English Language: History and Pedagogy


By Saba Anjum

Development of Language demarcates a vital evolutionary invention by mankind in the last few million years. It was an adaptation that helped our species to exchange information, make plans, express new ideas and totally change the appearance of the planet. In other sense, it helped us translate vision into thoughts and sounds. The most complicated mechanical motion that the human body can perform is the activity of speaking. While generating the sounds of spoken language, the various parts of the vocal tract perform movements that have to be accurate within millimeters and synchronized to within a few hundredths of a second. Similarly, speech perception is another biological miracle of our language faculty. The auditory system is so well adapted to speech that we can understand 10-15 phonemes per second during casual speech and up to 50 phonemes per second in artificially speeded-up speech. These numbers are surprising given the physical limitations of our auditory system: if a sound like a click is repeated at a rate of about 20 per second, we no longer hear it as a sequence of separate sounds, but as a continuous buzz. Hence we apparently do not perceive phonemes as consecutive bits of sound, but each moment of spoken sound must have several phonemes packed into it, and our brain knows how to unzip them.

We do not know when, how, or where language began. It was in any case immeasurably long before written documents, and beyond the earliest recollections of surviving folk-memory. Some students have argued that this or that kind of datable edifice or tool could not have been made or used except by human creatures capable of speech. The argument is subjective. Nor can we say that the progress of language in mankind was like the progress of language-learning in an infant; almost surely it was not. And we do not know whether language began in a single place on the globe and spread through the world, diversifying from region to region until its common origin became completely disguised, or whether it grew up as an independent development at various times and places when different societies reached the stage that would initiate and support it. The latter is more probable. All our knowledge is based on written records, a comparatively recent development, and on what the written records enable us to infer: half a dozen surviving words in related languages may suggest a hypothetical formula for the lost original from which all derive.

In fact, the written records are at once essential and inadequate for the historian of any language, and it is best to take a page or two at this point to say what the inadequacies are: these general considerations must be applied to almost everything that follows, for they have much the same force in every age of the English language before the indention of printing. Incompleteness of survival is the first difficulty. We may take it as an axiom that no historian of language ever has sufficient documents old enough to satisfy him. Of course the employment of writing goes back much further than the beginnings of English, but as it happens the first speakers in England of what was to become our language were almost certainly unlettered when they arrived in the middle of the fifth century. Literacy arrived about 150 years after, but it was Latin literacy; and the earliest surviving records in English – which used and adapted the Latin alphabet – are another 150 years later, that is mid-eighth century. And the late date of these papers is only one feature of their un-representativeness; language exists in time and space, and the distribution of the evidence in space is as poor as that in time. We find a feature or form in the south-west of England, for example, but we are very fortunate indeed if we find anything to compare it with in the north-east, so we are unable to say that ‘X is distinctive and restricted to the south-west’ but usually only that ‘X is found in the south-west’. For a linguistic level like sound it is not perhaps so disastrous, because the stock of sounds in any one dialect is small and therefore most sounds will be represented in even a restricted body of evidence. But it becomes a different matter for morphemes and even more so for words.

The second difficulty is that of the relation of spelling to sound. If a thousand years from now a linguistic historian found English ‘Confection’, French ‘Confection’, and German Konfektion in several documents, he would rightly conclude that they were connected, especially as the only difference was constant, that is, the German represents English and French c with k on both occasions. But he would not know that this regularity corresponded to a spelling habit rather than a speech habit, and that in fact the c or k in the three forms of the word represents the sound which is most alike in the different languages, and that the word is otherwise almost unrecognizably varied in the way English, French and Germans pronounce it. The only way he might arrive at this important differentiation would be by hearing tapes or records made a thousand years before, or by reading what writers said the words sounded like – especially if those writers described the sounds in terms of their articulation (unvoiced velar stop, etc.) instead of using subjective or relative terms (the hard d uses both). The historian in the far future will have these two kinds of evidence to work with, for they are being produced in profusion today; but the historians today have nothing of the sort with which to investigate the English of a thousand years ago. They must depend on inferences drawn from the previous and later history of the language insofar as they know it, and they always run the risk of circular reasoning.

Our history of the early stages of the English language, then, can be realistically written – and realistically read – only if writer and reader make the following admission: that a term like ‘Early West Saxon’ does NOT refer to the language spoken in Essex up to the year about 900, but rather to the linguistic agreements among the sounds, forms and words as they are reflected in the few surviving documents which, although of uncertain date and origin, appear to represent that time and area. Of course this is putting the case at its worst and in fact careful work over the last century and more has produced and is still producing results of remarkable solidity on which the following pages are based. But almost none of these results is so solid that it might not be changed by the addition of new evidence, in some cases the discovery of only one more document, or by the application of new methods, especially the mechanical or computer analysis of existing material.

