How English Became English
Here is a book certain to delight, enlighten, or annoy readers of language blogs like this one:
Horobin, professor of English language and literature at the University of Oxford, has packed a huge amount of information into a 5×7 format of 175 pages, including bibliography and index.
The book contains only seven chapters:
1. What is English?
6. Global Englishes
7. Why Do We Care?
The first two chapters fulfill the promise of the title, placing English in the Germanic branch of the Indo-European family tree and detailing how it lost its inflexions and acquired a Latinate vocabulary.
The chapter “Authorities” traces the early efforts of a patriarchal elite to fix living English into a straitjacket of long-dead Latin and explores the continuing desire by English speakers to be given unequivocal rulings as to what is correct and what is not.
As an example of a rule originating in “a period of male dominance that viewed the treatment of masculine gender as a default position as unexceptional,” Horobin mentions the objection to using the plural pronoun they with a singular antecedent of uncertain gender.
Certainly the male grammarians latched onto the rule and repeated it in their own style guides, but the first grammarian to suggest that he may be understood to include women was a woman: Ann Fisher (1719-1778), author of A New Grammar with Exercises of Bad English (1745).
Note: From the time of Chaucer until the present, the use of plural they with a singular antecedent has been and remains common in the written work of respected authors.
As an even more extreme example of sexist linguistic prescription, Horobin includes the “rule of male precedence” based on “natural order” put forward by one Thomas Wilson in 1553. Here’s Wilson’s comment on the preposterousness of mentioning a female subject before a male one (spelling modernized):
Some will set the cart before the horse, as thus, “My mother and my father are both at home,” even as though the good man of the house wore no breeches…let us keep a natural order, and set the man before the woman for manners’ sake.
Apart from putting women and the hoi polloi in their place, language critics of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries focused on “purifying” English and securing it from on-going change.
Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift admired the French Academy and wanted something similar to govern the use of English. In Swift’s view, “It is better a Language should not be wholly perfect, than that it should be perpetually changing.”
Another eighteenth-century pundit, however—lexicographer Samuel Johnson—was forced to admit the impossibility of trying to “embalm” language. He may have begun his project thinking, as many speakers still do, that a comprehensive dictionary of English would “fix” the language and “put a stop to those alterations which time and change have hitherto been suffered to make in it without opposition.” He discovered that such expectations were as unrealistic as any others that aim to rid human society of its many imperfections.
Nevertheless, from the efforts to stop the language from changing emerged the concept of “Standard English.”
In Chapter Four, Horobin explains what a “standard dialect” is and—more importantly—what it is not.
1. Standard English is NOT inherently superior to all other forms of English.
[Standard English] “is an agreed norm that is selected in order to facilitate communication.”
2. Standard English does NOT exclude colloquial speech or regional accents.
Horobin points out that it’s possible to speak casually, bad words and all, “without flouting the grammatical principles of Standard English.” As for regional accents, it’s “possible to speak Standard English in any accent, since accent refers only to features of pronunciation.”
3. Standard English does NOT exist to serve as a social marker to distinguish “snobs” from “regular people.”
Standard English is the dialect of government, commerce, and education. “Success in the education system and access to the prestigious professions require a competence in the handling of Standard English.” Standard English is class-neutral.
4. The teaching of Standard English in the schools is NOT optional.
Although Standard English is not “inherently superior” to other dialects that children grow up speaking at home, “schools have a duty to teach Standard English to children, irrespective of their background and linguistic heritage.” Home dialects can be acknowledged and respected in the classroom, but, in Horobin’s words, not to teach it “would be a dereliction of duty, since Standard English is an essential tool for enabling children to pass exams, and equipping them for the world of work.”
In Chapters Five and Six, Horobin discusses the astounding globalization of the language that began as a collection of Germanic dialects spoken by a few thousand people in a confined area 1,500 years ago. English is to the modern world what Latin was to the ancient world at the height of the Roman Empire. In the twenty-first century, an estimated 450 million people speak English as a first language, and 1 to 1.5 billion speak it as a second language in places all over the globe.
A language spoken by so many in so many regions will inevitably morph into different dialects. And—like Latin—English may spawn a family of new languages that will be as distinct from their parent as Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, and Catalan are from their ancestral Latin.
One of several “mixed varieties” of English Horobin cites is “Spanglish,” also called “Chicano English,” a mix of English and Spanish that is “a well-established dialect widely used among the more than 44 million members of America’s Hispanic population.” Another is Singlish, a creole that combines English with Malay and is spoken in Singapore.
The final chapter, “Why Do We Care,” explores the reasons speakers feel so strongly about language choices for themselves and others.
Modern speakers realize that English has undergone significant change from generation to generation, but that doesn’t prevent them from resisting change in their own generation. It’s a kind of “not in my backyard” syndrome.
Horobin explains this unwillingness to accept changes taking place in the English of today by the fact that “it is impossible for us to take an external stance from which to observe current usage.”
We all “know” what’s right, either because we remember what our teachers told us when we were children, or because we have a preferred style guide that keeps us on the straight and narrow now that we are adults.
How English Became English is a wonderful little book, an information-packed resource that will surely do what Horobin hopes: stimulate and inform the never-ending dialogue between prescriptivists and descriptivists.
Related posts: What To Do About Non-Standard English
Want to improve your English in five minutes a day? Get a subscription and start receiving our writing tips and exercises daily!
Keep learning! Browse the Book Reviews category, check our popular posts, or choose a related post below:
Stop making those embarrassing mistakes! Subscribe to Daily Writing Tips today!
- You will improve your English in only 5 minutes per day, guaranteed!
- Subscribers get access to our archives with 800+ interactive exercises!
- You'll also get three bonus ebooks completely free!