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The English language

A problem of definition

What is the English language? Is there such a thing as ‘good’ English? Is there such a thing as ‘Standard British English’ or ‘General American’? Is the ‘English language’ just the way it is written? If the newsreader is reading from the autocue, is this ‘written English’ or ‘spoken English’? Does it make sense to distinguish between them? Does English include spelling? Are reading, writing, talking and understanding all separate skills? Where does rehearsing a speech fit into this schema? Who is to decide? Some experts or committee? Television presenters?

Like most linguists, I see no sense in such debate, especially when the language is changing – even within a single lifetime.

These changes are multiplied, from the English of King Alfred 1,100 years ago, to that of Geoffrey Chaucer, 600 years ago, to that of Shakespeare 400 years ago, that of Dickens 150 years ago, to modern English. At the two ends of this time span, we are clearly talking about different languages. But even the English of Shakespeare would probably be very difficult for modern listeners to understand if they could ever hear it,

Within notions such as ‘Standard English’ and ‘Received Pronuncation’ there are significant variations between locations and generations. The term ‘non-standard English’ is used quite often to refer to some variety of the language other than that of the speaker or writer. Nobody says “I speak non-Standard English other than in jest. So presumably there is a gradient here between some perfection of standardness, what ever this is, and some extreme of non-standardness, perhaps a regional variety which is not easily understood by anyone not familiar with it.

While writers are generally more careful than speakers to craft and complete their sentences, they still make mistakes even when they are making corrections.

Noam Chomsky argues that in the limit there is only the English internalised by a single speaker. My own reservation about this view is that it undermines the notion of an international agreement to limit the production or testing of weapons, cease hostilities, make peace, or declare a unity or separation between two states.

It is obvious that there are different understandings of what counts as English. I don’t personally see any convincing way of resolving them by definition. There are just different sorts of fudge. But  the notion of  ‘good English’ seems to me to have no useful meaning.

Continual change

A very recent change is that younger speakers of London English are starting to say things like “That might suit you, isn’t it?” which would be unsayable for most Londoners over the age of 40 or so. The change is is in the fact that  the auxiliary form might in the main clause does not match the is in the ‘tag question’. Of those for whom isn’t it is demonstrably sayable, there may be significant variations between speakers.

Some instances of what is not English seem clear and obvious. No ordering of furiously sleep colourless green ideas makes sense. But “Curiously mindless cats scratch loving owners” makes at least two different senses.

Clarity and accuracy

Very occasionally children find themselves in positions with human life depending on their clear understanding and clear responses, as when children are rescued from a burning house and the fire brigade want to know who was in which room. Children need to be able to understand accurately and talk clearly. And for later life they will need these skills for interviews and at work.

There is an ideal, even if it’s hard to find.

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