These variations or rather mutations exist in almost all the languages where dialects have become locally standardized, to form a subset of the already existing version of language. The very existence of variety in any one language proves this view. If we take several of the many present-day varieties of English, we may account for the differences among them in one of three ways as suggested by Bolton (Bolton, 1994, 224)

(1)    The differences go back to the very beginning of language where several varieties of English existed from the first moment humanity began to speak, and continue to exist today, OR

(2) English is the point of convergence of many different languages, and the varieties of modern English are merely the descendants of even more different tongues all on their way to becoming English, OR

(2)    English is merely the general name for a variety of linguistic practices, the differences among which are the result of the natural tendency of languages to diverge from? common originals over the course of time.

Now the first explanation sees the varieties as parallel in their development. The second sees them as convergent; the third sees them as divergent. No other explanation fully accounts for the situation of variety which we confront today, and of the three, the first two are obviously impossible. The third therefore stands demonstrated, proving that languages change over time in the direction of greater differentiation. On this principle, what we should expect – and what we find – “is that the various forms of English now spoken go back to a relatively few originals of which we have record, and that they in turn go back to a single original of which we have no record” (Bolton, 1994, 230)

As far as the dialects are concerned, two principal branches of spoken English dialects are recognized by scholars. The British branch of spoken dialects include those spoken in England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. The North American branch of spoken dialects includes those spoken in Canada and the United States. Within each of these categories, there are different dialects, both geographical and social.

The English spoken in the Eastern Seaboard region and adjoining states in the United States have been studied in greater detail than the English spoken in other parts of the United States. Generally speaking, there are three different dialect areas: Northern dialect area consisting of Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and eastern Massachusetts and Connecticut; the Midland dialect area consisting of Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, northern Maryland, and northern West Virginia is treated as North Midland dialect; and the area consisting of West Virginia, western Virginia, western North Carolina, and northwestern South Carolina is treated as South Midland. The Southern English dialect includes Delmarva, Virginia Piedmont, Northeastern North Carolina, Cape Fear and Peedee Valleys and the South Carolina country (O’ Grady, et al. 1993:445).

It is possible that these three major dialect areas in the eastern United States extend to the west in close conjunction with the history of westward movement in settlement in the U.S. However, as Gleason warned us years ago it is only “American folk-linguistics (which) recognizes two major dialect areas, ‘Southern’ and ‘Northern.’ But there is no discernible linguistic division at or near the Mason-Dixon line. ‘Southern’ dialects are exceedingly diverse. The sharpest dialect boundary in the United States runs directly through the South roughly along the Blue Ridge mountains. A ‘Northern dialect’ is as much a fiction as a ‘Southern dialect.’” Despite spoken dialectal differences, the native speakers of English have maintained a great uniformity in formal spoken English which is amazingly uniform and close to written English. An educated native speaker of English makes easy transitions from the colloquial/informal to varieties of formal English in his/her speech.

The teacher of TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages), who is a native of speaker of English, needs to give up the peculiarities of his/her regional and/or social dialect at the informal level, and to switch over to the standard which is closer to the ordinary, plain written English, in his/her classroom.

But the question still remains as to why English gained provenience as a global language. In fact it has all happened so quickly. In 1950, any notion of English as a true world language was but a dim, shadowy, theoretical possibility, surrounded by the political uncertainties of the Cold War, and lacking any clear definition or sense of direction. Fifty years on, and World English exists as a political and cultural reality. How could such a dramatic linguistic shift have taken place, in less than a lifetime? And why has English, and not some other language, achieved such a status? Such questions are difficult to answer because of their corresponding political and religious issues. “English as a Global Language”, it is the kind of statement which seems so obvious that most people would give it hardly a second thought.

Now English may or may not be the official language of a nation. For example in Brazil – and in most of these countries it is emerging as the chief foreign language to be encountered in schools, often displacing another language in the process. In 1996, for example, English replaced French as the chief foreign language in schools in Algeria (a former French colony). In reflecting on these observations, it is important to note that there are several ways in which a language can be official. It may be the sole official language of a country, or it may share this status with other languages. And it may have a ‘semi-official’ status, being used only in certain domains, or taking second place to other languages while still performing certain official roles. Many countries formally acknowledge a language’s status in their constitution (e.g. India); some make no special mention of it (e.g. Britain). In certain countries, the question of whether the special status should be legally recognized is a source of considerable controversy – notably, in the USA.

Similarly, there is great variation in the reasons for choosing a particular language as a favored foreign language: they include historical tradition, political expediency, and the desire for commercial, cultural or technological contact. Also, even when chosen, the ‘presence’ of the language can vary greatly, depending on the extent to which a government or foreign-aid agency is prepared to give adequate financial support to a language-teaching policy. In a well-supported environment, resources will be devoted to helping people have access to the language and to learn it, through the media, libraries, schools, and institutes of higher education. There will be an increase in the number and quality of teachers able to teach the language. Books, tapes, computers, telecommunication systems and all kinds of teaching materials will be increasingly available. In many countries, however, lack of government support, or a shortage of foreign aid, has hindered the achievement of language-teaching goals.

