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English in the world today
English in the world today

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What is English? (Part 1)

It seems sensible to begin an exploration of the English language by determining what we mean by ‘English’. If we want to study its development, its use and its status, it’s worth clarifying exactly what it is. From one perspective, of course, this may seem a rather empty task. Given that you are reading this course – and are therefore presumably a fluent English reader – English is very likely to be almost as integral a part of your life as the air you breathe. You probably get on perfectly well on a day-to-day basis without ever having to reflect on what exactly comprises the language. It’s what you’re reading now. If you live in an English-speaking country, it’s probably what you use on a daily basis to converse with your friends, colleagues and family. In other words, speaking and reading English is something you just do. You may have the odd argument with people about certain aspects of English usage (‘Is it okay to say My sister and me had an argument about correct grammar?’), or may occasionally consult a dictionary to check the meaning or spelling of an unusual word (‘What does deontic mean?’; ‘When is it complement and when is it compliment?’). But as an expert speaker of the language, you can use English without ever needing to be able to give a scientific definition of what it is – just as you can breathe without needing any knowledge of the chemical constituents of air.

Activity 1

For the purposes of this introduction, spend a few minutes writing down a short definition of what you understand by the ‘English language’. Imagine you’re defining the language to someone who has no conception of what it is: how would you sum it up in a few sentences?


You may well have started your definition by saying that English is the language spoken in England. This is how Dr Johnson defined it in his dictionary of the English language, composed back in the mid-eighteenth century:

ENGLISH. adj. Belonging to England; thence English is the language of England.

Of course, as noted earlier, in today’s world, English is much more than this. English has spread extensively in the two-and-a-half centuries since Johnson’s time. Modern dictionaries mostly augment Johnson’s definition by adding something about the global scope of the language. The Chambers Dictionary (11th edition), for example, defines it as:

A Germanic language spoken in the British Isles, USA, most parts of the Commonwealth, etc.

while the Oxford English Dictionary extends this slightly further:

Of or relating to the West Germanic language spoken in England and also used in many varieties throughout the world.

As we can see, these definitions all concentrate on a number of key elements – and your own definition may well have focused on some or all of these as well. These elements are: the communities with which the language is most associated (English is the national language of the UK, the USA, etc.); its history (i.e. being of Germanic origin); and the way it’s now used in various places around the world. In other words, all these definitions link the language with the people who speak it now or who spoke it in the past. As such, they’re all social definitions of the language – describing it not in terms of the structure it has (they don’t mention, for example, that it predominantly uses a subject-verb-object word order), but in terms of the communities who use it and – importantly – who identify with it. That’s to say, the language doesn’t exist as an abstract entity out there in the ether. It’s something people actually use; something they both speak and write/read (although these definitions mostly privilege the notion of speaking). And it’s something which plays a significant role in their lives. For this reason any investigation into the language will involve an investigation into the social and historical context in which the language flourishes. In other words, when studying the language we also need to study the people who use the language – we need to study how they use it, why they use it and what they think about it.