The spectrum of English

In all countries where English is spoken, there is a spectrum or continuum, though the type of spectrum differs according to circumstances. At one end of the spectrum is always the influential 'standard' variety of English. In countries such as Jamaica and Samoa, the other end of the spectrum is Creole. In countries such as Canada and Britain, the spectrum may be one of regional dialect or of social dialect. In countries such as France and China (English as a foreign language), or India and the Philippines (English as a second language), the spectrum is one of competence with standard English as a prestige norm, and with any number of approximations to it, each affected by the pronunciation, vocabulary, and syntax of the speaker's own first language.

Although each spectrum has its unique characteristics, it is possible to make some generalisations about them. Varieties of English as a second or foreign language or in creolised form do tend to have some systematic differences from standard English.

In pronunciation, first of all, they tend to have a smaller set of vowel contrasts than either RP (the 'received pronunciation' of educated people in southeastern England) or General American pronunciation. In particular, the vowel sounds in bit and beat are pronounced alike, as are those in full and fool; diphthongs are often replaced, so that day might sound like dare and go like gore. The words bud and bird are often made to sound like bed (and sometimes like bet).

Typical consonant changes include the replacement of /th/ and /th/ by /t/ and /d/ or sometimes by /s/ and /z/ so this thing might sound like dis ting or sometimes zis sing. And where consonant clusters are difficult to pronounce, an extra or 'epenthetic' vowel is often inserted to break the cluster up: school might be pronounced as though it were eschool or sechool, and speak as though espeak or sepeak.

The stress system of standard English is also altered: there are fewer reduced vowels and hence fewer slurred and unstressed syllables, and there is a greater number of secondary stresses.

In vocabulary, these varieties of English all tend to draw on words borrowed from local languages, and on loan translations or 'calques' that is, on metaphors, phrases, or compound words in the local language that are translated literally, component by component, into English. Such vocabulary items are especially common in the domains of local culture, food, clothing, and kinship.

In grammar, these varieties of English reveal many similarities: the tendency to use fewer prepositions, articles, and auxiliary verbs; the use of prepositional verbs such as cope up with that are not found among mother-tongue speakers; the use of unvarying question-tags: They're just married, isn't it?; the recapitulation of the subject: That man he is not good; and the non-inversion of the verb phrase in a question: What you are doing tonight?

English for special purposes, and English as a world language

English is the international language of science, the way that Latin and then perhaps German used to be: it is estimated that two-thirds of all scientific papers today are first published in English.

Since the end of the Second World War, aircraft pilots and sea-captains on international routes have required proficiency in radio English. (Even pilots flying only within their own country tend to use international English expressions nowadays, such as Roger, Negative, and How do You Read?)

English is clearly now the language of inter national diplomacy, in the way that French was in the 19th century. It is the official or alternative official language of more countries than any other; it is one of the six official languages of the United Nations, and one of its two working languages (the other being French). It is also the language used by the International Olympic Committee.

It is the language of international pop culture (many young people in Europe, Japan, and so on seem to learn more English from pop records than from schoolteachers).

In some ways, then, English is already an international language and not just among scholars, the way that Latin was during its period as an 'international' language in Europe in the Middle Ages and after. If business negotiations, or arrangements for a football match, were to be conducted between a Yugoslav and a Brazilian, say, the language of discussion would be English. It is most unlikely ever to gain official recognition as the world language, but it is as close to being one as any language ever has been. And if an official world language ever were to be adopted in the cause of world peace, for instance it might well be English, rather than any of the artificial world languages. (Over a dozen of these have been devised, mostly at the end of the 19th century. Esperanto is the best known and most successful: its speakers have been estimated at as many as a million, and as few as 100,000.)

English, in a simplified form at any rate, would be a fairly good choice on linguistic grounds: it has few inflections that is, complicated changes to the form of a word according to its grammatical functions and is free from the confusing gender-system that characterises most other European languages. Its vocabulary, with a large Latin-based component, is reasonably familiar to most western Europeans. On the other hand, its spelling is, for historical reasons, rather troublesome; and its pronunciation system has subtleties of contrast that many foreigners find very difficult to master (though it has nothing to compare with the tricky clustering of consonants involved in Russian, or the tone-changes that characterise Chinese). All in all, English is a relatively easy language to acquire communicative competence in and that is all that a world language should be expected to provide. To acquire mastery of English is another matter, of course: its large vocabulary and its vast stock of idioms (jump the gun, to go great guns, to stick to one's guns, to spike someone's guns) and phrasal and prepositional verbs (to put someone down, to put someone up, to put up with someone) are an endless headache to foreign students trying to approach full proficiency in English.