Because of this three-pronged development – of first-language, official-language, and foreign-language speakers – “it is inevitable that a global language will eventually come to be used by more people than any other language” (Crystal, 2003, 9). English has already reached this stage. So finally, what does it take for a language to attain a global status? Certainly it has little to do which the statistical figure of people, who actually speak it, but rather, there exist a close of link between language dominance and cultural power, and this relationship will become increasingly clear as the history of English. Without a strong power-base, whether political, military or economic, no language can make progress as an international medium of communication. Language has no independent existence, living in some sort of mystical space apart from the people who speak it. Language exists only in the brains and mouths and ears and hands and eyes of its users. When they succeed, on the international stage, their language succeeds. When they fail, their language fails.

This point may seem obvious, but it needs to be made at the outset, because over the years many popular and misleading beliefs have grown up about why a language should become internationally successful. It is quite common to hear people claim that a language is a paragon, on account of its perceived aesthetic qualities, clarity of expression, literary power, or religious standing. Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Arabic and French are among those which at various times have been lauded in such terms, and English is no exception. It is often suggested, for example, that there must be something inherently beautiful or logical about the structure of English, in order to explain why it is now so widely used. ‘It has less grammar than other languages’, some have suggested. ‘English doesn’t have a lot of endings on its words, nor do we have to remember the difference between masculine, feminine, and neuter gender, so it must be easier to learn’. In 1848, a reviewer in the British periodical The Athenaeum wrote:

In its easiness of grammatical construction, in its paucity of inflection, in its almost total disregard of die distinctions of gender excepting those of nature, in the simplicity and precision of its terminations and auxiliary verbs, not less than in the majesty, vigor and copiousness of its expression, our mother-tongue seems well adapted by organization to become the language of the world.

Such arguments are misconceived. For example, Latin was once a major international language, despite its many inflectional endings and gender differences. French, too, has been such a language, despite its nouns being masculine or feminine; and so — at different times and places — have die heavily inflected Greek, Arabic, Spanish and Russian. Ease of learning has nothing to do with it. Children of all cultures learn to talk over more or less the same period of time, regardless of the differences in the grammar of their languages. If grammar minimalism is not the cause of such widespread use of English language today, then we must look somewhere else for a probable solution to this problem.

This is not to deny that a language may have certain properties which make it internationally appealing. For example, learners sometimes comment on the ‘familiarity’ of English vocabulary, deriving from the way English has over the centuries borrowed thousands of new words from the languages with which it has been in contact. The ‘welcome’ given to foreign vocabulary places English in contrast to some languages (notably, French) which have tried to keep it out, and gives it a cosmopolitan character which many see as an advantage for a global language. From a lexical point of view, English is in fact more a Romance than a Germanic language. And there have been comments made about other structural aspects, too, such as the absence in English grammar of a system of coding social class differences, which can make the language appear more ‘democratic’ to those who speak a language (e.g. Javanese) that does express an intricate system of class relationships. But these supposed traits of appeal are incidental, and need to be weighed against linguistic features which would seem to be internationally much less desirable — notably, in the case of English, the many irregularities of its spelling system.

As already pointed out, modern English has retained the old spelling even as it has developed new pronunciation. English is rather “notorious” for its alleged frequent lack of correspondence between the spelling and pronunciation of a word. It has been pointed out that “there are 13.7 spellings per sound, but only 3.5 sounds per letter” in English (G. Dewy, 1971, quoted in Crystal 1987:213).

Contrary to general impression, scholars claim that 75% of English is regular. However, “the 400 or so irregular spellings are largely among the most frequently used words in the language, and this promotes a strong impression of irregularity” (Crystal 1987, 214).[1]

As Crystal (1987:214) points out, irregularities of English spelling came from several sources into the language. 26 letters are used to represent a larger number of phonemes (significant groups of sounds each of which may be represented by a separate letter for ease and convenience in a language). Borrowed words from French led to respelling of words. The printing process caused further complications. Many early printers were from Holland and they introduced their own spelling norms, and made several convenient abbreviations and additions and deletions to account for the space in a line. Then “there was a fashion to make spelling reflect Latin or Greek etymology.” And modern borrowings from other languages brought with them their own spelling. In spite of all this, English spelling gives us a lot of information about the relationship between words. And this feature is a boon both to the TESOL teacher, and the second/foreign language learner of English. One comes to recognize intuitively the relationship between words, learns to derive the nouns from the verbs and vice versa, and does a lot of other grammatical exercises which make the learning of English much simpler than learning many other languages.

English has a long history of spelling reform movements from the 16th Century. The efforts of Spelling Reform Association in the U.S. (founded in 1876) and Simplified Spelling Society in Britain (founded in 1908), along with the untiring efforts of Bernard Shaw, a great modern playwright, in recent times, are significant milestones in spelling reform movements. But almost all of these ended as futile exercise. However, some spelling changes have been effected in American English through the rules introduced by the great American lexicographer Noah Webster (1758-1843) which distinguish American English from British English. For example, use of -or for -our and -er for -re in words such as honor/honour, and theater/theatre.

