Black, white, and grey

The text below is the result of some reflections prompted by the Follow-up Discussion Group formed at the HSS.   I’ve decided to write my comments based on one of the questions posted in our closed forum, but instead of answering to it, I would like to question the very terms in which it was formulated.

The decentring of English into “native” and “non-native” varieties. How is this connected to “glottoscapes” and the “relocation of English” as a result of the language’s flow across borders? Is there a true “shift of authority from NS to NNS”?

First of all, I think that perceiving the reality of English – or any language – in terms of this dichotomy – native/non-native variety; NS/NNS – is worrying. It seems to imply that there are two clear cut domains that can be easily distinguished.

Non-Standard English is still English – a recognisable core of grammar principles and lexis. Although, it presents deviations, it still retains its language identity as English, not Portuguese or Hindi, for example. Being recognisably English, it carries, as part of its nature, the viewpoints, assumptions and an experience of its speakers, as any other language does. But not only the viewpoints, assumptions and experience of its present-day speakers, but of generations of speakers and users that have shaped, formed and imprinted their culture in it along the centuries. Each language embodies a different view of the world and if, in spite of variations, we agree that we are all -NS and NNS – speaking English, it means that we have at least some things in common. If we can mentally make sense of this language, it’s because it carries in itself key principles and concepts we recognise and subscribe to. We are expressing ourselves in this common language that is multifaceted, full of internal fissures and contradictions -, but which is still English, not Arabic or Chinese.

Bending and breaking grammar rules, borrowing words from other languages and customising old words is not a new process. It has been happening inside Britain for thousands of years. Multilingualism was the reality in the country more or less till the 16th century and this standard / non standard struggle is still present in British society. What we are doing is just the same thing previous generations have done – the difference is that nowadays English rule-breakers and wordsmiths are not confined by the shores of an island. Information technology and globalisation have been shapening and bradening this process.

It seems to me that we have to detach ourselves of this bipolarisation to see things from a broader perspective. What we are experiencing is not a revolution , the downfall of English, the Babel Tower, not even Pentecost’s – it’s just the continuation of a organic, dialogic process where centrifugal forces – promoting heterogeneity – and centripetal forces- promoting homogeneity- are in permanent tension, as they have always been and will continue to be, inside Britain and outside it.

Perhaps L1 speakers of other languages feel it more intensively, and for EFL teachers it even borders schizophrenia. Although as foreign language speakers we have this drive to adapt and customise English, breaking rules and expanding lexis with our own L1, as language teachers we also care for established grammar rules, correct spelling and appropriate collocations. We are always trying to improve our own language performance, and when we do it we usually set Standard English, as spoken and written in educated circles, as our models. I do it, at least.

Moreover, this ‘shift of authority from NS to NNS’ is nothing more than the old power struggle. Notice the word ‘authority’. What we observe is that NNS are trying to define their identities through language as if this identity could be fixed and acquire legitimacy at the moment the ‘world’ accepted our own varieties of English. It’s a quest for legitimacy and psychological comfort. Yet, it is unachievable. Supposing that these ‘varieties ‘of English where finally granted ‘official’ status. Two things would probably happen almost immediately: 1) the very first moment a variety is officially recognised, it becomes ‘standard’; 2) the moment it becomes standard, internal voices would rise contesting these same new parameters and rules. It’s a never ending story. Especially, because we fail to realise that even Spanish-English, Singaporean-English or whatever are not monolithic; they are heterogeneous and polyglotic in themselves. What’s more, we fail to see that Standard British and American are also polyglotic and heterogeneous.

‘Native speakers’ are not a single entity either. Where does authority lie, with The Guardian or The Sun’s editor? With the Archbishop of Canterbury or with the Archbishop of York – who is black? Around Westminster or in Hackney? ‘Native speakers’ also try to establish their identity through ownership of the language, also failing to see that the English spoken in the home counties is not the same one spoken in Cornwall; or that the English spoken in Chiswick may not be the same one spoken in West Ham.

It seems to me that what we are experiencing nowadays is not just the spread of English around the world; it’s the spread of a language conflict that, till the advent of information technology and globalisation, was very much restricted by the borders of nation states. Here I ask your permission to disagree with David Graddol when he says that this is not the 4th chapter in the history of English. I think it is. It may not be the 4th chapter of the history of English in the British islands, though.

Deterritorialising and reterritorialising forces are in uninterrupted work everywhere and if we realise that we will, perhaps, stop seeing things in terms of us and the others – native/non native, standard/non-standard – and realise that things are not so black and white. There are whole areas of grey out there and inside those areas there are all shades of grey as well.