Englishness, civil society and linguistic identity in Britain

civil society and
linguistic identity
in Britain
In Paxman’s words: “The greatest
legacy the English have bequeated the
rest of humanity is their language.”
Indeed, English has been the most
expansive language during the past 500
years and its rise has triggered one of
the most exciting debates on language
policy of our days.
The questions are basically:
Why English?
How did English develop externally
and internally to become the leading
world language?
How did English jump from being one
of the few powerful international,
colonial languages, to the status of
the hegemonic world language?
The British Empire and the Rise of English
The British Empire developed in three
distinct periods with different results as
regards the spread of the English language.
During a 1st period throughout the Middle Ages,
English spread over the British Isles, setting the stage
for becoming the language of the British Empire.
The 2nd period began at the end of the 16th century
with settlements in North America and, later on, in
Australia and New Zealand.
The 3rd period came towards the end of the 18th
century with the building of a vast colonial empire,
mainly in Africa and Asia.
The first period (Middle Ages) allowed
English to emerge from a subordinate
position in a Norman French vs. English
diglossia to become the national language
of one of the most powerful European
It represented a combination of nation
building and internal colonialism in the
periphery (Wales, Scotland and Ireland) as
Britain never achieved total linguistic
unification in its homeland.
The historical influence of language in
the British Isles can best be seen in place
names and their derivations. Examples
ac (as in Acton, Oakwood) which is
Anglo-Saxon for “oak”;
by (as in Whitby) is Old Norse for “farm”
or “village”;
pwll (as in Liverpool) is Welsh for
 The second period (end of 16th century – 18th
century) laid the ground for English world rule
through the conquest, massive settlement, and
future industrial development of North America,
Australia and New Zealand.
The first New World settlement was established in
Jamestown in 1607.
During the 17th century, British rule was
established in the West Indian islands of Antigua,
Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago.
Canada was won from the French in 1763.
British rule in India was established in
1750, although the East India Company
had existed since 1600.
Australia and New Zealand were
discovered during Captain Cook's voyages
between 1768 and 1779.
The third period (end 18th century) saw
the British rule as being finally established
in West Africa (Nigeria), East Africa
(Kenya and Tanzania) and Southern Africa
The complex processes of exploration,
colonization and overseas trade that
characterized Britain’s external relations
for several centuries led English to be
imposed as the official language of the
new colonies but also brought significant
changes in English itself. Indeed, words
from the local languages trickled into the
English of the colonisers.
This occurred most frequently where an
equivalent word did not exist in English:
barbecue and cannibal are words which
have been borrowed from the Caribbean;
bungalow, pyjamas, shampoo, pundit
have come into the language from India;
kangaroo and boomerang are native
Australian Aborigine words.
New words were also absorbed via the
languages of other trading and imperial
nations such as Spain, Portugal and the
At the same time new varieties of English
emerged, each with their own nuances of
vocabulary and grammar and their own
distinct pronunciations.
The development of English from a colonial
language to a global language, to a lingua
franca regularly used and understood by many
nations for whom English is not their first
language has been framed by the linguist
Kachru (1982, 1986), both in its external
spread and in its internal variation.
His model of three concentric circles is widely
The Inner Circle includes the six countries
where English is the first language and has
become the majority language through massive
migration to the overseas colonies:
the USA
anglophone Canada
New Zealand
some of the Caribbean territories
The Outer Circle includes countries where
English is not the native tongue, but is
important for historical reasons and plays a part
in the nation’s institutions, either as an official
language or otherwise.
India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Tanzania,
Pakistan, Singapore and Nigeria are considered
typical countries of the Outer Circle where new
varieties of English arose over time through
contact with native languages.
 The Expanding Circle includes countries where
English plays no historical or governmental role but
is widely used as a foreign language or lingua
franca; these countries were not colonized by any
country of the Inner Circle, and English has no
official status.
 This circle includes countries like China, Japan,
Korea, Russia and most if not all European and
Latin American countries.
 The Expanding Circle is growing fast and has
already outnumbered the speakers in the two other
The linguistic development of English
We said that the English language
spread throughout the world thanks to
the spread of the British Empire but it is
necessary to point out that the English
language we nowadays speak is the
result of a series of linguistic internal
changes that led to its present structure.
Early Modern English (1500-1800)
Since the 16th century, because of the contact
that the British had with many peoples from
around the world, many new words and
phrases have entered the language either
directly or indirectly.