In this light, Bolton rightly comments: “A language does not become a global language because of its intrinsic structural properties, or because of the size of its vocabulary, or because it has been a vehicle of a great literature in the past, or because it was once associated with a great culture or religion. These are all factors which can motivate someone to learn a language, of course, but none of them alone, or in combination, can ensure a language’s world spread. Indeed, such factors cannot even guarantee survival as a living language… Correspondingly, inconvenient structural properties (such as awkward spelling) do not stop a language achieving international status either.” (Bolton, 1994, 4).

If linguistic supremacy of a language does not certify its hierarchical authority as a global language, then what we are left with other factors of influence which include trade and political aspects that can help a language grow outside its land of origin. A language becomes an international language for one chief reason: the political power of its people – especially their military power. The explanation is the same throughout history. It’s an intriguing question as to why Greek became a language of international communication in the Middle East over 2,000 years ago. Not because of the intellects of Plato and Aristotle: the answer lies in the swords and spears, wielded by the armies of Alexander the Great. Why did Latin become known throughout Europe? Ask the legions of the Roman Empire. Why did Arabic come to be spoken so widely across northern Africa and the Middle East? Follow the spread of Islam, carried along by the force of the Moorish armies from the eighth century. Why did Spanish, Portuguese, and French find their way into the Americas, Africa and the Far East? Study the colonial policies of the Renaissance kings and queens, and the way these policies were ruthlessly implemented by armies and navies all over the known world. The history of a global language can be traced through the successful expeditions of its soldier/sailor speakers. And English; as we shall see has been no exception.

A global language none the less is required to maintain an unperturbed communication throughout the world. Invention of an altogether new language system would require immense resources and infrastructure, as it would require linguists from around the world to work on the grammar and semantics of this new language, and then educating the masses for such an alien language would prove quite a strenuous task. An ergonomic solution would be to use a language already in use more prominently than the native language(s) of an area. Moreover the growth of trade which treats the globe as one big continent requires a streamlined use of language which can cut down the risk of miscommunication and the need for translations, which seem to lack on localized particulars.

The need for a global language is particularly appreciated by the international academic and business communities, and it is here that the adoption of a single lingua franca is most in evidence, both in lecture-rooms and board-rooms, as well as in thousands of individual contacts being made daily all over the globe. A conversation over the Internet (see chapter 4) between academic physicists in Sweden, Italy, and India is at present practicable only if a common language is available. A situation where a Japanese company director arranges to meet German and Saudi Arabian contacts in a Singapore hotel to plan a multinational deal would not be impossible, if each plugged in to a 3-way translation support system, but it would be far more complicated than die alternative, which is for each to make use of the same language.

People have, in short, become more mobile, both physically and electronically. Annual airline statistics show that steadily increasing numbers are finding the motivation as well as the means to transport them physically around the globe, and sales of faxes, modems, and personal computers show an even greater increase in those prepared to send their ideas in words and images electronically. It is now possible, using electronic mail, to copy a message to 100 locations all over the world virtually simultaneously. It is just as easy for me to send a message from my house in the small town of Holyhead, North Wales, to a friend in Washington as it is to get the same message to someone living just a few streets away from me. In fact, it is probably easier. That is why people so often talk, these days, of the ‘global village’

The benefits which would flow from the existence of a global language are considerable; but some commentators have pointed to possible risks. Perhaps a global language will cultivate an elite monolingual linguistic class, more complacent and dismissive in their attitudes towards other languages. Perhaps those who have such a language at their disposal — and especially those who have it as a mother-tongue – will be more able to think and work quickly in it, and to manipulate it to their own advantage at the expense of those who do not have it, thus maintaining in a linguistic guise the chasm between rich and poor. Perhaps the presence of a global language will make people lazy about learning other languages, or reduce their opportunities to do so.

Perhaps a global language will hasten the disappearance of minority languages, or — die ultimate threat — make all other languages unnecessary. ‘A person needs only one language to talk to someone else’, it is sometimes argued, ‘and once a world language is in place, other languages will simply die away’. Linked with all this is the unpalatable face of linguistic triumphalism — the danger that some people will celebrate one language’s success at the expense of others.

