Do you speak English? Oh really? Which one?
I spent the past three days attending the conference on Studies in the History of the English Language (SHEL). It was the tenth SHEL conference but my first time attending. I had a great time with great people, and I learned about a lot of interesting facts and features of the English language. “the English language” Of all the great stuff from the conference, I thought I’d focus this time on those last three words — “the English language.” Because the conference presenters discussed and showed over and over again how misleading that phrase is.
Which English language?
- The English spoken in a speech by Winston Churchill? Or the one spoken in the hallways of the local high school?
- The English used in Swedish cookbooks or in medical herbariums? The one used in American newspapers or in British sermons?
- The English spoken in the Philippines or India or Anchorage, Alaska or Southwestern Louisiana?
Those are just a few of the Englishes I heard about at the conference.
So when we say “English” which English do we mean?
Even one person’s English has lots of Englishes in it. I can speak fluent classroom teacher talk, and I can write academic scholarly article writing. I hope I can also speak friendly everyday small talk and write more relaxed blog posts without sounding completely like I’m using an academic version of English.
I’m not an oddball (at least not in that way). Everybody speaks and writes multiple Englishes.
The conference presenters also showed that specific bits of language (features) even vary in “English.” Which of these sentences could you say or write?
- I just watched the series finale of HBO’s The Leftovers, whose mysteries came to a nice closure.
- The strange plot lines, the weird characters, the shifting time frames, the changing music to start each episode, could have left anyone feeling confused.
- The committee decided who they should elect to serve as the next president of the organization.
- The organization bought a new minivan, the safety features of which are far superior to its old car.
- When the plenary speaker finished her talk, it was like, “When can we hear more?”
- The conference included dozens of people whom through their ample research and rigorous study have demonstrated the many versions of English.
My question of which you could say or write is not a question about “right” and “wrong” English. Each of those sentences is a sentence that people DO speak and write. I was just wondering which ones YOU could say or write.
Because all of those sentences have also been said or written in other ways, as the research at the conference showed. The “who” becomes “whom” and “whom becomes “who.” The “whose” becomes “of which” or even “whereof.” Most of us readily say, “It was like,” even if we don’t notice or admit that we do (start listening to yourself and you’ll hear it), and some of us would easily say, “I was like he must be the most un- like sympathetic person to say that.” And commas come and go talking of Michelangelo (sorry for the Prufrock reference, but I can’t say any things “come and go” without wanting to finish with “talking of Michelangelo.”)
So which English is the English language?
The question matters. One presenter, Peter Carillo, talked about his study of “official English legislation.” Most states in the US have adopted Official English policies, and they often designate “English” as the official language of the state and its government. But which English?
Peter showed that these laws use the word “English” as if there is one and only one English. As he said,
“English” “is treated as if it is a single, timeless entity”
So the policy of the state of Kansas, my current state, says
“English shall be designated as the official language of the state of Kansas.”
But which English? The academic English I use in my scholarly articles? Or the English that high school boys use in the hallways of Lawrence High School? The English used on the farms of western Kansas? Or the English used on the assembly floor of the Cessna plant in Wichita?
Because saying that “English” is the official language acts as though there is just one English. Which one? Which English do the legislators mean by “English”? What English has the power to be legislated? Whose English wins?
Many of the talks at the SHEL conference noted the complexity of “the English language” in its many forms and its many places. In fact, as the conference showed repeatedly, “the English language” is really the English languages, or Englishes.
But it’s hard not to talk about it as though it’s singular, just English.
Maybe if we treat “English” like “fish.” One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish. There are many fish in the sea. There are many varieties of English, even if one of them does try to become the big fish in a small pond
Which ponds do you swim in? What English worlds do you inhabit? How many Englishes do you speak and write?
Thanks, SHEL! If you appreciate their work, too, please consider clicking on the little green heart to recommend this piece
Originally published at www.amydevitt.com.