Furthermore, new words and phrases were
created at an increasing rate and many of them
that are now commonly used were coined or
first recorded by Shakespeare: indeed, some
2,000 words and countless idioms are his.
Newcomers to Shakespeare are often
shocked at the number of cliches contained
in his plays, until they realize that he coined
them and they became cliches afterwards.
"At one fell swoop," "vanish into thin air" and
"flesh and blood" are all Shakespeare's.
Words he bequeathed to the language
include "critical", "majestic", "dwindle" and
Two other major factors influenced the English
language and served to separate Middle
English and Modern English.
The first was the Great Vowel Shift. This was a
sudden and distinct change in pronunciation
that began around 1400 according to which
vowels were pronounced shorter and shorter,
with their sounds being made further to the front
of the mouth and the letter "e" at the end of
words becoming silent.
Chaucer's Lyf (pronounced "leef") became
the modern life.
In Middle English name was pronounced
"nam-a," five was pronounced "feef," and
down was pronounced "doon."
The shift is still not over, vowel sounds are
still shortening although the change has
become considerably more gradual.
 The last major factor in the development of
Modern English was the advent of the printing
 William Caxton brought the printing press to
England in 1476. Books became cheaper and as a
result, literacy became more common. Publishing
for the masses became a profitable enterprise, and
works in English, as opposed to Latin, became
more common.
 Furthermore, the printing press brought
standardization to English.
Indeed, the dialect of London, where most
publishing houses were located, became the
standard. As it began to be used more widely,
especially in formal contexts and amongst the
upper classes, the other regional varieties
came to be stigmatized, as lacking social
prestige and indicating a lack of education.
As a result of this also spelling and grammar
became fixed, and the first English dictionary
was published in 1604.
Late Modern English (1800-Present)
The main distinction between Early and
Late Modern English is vocabulary.
Pronunciation, grammar, and spelling are
largely the same, but Late Modern English
has many more words which are the result
of two historical factors
The first is the Industrial Revolution in the
18th century and the rise of the
technological society which created a need
for neologisms to describe the new creations
and discoveries.
For this, English relied heavily on Latin and
Greek. Words like oxygen, protein, nuclear did
not exist in the classical languages, but they
were created from Latin and Greek roots.
However, these neologisms were not
exclusively created from classical roots as
English roots were also used for such terms
as horsepower, airplane, and typewriter.
Furthermore, new technical words were
added to the vocabulary as inventors
designed various products and machinery;
these words were named after the inventor or
given the name of their choice: trains, engine,
combustion, electricity, telephone, telegraph,
camera etc.
In addition to this, the rise of the British
Empire, its ruling – at its height – one
quarter of the earth’s surface between the
18th and the 20th centuries and the growth
of global trade served not only to introduce
English to the world, but to introduce
foreign words into English
In this sense, it is also interesting to note
that the British Empire was a maritime
empire, and the influence of nautical terms
on the English language has been great;
phrases like three sheets to the wind have
their origins onboard ships.
Finally, the military influence on the language
during the second half of the 20th century
was significant.
Before the Great War, military service for
English-speaking persons was rare; both
Britain and the United States maintained
small, volunteer militaries. Military slang
existed, but, with the exception of nautical
terms, rarely influenced standard English.
During the mid-20th century, however, a
large number of British and American men
served in the military. And consequently
military slang entered the language like
never before. Blockbuster, camouflage,
radar, roadblock, spearhead and landing
strip are all military terms that made their way
into standard English.
A brief chronology of English
The Great Vowel Shift begins.
William Caxton establishes the first English printing press.
Shakespeare is born.
Table Alphabeticall, the first English dictionary, is published.
The first permanent English settlement in the New World Early
(Jamestown) is established.
The first daily English-language newspaper, The Daily Courant,
is published in London.
Samuel Johnson publishes his English dictionary.
Britain abandons its colonies in what is later to become the USA.
Webster publishes his American English dictionary.
The British Broadcasting Corporation is founded.
The Oxford English Dictionary is published.
The British attitude towards English
 We said that English is now a global language, a
lingua franca, but to the British language is much
more than a means of communication – it is a cultural
heritage, something to be held up for display and
treasured and admired for its own worth.
 The Complete Oxford Dictionary runs to 23 volumes
and contains over 500.000 words; new words appear
everyday, highlighting the growth of English as
something the British exult in, as they consider verbal
evolution as a mark of success.
The British love of words
From a sociolinguistic point of view, one of the
distinguishing features of the British is their love
of words, seen as their preferred medium – as
well as, consequently, as their primary means
of signalling and recognising social status.