It is important to face up to these fears, and to recognize that they are widely held. There is no shortage of mother-tongue English speakers who believe in an evolutionary view of language (‘let the fittest survive, and if the fittest happens to be English, then so be it’) or who refer to the present global status of the language as a ‘happy accident’. There are many who think that all language learning is a waste of time. And many more who see nothing wrong with the vision that a world with just one language in it would be a very good thing. For some, such a world would be one of unity and peace, with all misunderstanding washed away — a widely expressed hope underlying the movements in support of a universal artificial language (such as Esperanto). For others, such a world would be a desirable return to the ‘innocence’ that must have been present among human beings in the days before the Tower of Babel. It is difficult to deal with anxieties which are so speculative, or, in the absence of evidence, to determine whether anything can be done to reduce or eliminate them. The last point can be quite briefly dismissed: the use of a single language by a community is no guarantee of social harmony or mutual understanding, as has been repeatedly seen in world history (e.g. the American Civil War, the Spanish Civil War, the Vietnam War, former Yugoslavia, contemporary Northern Ireland); nor does the presence of more than one language within a community necessitate civil strife, as seen in several successful examples of peaceful multilingual coexistence (e.g. Finland, Singapore, Switzerland). The other points, however, need to be taken more slowly, to appreciate the alternative perspective. The arguments are each illustrated with reference to English — but the same arguments would apply whatever language was in the running for global status.

Here we may have to deal with two problems related to Linguistic domination. Firstly, will those who speak a global language as a mother tongue automatically be in a position of power compared with those who have to learn it as an official or foreign language? The risk is certainly real. It is possible, for example, that scientists who do not have English as a mother tongue will take longer to assimilate reports in English compared with their mother-tongue colleagues, and will as a consequence have less time to carry out their own creative work. It is possible that people who write up their research in languages other than English will have their work ignored by the international community. It is possible that senior managers who do not have English as a mother tongue, and who find themselves working for English-language companies in such parts of the world as Europe or Africa, could find themselves at a disadvantage compared with their mother-tongue colleagues, especially when meetings involve the use of informal speech. There is already anecdotal evidence to suggest that these things happen.

As a secondary issue, will a global language eliminate the motivation for adults to learn other languages? Here too the problem is real enough. Clear signs of linguistic complacency, common observation suggests, are already present in the archetypal British or American tourist who travels the world assuming that everyone speaks English, and that it is somehow the fault of the local people if they do not. The stereotype of an English tourist repeatedly asking a foreign waiter for tea in a loud ‘read my lips’ voice is too near the reality to be comfortable. There seems already to be a genuine, widespread lack of motivation to learn other languages, fuelled partly by lack of money and opportunity, but also by lack of interest, and this might well be fostered by the increasing presence of English as a global language. It is important to appreciate that we are dealing here with questions of attitude or state of mind rather than questions of ability — though it is the latter which is often cited as the explanation. ‘I’m no good at languages’ is probably the most widely heard apology for not making any effort at all to acquire even a basic knowledge of a new language. Commonly, this self-denigration derives from an unsatisfactory language learning experience in school: the speaker is perhaps remembering a poor result in school examinations — which may reflect no more than an unsuccessful teaching approach or a not unusual breakdown in teacher—adolescent relationships. T never got on with my French teacher’ is another typical comment. But this does not stop people going on to generalize that ‘the British (or the Americans, etc.) are not very good at learning languages’.

Crystal suggests that “These days, there are clear signs of growing awareness, within English-speaking communities, of the need to break away from the traditional monolingual bias” (Crystal, 2003, 9). And certainly, in economically hard-pressed times, success in boosting exports and attracting foreign investment can depend on subtle factors, and sensitivity to the language spoken by a country’s potential foreign partners is known to be particularly influential. At least at the levels of business and industry, many firms have begun to make fresh efforts in this direction. But at grass-roots tourist level, too, there are signs of a growing respect for other cultures, and a greater readiness to engage in language learning. Language attitudes are changing all the time, and more and more people are discovering, to their great delight, that they are not at all bad at picking up a foreign language.

Reconsidering our previous question of the nature of English we use today as a standard without going into the early history of the language, we will focus on the closest relative of version of English we speak in contemporary times, which none the less is what we call “Modern English”, which came into existence around 1500 A.D. Around this time, the language was spoken by five million people in England and southern Scotland; today (1987) it is the first language of more than 350 million people, and the largest English-speaking communities are of course in North America. This spread of the language has encouraged divergent development, and there are now distinctive varieties of English in different “arts of the world. However, the improvement in communications may now be putting a brake on this divergence; the different forms of English are influencing one another, and the influence of American English is particularly potent.

In the late medieval period, English had been re-established as the language of administration, government, and literature in England and a standard literary language had arisen, based on London usage. But, even after the disappearance of French as a living language in England, the English language was not entirely without a rival: Latin was still the language of international scholarship, and it was only in the course of the Modern English period that it finally fell out of use in England. As late as 1689 a major scientific work, Newton’s Principia, could be published in Latin, though it is interesting to notice that his Opticks, fifteen years later, was published in English. In the 16th century many people believed that learning was not learning at all unless it was written in Latin, and this attitude was often reinforced by the vested interests of those who wished to preserve their position as an elite: physicians for example were bitterly hostile to the publication of medical works in English, which might undermine their monopoly. But there were also strong forces making for the use of English: patriotic feeling, typical of the new nation-states of Europe; the religious disputes during and after the Reformation, in which controversialists wished to be read by a wide audience; the importance attached by Protestants to the reading of the Bible in the vernacular; the increasing importance of social groups which lacked the classical education of the gentry, but which were eager for instruction; and, behind all these, the introduction of printing, which had expanded the reading-public.

