim is that if you’re using “our” language, you’re trying to become one of us. You’re an imitator of “real English”, all the way to mimicking our accent and idioms, hoping to be accepted as a provisional member of the owners of English. Until then, you speak “mangled, hybrid English”, regardless of how you use it, where, with whom, and how long you’ve been using it successfully.

So there’s good news and bad news. Bad news first – linguistic intolerance of the Immortal Edwards variety continues to hold power in high-stakes fields like academic publishing. The good news – these ideas are as immortal as Edwards himself. Rather than try to change minds that can’t and won’t be changed, I’m interested in talking to the next generation of English speakers, native and non-native, who already know what Edwards couldn’t see if he wanted to – English is everybody’s nobody’s language, belonging to everyone and no one at the same time. English native speakers are naturally the last to figure this out, but I love to see their faces when they do.

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3 thoughts on ““Real English” under threat!

  1. Matt Halsdorff says:

    Great post! The idea that non-native speakers around the world are speaking a “mangled, hybrid English” is nonsense. There will always be somebody trying to regulate and mandate rules about how they believe a language should be spoken… and of course… they will fail in their little crusade.

    The most important thing in communication is getting the message across – the millions of non-native English speakers using the language in this moment across the globe are only adding to the richness of the language… creating wonderful new dialects, accents, idioms, and expressions with every word. No matter what our opinion of the change is – every language evolves.

    I wonder what the “language police” of the year 2150 will think of the English of Mr. Edwards?

  2. Ray Carey says:

    Hi Matt, thanks for your comment! Things are changing so fast in this crazy world that in 2150 people will probably look at today’s debates the way we look at the early prescriptive grammars of the 18th century. Oddly enough, many of those centuries-old attitudes about “proper English” are still going strong.

    I thought it was interesting that you describe the ongoing changes positively, using words like “richness” and “wonderful”. I wonder why some native speakers react positively to the same observations, while others spit on them. I think it’s easier for those of us who have taken up permanent residence outside our English-speaking cultures.

    It wasn’t until I got to Finland and became aware of English as a lingua franca (ELF) research that I even took an interest in English linguistics. What’s happening with English in the world today is way more interesting than anything I saw back home!

    • Matt Halsdorff says:

      Hmmm… I wonder how many people back “home” – in my case California – would describe the changes positively? Honestly I imagine many more would describe them in a negative way.

      More than anything, I think it is all about awareness. It’s definitely easier for those of us who live overseas or who have a lot of positive contact with non-native speakers of English.

      If one only watches the local news or has very little contact, I imagine many would react more negatively to the idea that the language is changing. It’s useful to remember though that many would likely say the same thing about other Native Speakers… that younger people are destroying the language… that text messages and the internet are destroying grammar rules… that everything was better in the past 🙂 Maybe it also has to do with age??

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