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English in the world today
English in the world today

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The beginnings of English (Part 3)

In an essay written towards the end of the twentieth century, the linguist Michael Toolan suggested that the English that is now used as an international language around the world – that’s spoken, for instance, by a Turkish businesswoman communicating with a Korean sales representative at a convention in São Paulo, or by a Finnish diplomat discussing climate change with a Romanian scientist at a conference in Johannesburg – is so culturally removed from the traditional national language of England that it should not be called ‘English’. The name ‘English’, he argues, is no longer appropriate; it no longer reflects the identity the language has in the modern world. He suggests that the language should be renamed. As an alternative, he proposes ‘we call it Global’. English, he contends, at least as it’s used in the context of international communication, ‘is becoming increasingly released from a sense of rootedness in one or more ethnic homelands (whether that is thought of as England, or the Anglo-Saxon world, or the Anglo-American world)’, and so the time is ripe for a strategy of radical renaming (Toolan, 1997, p. 8).

So far, of course, this alternative name hasn’t really taken off. However persuasive Toolan’s arguments may be, people’s actual naming practices have not followed his suggestion. But other scholars have voiced similar qualms, some of which have been highly influential. The linguist Braj Kachru, for example, has suggested that because ‘English now has multicultural identities … [t]he term “English” does not capture [the] sociolinguistic reality’ of the language (Kachru, 1992, p. 357). Instead, he suggests that the plural form ‘Englishes’ should be used. It is no longer possible to speak of a single English language, he contends; around the world there are now several different varieties of English being spoken, each of which is distinct enough to be accorded the status of a separate language. So while Kachru doesn’t go quite as far as Toolan in suggesting that a completely new name is required, he still feels that a fundamental reconceptualisation of the language is necessary.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, and despite its emergence as the international language of the present time, the status of English is, in certain respects, no more settled than it was at any previous stage in its history. In addition to the question about how English has emerged to occupy its current prominent position in global society, we can therefore ask what it is about the nature of the language in the world today that leads scholars like Toolan and Kachru to make such radical suggestions about the need to change the very name of the language. If people were to adopt Toolan’s suggestion the present discussion would be about the pre-history of Global rather than the second millennium of English. So are suggestions such as these from Toolan and Kachru entirely fanciful? Are they ultimately simply misguided approaches to the subject? Or do they actually identify some underlying truth about the state and status of English in the world today?

This unit takes a look at this group of questions. In doing so, it will introduce you to examples of the variety and diversity of the English language, both as it exists around the world today and as it has developed through history. We shall look at what counts as English today and how the diversity of the language reflects its social history. In addition, we will examine the roles that English plays in people’s lives, and consider why it is that debates about the language, and about how people use the language, can sometimes be highly controversial. We’ll begin, though, by asking a simple, but fundamental, question: what exactly is the English language?