English in its early form was deficient with vocabulary in the fields of geometry, rhetoric and medicine and so on, works upon which were primarily accomplished in Greek or Latin. The following passage illustrates both the concern with a new technical vocabulary and the necessity that the popularizers felt to defend their English writings against the traditional academics; it is taken from the preface to the first English translation of the Logic of Ramus, made by a Scot but published in London in 1574:

“Heare I will speake nothing of the enuious, that thinkethe it not decent to wryte any liberall arte in the vulgar tongue, but woulde haue all thinges kept close eyther in the Hebrewe, Greke, or Latyn tongues. I knowe what greate hurte hathe come to the Churche of God by the defence of this mischeuous opinion: yet I woulde askc them one thing that thou mayest knowe their deceiptfull policie, and that their saying hathe no grounds of veritie. Whether wrote Moyses (the Hebrewe and deuyne) and after him Esdras in the Hebrewe and vulgar tongue or in some other strange tongue? Did Aristode and Plato Greke Philosophers, Hipocrates and Galen Greke Phisitions, leaue the Greke tongue, because it was their natiue language, to seke some Hebrewe or Latin? Did Cicero who was a Latinist borne write his Philosophic and Rethoricke in the Greke tongue, or was he content with his mother tongue? and suerly as he testifiethe hym self he had the perfecte knowledge of the Greke tongue, yet he wrothe nothing therin which we tiaue extant at this daye.

Shall we then thinke the Scottyshe or Englishe ongue, is not fitt to wrote any arte into? no in dede. But peraduenture thou wylt saye that there is not Scottyshe wordes for to declare and expresse all thinges contayned into liberall artes, truth it is: neither was there Latin wordes to expresse all thinges writen in the Hebrewe and Greke tongues: But did Cicero for this cause write no philosophic in Latin? thou wilt riot saye so, lest I take the with a manifest lye. What then did Cicero? he laborethe in the Latin tongue, as Aristotle before hym did in the Greke, and thou enuious felowe ought to do in thy mother tongue what so euer it be, to witte he amplified his natiue tongue, thinking no shame to borrowe from the Hebrucians and Grecians suche wordes as his mother tongue was indigent of. What, shall we thinke shame to borrowe eyther of the Latin or Greke, more than the learned Cicero did? or finde some fitt wordes in our owne tongue able to expresse our meaning as Aristotle did? shall we I saye be more vnkynde to our natiue tongue and countrey then was thiese men to theirs? But thou wilt saye, our tongue is barbarous, and theirs is eloquent? I aunswere thee as Anacharsis did to the Athenienses, who called his Scithian tongue barbarous, yea sayethe he, Anacharsis is barbarous amongest the Athenienses, and so are the Athenienses amongst the Scythyans, by the which aunswere he signified that euery mans tongue is eloquent ynoughe for hym self, and that others in respect of it is hard as barbarous.”(Ramus, 1994, 15)[2].

The translator here advocates the method of borrowing words from Latin and Greek to remedy the deficiencies of the English vocabulary, and also mentions the possibility of finding ‘fitt wordes in our owne tongue’, i.e. adapting existing words to new uses. In fact there were in the 16th century opposing schools of thought about vocabulary-expansion, and three main methods were advocated:

(1) The borrowing of words from other languages, especially the classical languages;

(2) The coining of words from native elements (by affixation, compounding);

(3) The revival of obsolete words, and the adoption of dialect-words into the standard language.

The whole process was highly conscious; Spenser, for example, was not just acting on individual whim when he used archaisms and dialect-words in his poetry: he was part of a whole movement.

An important characteristic of English has been its receptivity to loan words from other languages. No other language exhibits such an extraordinary receptivity. This has not resulted, however, in the loss of corresponding native words in most cases. Words were often borrowed to refine the meanings which resulted in greater clarity in the expression and creation of ideas.

Moreover, English speakers always enjoyed greater freedom in the use of their language, unlike, for instance, the users of the French language. There has been no legal provision which guided the native speakers of English in the use or non-use of words. Mostly the commonly agreed conventions, rather than deliberate enforcement of rules of usage through academies, marked the development of English and its use.

Modern, current English has over 500,000 words. If we add the scientific terms used in the language, the total would be very high indeed. It has been estimated that only 18.4 percent of these words is native to English. French vocabulary used in English is around 32.4 percent, whereas the words of Latin origin is estimated to be 14.4 percent, words of Greek origin around 12.5 percent, and other languages 23.3 percent. This does not mean that the words of foreign origin are more greatly used in English. It only suggests that more foreign words than the native ones are used to characterize, define, and describe meanings and ideas in English (Encyclopedia Britannica).