Jeremy Paxman calls the English “a people
obsessed by words”, and cites the phenomenal
output of their publishing industry (100.000 new
books a year).
Reading books ranks as even more popular
than DIY and gardening in national surveys of
leisure activity and it is worth noting that every
one of the non-verbal hobbies and pastimes
that occupy their leisure time – such as fishing,
stamp collecting, pets, walking, sports etc. –
has at least one if not many more specialist
magazines devoted to it.
Over 80% of the English regularly read a daily
newspaper. In England, daily papers are also
known as “broadsheets” because of their
large format, something that leads them to be
the favourite reading of the English as they
are large enough for every reader to hide
behind. In this sense, the English broadsheet
is an example of what psychologists call a
“barrier signal”.
Indeed, not only can one conceal oneself
completely behind its outsize,
outstretched pages – effectively
prohibiting any form of interaction with
other humans, and successfully
maintaining the comforting illusion that
they do not exist – but one is enclosed,
cocooned in a solid wall of words. This is
typically British.
Some sociolinguists assume that the
English love of words, and their passion
for word games and verbal puzzles is
most perfectly demonstrated not by the wit
of the broadsheet columnists, brilliant
though they are, but by the journalists and
subeditors who write the headlines in the
If you take a random selection of English
tabloids and flip through them, you will soon
notice that almost every other headline involves
some kind of play on words:
a pun
a double meaning
a deliberate jokey misspelling
a clever neologism
a cunning rhyme
an amusing alitteration, and so on.
The English attitude to play with words is also
to be seen in place names.
Let’s consider the Underground stations in
London: their names nearly always sound
sylvan and beckoning:
Stamford Brook
Turnham Green
Maida Vale
Drayton Park.
We could say that there isn’t a city up there, it’s
a Jane Austen novel.
It’s easy to imagine that you are shuttling about
under a semimythic city from some golden preindustrial age.
Swiss Cottage ceases to be a busy road
junction and becomes instead a gingerbread
dwelling in the midts of the great oak forest
known as St. John’s Wood.
Chalk Farm (an area in north London) is an
open space of fields where cheerful peasants
in brown smocks cut and gather crops of
Blackfriars is full of cowled and chanting
Oxford Circus has its bigtop
Barking is a dangerous place overrun
with packs of wild dogs
Holland Park is full of windmills.
From a general point of view, there is almost
no area of British life that isn’t touched with a
kind of genius for names.
Select any area of nomenclature at all
prisons: Wormwood Scrubs, Strangeways
pubs: The Cat and Fiddle, The Lamb and
soccer teams: Queen of the South
and you are in for a spell of enchantment.
 Nowhere are the British more gifted than with
place names. Of the 30.000 named places in
Britain a good half are notable or arresting in some
There are villages that
seem to hide some ancient and possibly dark
secret : Husbands Bosworth, Whiteladies Aston
sound like characters from a bad 19th entury
novel: Compton Valence
sound like fertilizers: Hastigrow
sound like breath fresheners: Minto
sound like skin complaints: Whiterashes.
All this is typically British.
Linguistic political correctness
There is another important aspect to point
out with regard to how English is
nowadays seen within the British society:
indeed, political correctness now
governs the worthiness of many English
Hundreds of euphemisms have sprung up to
cope with problematic issues and vocabulary
the handicapped are now “mobilitychallenged”
the blind “seeing impaired”
the not so bright “knowledge-base nonpossessors”
people don’t have pets, they have
“companion animals”
people are neither short nor fat, but
“vertically challenged” or “persons of size”.
All this is strictly related to the issue of
politeness and can be clearly observed in
greetings and, in particular, in the problems
involved in first-time introductions.
Nowadays, the most common solution in this
regard is “Pleased to meet you” (or “Nice to
meet you” or something similar).
But in some social circles, mainly uppermiddle classes and above, the problem with
this common response is that it is just that,
‘common’, meaning a lower-class thing to say.
They will then assume that “Pleased to meet
you” is ‘incorrect’, something that is confirmed
also by some etiquette books, according to
which one should not say “Pleased to meet
you” as it is an obvious lie: one cannot
possibly be sure at that point whether one is
pleased to meet the person or not
 Even though the British courtesy is often just
mere pretence, foreign visitors are usually
impressed by it, which is defined by sociolinguists
Brown and Levinson as “negative politeness”,
meaning that it is concerned with other people’s
need not to be intruded or imposed upon (as
opposed to “positive politeness” which is
concerned with their need for inclusion and social
approval), as if the English judged others by
themselves and assumed that everyone else
shared their obsessive need for privacy.