One unintended effect of the pervasiveness of English in non-English-speaking countries is the infiltration of English terms into foreign languages a development many find distressing. Pop records, Hollywood films, and American culture generally are largely responsible for this. France in particular has long been worried by the English invasion. Over 2000 glaring English expressions have apparently been recorded in French: some are quite established now le weekend, le sandwich, le parking, le camping, le smoking (a dinner jacket). Increasingly, too, le drugstore, le gangster, le gadget, le striptease, and le cocktail seem to be settling in, often, presumably, for want of an efficient French equivalent. Whether le businessman, le bulldozer, and le baby-sitter will stand the test of time is uncertain.

The late President Pompidou urged the abolition of anglicisms, and pressed for a policy of French 'linguistic integrity'. In official documents, the phrases hot money, fast food, and jumbo jet were to be referred to by French expressions instead: capitaux 'febriles, pret-a-manger, and gros-porteur. (But the Parisian public, one suspects, will continue using the English terms.)

Here are some British or American exports to other languages:

to German: das Baby (fully established now), der Bestseller, der Computer, der Teenager, das Teeshirt, and again, der Babysitter, der Cocktail,
der Gangster.

to Italian: jeans, la spray, la pop art, il pop corn, il supermarket, and, once again, il weekend.

to Spanish: jeans again, and pancakes, suete (sweater), and the sporting terms beisbol (baseball), boxeo (boxing), and nocaut (knockout).

Many English words seem to be in worldwide use the pioneers perhaps of a new world language. Some, like cigarette, hotel, passport, post, and sport might at first have been adopted internationally under French influence, but the impetus today is clearly American: OK, jeans, Coca-Cola, program, soda, dollar, and so on. Other 'international' terms (many from Greek, Latin, or French sources) are airport, bank, bar, bus, camera, football, goal, golf, menu, salad, steak, stop, taxi, telephone, television, tennis, whisky.

An independent parallel development is the coining of many scientific terms by combining Latin and Greek elements to form an International Scientific Vocabulary, with results known to specialists in many lands: telespectroscope, polyvinyl, and so on.

What does the future hold for World English? Some scholars are pessimistic. Dr. R.W. Burchfield, when chief editor of the Oxford Dictionaries, expressed the view that some varieties of English are in danger of diverging to the point
of mutual incomprehensibility - British, and American English might, in 100 years time, be as different from each other as French is from Italian. English already exists in a number of dialects; these could become languages rather
in the way that Latin split into French, Italian, Spanish, and so on.

In fact, however, the evidence suggests that mother-tongue varieties of English are converging rather than diverging. With second-language varieties, it is true, English could suffer from its own success, and become fragmented in the way just suggested. But working against such a fate is the function of English as a lingua franca. Its popularity is largely because of its international intelligibility it is the first language likely to reverse the chaos of Babel. Education and the increasingly international character of the media and communications are likely to ensure that no variety of English strays too far from a standard internationally comprehensible form.





Is American English taking over from stuffy English English as the more vigorous language? Malcolm Bradbury finds a way through the verbal jungle

(Novelist Malcolm Bradburyis Professor of American Studies at the University of East Anglia)


Theres nothing like the topic of the English language for stiffening the sinews and summoning up the national blood. After all, its the very stuff of our thinking, the voice of our deepest feelings, the means of expression of our finest ideas, the sprinboard of our literature. It also happens to be our most successful export, a real worldbeater.

Though, or because, it requires little servicing and very little work, its used on each of the six continents by something like a billion people. Much to the annoyance of the French, its the lingua franca; the chief language of science, medicine, diplomacy, sport, pop music and advertising. You can even make love in it, too.

Its not surprising that the battles about its nature and its future constantly break out. The Prince of Wales has expressed strong opinions about the need of linguistic correctness: fairly enough, for we do call it the Queens English. The letters column in The Times has a nearstatutory obligation to print complaints about parliamentory misuse of the word decimate (it now means almost the opposite of what it means) or the signs outside greengrocers shops. We say potatoe; we say tomatoes but they say tomatos. Language is a minefield and every word, construction and sentence is already primed to explode.

Now controversy (but how to pronounce it?) is revived by Bill Brysons new book about American English, which argues that, while English English is the stuffy language of convention, American is the energetic language of innovation.