With vocabulary, we are concerned with what are sometimes called ‘open-ended’ word-classes (nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs) whose members cannot be listed exhaustively – since, after all, any speaker of the language can invent a new one at any time. In grammar, by contrast, we are dealing with closed systems containing relatively few members, which can be listed exhaustively: word-classes like pronouns, determiners, conjunctions, auxiliaries; sets of inflections; permissible phrase- and sentence-patterns; and so on.

In Modern English, the system of determiners had reached very much its present-day form, DETERMINERS are the grammatical words used to mark nouns, like the, a, each, any, my. One important group of determiners in English is formed by the DEMONSTRATIVES. Modern English has a three-term system of demonstratives, the/this/that, Old English on the other hand had a two-term system, se/pes. The two OE demonstratives had a large number of different forms, which were selected according to the gender, number, and case of the following noun. The three Modern English demonstratives, on the other hand, have few forms: this and that have plural forms these and those, and has a single invariable form. The modern situation was reached in about 1500. But since the rise, the expansion of English has been exponential and has surpassed any other language. This argument is supported by the status of English as a major communication language. Let us take a look at how, it has replaced other European languages including Spanish and Portuguese as cited by Chauncy Harris:

“The number of languages used for communication at International Geographical Congresses has varied over time from six to two. Four principal languages—French, English, German, and Italian—were used in the first fifteen congresses (1871-1938). These four, plus Portuguese and Spanish, constituted the six languages of record in the next three congresses (1949, 1952, and 1956). But after i960 only English and French were officially featured in International Geographical Congresses”. (Harris, 2001, 675-677)[3]

Discussion here is limited to periodicals and serials in countries in which English is not the mother tongue of the majority of the inhabitants. Publications in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland are omitted. This survey also excludes publications in countries in which English, though not the main indigenous language has some sort of official, educational, scholarly, cultural, or economic status. For example, current geographical periodicals are published in English in India, Bangladesh, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Since geographical periodicals are an important means of communication especially they represent the inauguration of important issues at a global level, the choice of their medium as English denotes the widespread acceptability of English.

English exclusively in present time holds most of the cross continent communication, but none the less is the major language of communication where language diversities exist and control certain major aspects of political and social diversities. Countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bhutan are solely dependent on a common international language for high level communication. Discussions of English in South Asia focus almost exclusively on second-language (L2) users of this language. A major difference lies here when we compare language distribution in Indian and those of the nation of the American continent. English spoken in America or Canada and for that matter, in Australia is not the adaptation of the original British English, but it is a case of language transplantation, where the natives of English speaking countries have migrated to these geographical locations and have developed their language with the new landscape. In India however, the case is different. Here the language (English) was introduced as an official language of communication during the British rule. Since then, the language has gained prominence, and currently holds the second position in the hierarchy of five major languages in India. In fact there are many political issues involved that play a major role in the “globalized” status of English.

Mufwene, a linguist from the Congo now based in the US, demonstrates that the concepts and terminology used in relation to English outside the Neo-Europeans, “New Englishes”, and Creoles, involve biased processes of hierarch-isation of the “legitimate and illegitimate offspring of English”, and are fundamentally flawed and ethnocentric. Symptomatic of the wishful thinking of global English is the publicity used by The International Herald Tribune (earlier New York Herald Tribune). It describes itself as “The world’s daily newspaper. Since 1887…The global village has a hometown newspaper . . . It’s the newspaper the whole world reads”. Evidently the global village, another metaphor much used by the cheerleaders of globalization, is monolingual. There are in fact still some 6,000-7,000 spoken languages in the world, and perhaps equally many sign languages and hundreds of languages are used across national borders. The continuing existence of most languages is, however, threatened by market forces and the ideology and practice of monolingual nation-states (Phillipson, 2001, 188-189)[4].

Many decisions that affect the entire world’s population are taken in English. Reference to English as a ‘global’ language has therefore much less to do with demography or geography than with decision-making in the contemporary global political and economic system. The world system itself is fragile, turbulent and unsustainable. English is currently pre-eminent but may be challenged by Chinese, Arabic and other languages. In our contemporary world, 10-20% of the population are getting obscenely richer, the English-speaking haves who consume 80% of the available resources, whereas the remainder are being systematically impoverished, the non-English-speaking have-nots.

When analyzing English worldwide the bottom line is whose interests, English serves. Also of crucial importance, not least in the academic and educational worlds, are whose interests, scholarship on English serves. Ngugi wa Thiong’o encapsulates the issues vividly:

A new world order that is no more than a global dominance of neo-colonial relations policed by a handful of Western nations … is a disaster for the peoples of the world and their cultures . . . The languages of Europe were taught as if they were our own languages, as if Africa had no tongues except those brought there by imperialism, bearing the label MADE IN EUROPE.” (Ngugi, 1986, 35)[5]

The agony of language loss has been expressed vividly by a delegate from Mali to UNESCO, when pleading for funds to record the oral memories of old people, because Mali’s history itself was still almost entirely oral and would die with his generation: When an old man dies in one of our villages, a shelf-full of books is lost.