Politeness by definition involves a degree of
artifice and hypocrisy, but English verbal
courtesy seems to be almost entirely a
matter of form, of obedience to a set of rules
rather than expression of genuine concern.
The English are not naturally socially skilled:
they need all these rules to protect them
from themselves.
 Key phrases therefore include
“Thank you/Cheers/Ta/Thanks”
“I’m afraid that…”
“I’m sorry but…”
“Would you mind…?”
“Could you possibly…?”
“Excuse me, sorry, but you couldn’t possibly
pass the marmalade, could you?”
“Excuse me, I’m terribly sorry but you seem to
be standing on my foot”.
Language and social class
Such linguistic diplomacy also concerns the
English acute class-consciousness, as the
language is often used by the English as a
disguise to their being intensely conscious of
status differences
their endless “pleases” disguise orders and
instructions as requests
their constant “thank-yous” maintains an
illusion of friendly equality, which in reality
doesn’t exist.
This is also related to their national
obsession to be able to “place” one
another on the social scale: for them, it is
vital to avoid making a mistake about
someone’s social position.
Accent can instantly place an individual. A
regional drawl is no longer considered the fatal
flaw it once was, but what used to be called an
“Oxford” accent or BBC pronunciation can still
give advantage to someone with it.
In particular, the first class indicator concerns
which type of letter the English favour in their
pronunciation, or rather which type they fail to
In particular, the lower classes fail to
pronounce consonants whereas the upper
classes drop their vowels.
For example, if you ask them the time, the
lower classes may tell you it is “alf past ten”
but the upper classes will say “hpstn”.
A handkerchief in working-class speech us
“ankercheef” but in upper-class pronunciation
becomes “hnkrchf”.
Upper-class vowel-dropping may be
frightfully smart, but it still sounds like a
mobile-phone message, and unless
you are used to this clipped,
abbreviated way of talking, it is no
more intelligible than lower-class
The upper classes do at least
pronounce their consonants correctly
whereas the lower classes often
pronounce “th” as “f” (“teeth” becomes
“teef”, “thing” becomes “fing”) or
sometimes as “v” (“that” becomes “vat”).
Final ‘g’s can become ‘k’s, as in
“somefink” (something) or “nuffink”
Pronunciation of vowels is also a helpful class
Lower-class ‘a’s are often pronounced as long
‘i’s, as in Dive for Dave, Tricey for Tracey.
Working class ‘i’s may be pronounced ‘oi’.
But the upper classes don’t say ‘I’ at all if they
can help it: one prefers to refer to oneself as
In fact, they are not too keen on pronouns in
general, omitting them, along with articles and
conjunctions, wherever possible (as Fox states:
“as though they were sending a frightfully
expensive telegram”).
British English and American English
With regard to the spread of English in the
American territory, the British colonization of
North America resulted in the creation of a
distinct American variety of English.
Some English pronunciations and usages
"froze" when they reached the American shore:
this implies that, in some ways, American
English is closer to the English of Shakespeare
than modern Standard British English is
Some expressions that the British call
"Americanisms" are in fact original British
expressions that were preserved in the
colonies while lost for a time in Britain:
trash for “rubbish”
loan as a verb instead of “lend”
fall for “autumn”.
The American dialect also served as the route
of introduction for many native American words
into the English language.
Most often, these were place names like
Mississippi and Iowa but names for other things
besides places were also common.
Raccoon, tomato, canoe, barbecue, savanna,
and hickory have native American roots,
although in many cases the original Indian
words were mangled almost beyond
British attitude towards American English
The English attitude toward Americanisms is
often hostile and this xenophobia
occasionally touches peaks of smugness.
Recently, during a debate in the House of
Lords, one of the members said:
“If there is a more hideous language on the
face of the earth than the American form of
English, I should like to know what it is”.
The British consider American Speech to be
remarkably straightforward.
Americans tell it as it is.
Linguistic subtlety, innuendo, and irony that
the British find delightful puzzle the
Americans, who take most statements at face
value, weigh them for accuracy, and reject
anything they don’t understand.
They call spades spades and have troubles
with complex metaphors.
British say that Americans particularly love
new words and adopt them with alacrity.
They also use them to death.
They not only pick up useful words and
phrases from every corner of the world, they
readily move on to new words when the old
words go out of fashion – a constant
reinvention that results in enlarging the
dictionary, a feature that is crucial also within
British English, which is in a constant state
of flux.