Bryson has a case. He lists the remarcable number of Americanisms that have been adopted into English hangover, bedrock, sweatshop, stag party, gravy train, to bark up the wrong tree or be out on a limb, to highlight, to package, to engineer and now exist here almost without acknowledgement. He also notes how often the British have commented miserably on the harm such neologisms do like the outraged Captain Basil Hall, who complained that there are enough words already.

As Oscar Wilde didnt say, Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language. This has produced an eternal comedy of confusions (I still blush to recall my wife winding down our window on the Massachusetts Turnpike and telling the adjoining driver: Do you realise you have petrol pouring out of your boot?). It has also created a senseless mid-Atlantic prattle that makes listening to local radio sheer agony.

It has corrupted the great discourse of the House of Commons, where MPs now tell us the bottom line is top of the agenda, or at the end of the day it would be better if we rose earlier in the morning. Our doctors chatter Californian psychobabble, our newsreaders pussyfoot on the cant of American campus PC, our offices pour out an endless flow of international office-speak. But there is something different about English English, isnt there? In the past couple of centuries, the British have seen themselves as the conservers of language, for understandable reasons. After all, English is a magpie tongue to start with. It may have started in the Anglo-Saxon mead halls but would probably have stayed there without the Norman infusion of French. Since then the English (British?) have grown ever prouder of their sovereignty (a French word), their national currency, once based on, exactly, the sovereign (a French coin), and their language (a French word from Latin). They also sought a correct English to pull the mess of resulting dialects together.

By the 20th century, with the expansion of literacy, the idea of correct English and Received Pronunciation (RP) often spoken on the stage by actors like Sir John Gielgud, who said he borrowed it from Ellen Terry prospered. In another brand it became BBC English, dating from the days when John Reith dressed announcers in dinner jackets to stress the dignity of their task.

RP is RIP; dialect is in. John Birts BBC now goes out of its way to find speakers with strange lilts, odd glottal stops, Tyneside whinges, Virgin Atlantic accents. Back when the young Royals practised an old custom called marriage, it was noticed their new spouses spoke something close to Estuary English, a tongue learned only in the back of London taxis. The free-for-all was on.

In my good liberal way, I think both sides the conservers and the transformers are right. The British are sensible to conserve their English, and try to speak, write and teach it well. But they are also the fortunate possessors and first custodians of the dominant world language. Its vocabulary is vast and everchanging, constantly growing on the streets, in the sciene labs, dealing rooms, newspaper offices and many corners of the world where it is a patois. This adds to its variety, word stock, its history, its power of exploration. In short, it enlarges its creativity, its vigour of intellectual discovery.

As a writer, I feel I should be both a conserver and an innovator of language. But for me the largest source of change is no longer American English, important as it is. Its the many other transformations of usage that come when English is used as a second language right across the globe. With new languages arrive new stories, new vernaculars, new tones of voice like the migrants tales Salman Rushdie sees as a fresh source of vigour in contemporary fiction.

The problem comes when we debase that vigour in cant, jargon and office-speak, when we use words not out of love but routine. American influence teaches us to do both. So yes, lets keep rubberneck and rain check. But vertically challenged is, in my book, for the birds.




Student A, answer the odd-numbered questions;

Student B, answer the even-numbered questions.

1. According to Malcom Bradbury, what is Englands most successful export?

2. How many people speak English world-wide?

3. Why are the French annoyed that English has become the lingua franca?

4. How many spheres of life is the English language predominant in?

5. Why is it right that the Prince of Wales feels strongly about linguistic correctness?

6. How and where do people get express their complaints about misuse of the language?

7. Why do people get annoyed about signs outside greengrocers shops?

8. Why has Bill Brysons new book revived controversy about British and American English (try to use your own words in this matter!)

9. In what sense are Britain and America two nations divided by a common language?

10. What makes listening to local radio sheer agony (use your own words!)

11. I what sense has American English corrupted the way British politicians speak?

12. In what sense is English a magpie language?

13. What does the author think would have happened to the English language if the French hadnt invaded England?

14. Why was a correct English essential for the English? (use your own words!)

15. According to the author, where did RP come from?

16. How has the BBC changed its policy on the way in which its presenters talk?

17. Is the author on the side of the conservers or the innovators in English?

18. What source does the author see has having most influence on English at the present time?

19. What sort of words does he welcome into the language, and what sort does he not welcome?

20. Why does he want to keep rubberneck, but get rid of vertically changed?


: 2015-09-07; : 283.


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