Contrast this with the words of Lord Macaulay, whose educational minute in India in 1835 set the tone for language policy throughout the British Empire. When referring to British Orientalists, i.e. westerners who learned oriental languages, he wrote:

I have never found one amongst them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.

The colonial exercise was not merely about conquering territory and economies, but also about conquering minds. For Macaulay and generations of colonialists the purpose of British education for Indian leaders was to produce: “A class of persons, Indians in blood and colour, English in taste, in opinion, in morals and in intellect” (ibid.: 5)

Throughout the entire post-colonial world, English has been marketed as the language of ‘international communication and understanding’, economic ‘development’, ‘national unity’ and similar positive ascriptions, but these soft-sell terms obscure the reality of North-South links and globalization, which is that the majority of the world’s population is being impoverished, that natural resources are being plundered in unsustainable ways, and that speakers of most languages do not have their linguistic human rights respected (Skutnabb-Kangas and Phillipson 1994; Kontra et al. 1999)[6].

Globalization policies serve to ensure that the role of English is maintained and perpetuated. The key player in educational policy is the World Bank (Brock-Utne 2000). Its policies are cast in Macaulay’s mould:

The World Bank’s real position . . . encourages the consolidation of the imperial languages in Africa … the World Bank does not seem to regard the linguistic Africanisation of the whole of primary education and beyond as an effort that is worth its consideration. Its publication on strategies for stabilising and revital¬ising universities, for example makes absolutely no mention of the place of language at this tertiary level of African education”. (Mazrui 1997, 39).[7]

Apart from such critics, the status of English today remains undoubtedly global. None the less it affects the eco-political decisions throughout the world, and to some extent threatens the existence of native languages of continents. Let us now examine the various methods adopted that help sustain English as a medium for primary communication.

Europe and Asia have had a long tradition of teaching and learning foreign languages. Memorization of vocabulary and translation of sentences often formed the major part of such learning processes in the past. Ancient languages such as Sanskrit and Pali were mastered in Asia through the process of memorization of texts and vocabulary lists. Learning vocabulary lists indeed formed the core of language learning.

The progress of Reformation in Europe brought within its wake change in methods of learning foreign and classical languages. While writing paradigms for individual verbs continued to be emphasized, teachers began to focus more on oral aspects of language. Until then learning a language was synonymous with learning the written language.

Two scholars during the progress of Reformation stood out as distinguished contributors for the change of language teaching methods: Erasmus and Comenius.

Erasmus, a contemporary of Martin Luther, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, argued that speaking the foreign language should begin early in one’s attempt in learning it. Good and understandable oral communication, he said, was the important thing to master. Next in importance was reading, and, then, writing came at last.

Erasmus wanted that we learn the language through exposure to interesting and practical conversations and stories accompanied by visuals such as picture. Note that this is still one of the cornerstones of current thinking on teaching foreign/second language. In addition, Erasmus suggested several rhetorical exercises which focused on “transforming verse into prose, imitating the style of a prominent writer, translating, or recasting propositions in various forms.”

Currently these types of exercises are not favored in teaching and learning languages. These are good exercises, no doubt, but are more useful in teaching literature, or more appropriately, teaching writing of literary pieces. Presently we do make a distinction between learning language and literature. We may learn a language in order to study the literature written in it. But learning a language need not be necessarily done through studying its literature.

Martin Luther was opposed to excessive drill on rules for producing sentences. Instead of memorizing rules for the production of sentences, he asked for the actual production of sentences themselves as appropriate practice to learn a language. William Bath (1565-1614) focused on teaching vocabulary through contextualized presentation, which would be further elaborated later on by Comenius.

The contribution of Comenius to modern secular education is enormous. His thoughts on methods of teaching languages had influenced generations of European teachers. He wanted a graded presentation of sentence structures.

The author is student of M. Phil  scholar at Institute of English Studies and Research, Delhi.

[1] Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, Cambridge University, England, 1987.


[2] Freedman, Joseph S., Peter Ramus’s Attack on Cicero: Text and Translation of Ramus’s ‘Brutinae Quaestiones.’, Hermagoras Press, Portland, 1992.

[3] Harris, English as International Language in Geography: Development and Limitations, Geographical Review, Vol. 91, No. 4 Oct., 2001, American Geographical Society, 2001.

[4] Philipson, Multilingual Education for Social Justice: Globalising the Local, Orient Blackswan, Delhi, 2001.

[5] Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, 1986, London.

[6] Philipson, Multilingual Education for Social Justice: Globalising the Local, Orient Blackswan, Delhi, 2001.

[7] Mazrui, Alamin, Race and Class: The World Bank, the Language Question and the Future of African Education, Vol.38, 1997.


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