Some thoughts on English Next

It seems to me that the interesting aspect of David Graddol’s English Next is the question of whether we should see the present reality of English as a 4th chapter in its history or not. I suppose the answer highly depends on the way we consider language itself. According to Graddol, ‘If you take the view that the traditional history of English reflects a very national, modernist, 19th century view of the world , than tacking on a new chapter entitled ‘Global English’ may be a serious mistake’ (my emphasis).  I certainly do not take this view and I sincerely doubt David Graddol does. From this perspective, a national language – in this case, English – is seen as a product created by a certain nation state which was able to overshadow other national languages which were a menace to its identity and integrity. It is as if English had been able to wipe off the influences of French and reassert itself as the language that defined the English subjects.

I believe Graddol is right when he implies that if you subscribe to the grand narrative, seeing this historical moment of English as a forth chapter in its history, we are likely to make a big mistake. I would say that it would be a gross misunderstanding of the nature of the forces operating in and though the language. For the grand narrative accounts for the triumph of English over French and other foreign influences which ‘threatened’ the identity of English as if this same identity were something well-established since times immemorial. Here we come to the monolithic fallacy again: the 18th century language “standardizers” liked the idea of defending the purity of the Anglo-Saxon language against threatening foreign influences. Such purity, however, is a construct. English has never been pure.Even when Norman French held the position of the dominant influence shaping Old English, underground forces were working to bring some Old Norse, Saxon and Old French words back to the fore. Middle English saw the re-emergence of some regionalisms from the north – strongly Viking influenced areas – which in time even became standard forms over some southern previous prevailing ones. Moreover, seeing the ‘language of Dryden and Shakespeare’ as a monolithic entity is certainly a huge mistake. French, Latin and Greek are major influences in Shakespeare’s word-coinage process for which he is so famous. The idea of English overcoming the ‘villain French’ is at least laughable as English would not be English, as we know it today, without heavily borrowing from French.

My point is that the number of chapters we count depends on how we are reading this book. I personally do not see the history of English as the history of an untainted, wholesome language which was able to become an international language because of its intrinsic superiority or purity. I view it as a language which is permanently borrowing from others; which is being transformed, constructed and deconstructed by its users, being them whoever they are, living wherever they live. I see it as a language which is not fixed and whose future form – or forms – will also be subject to new changes. It is not an evolutionist, modernist view because it takes into consideration the plurality of forces acting upon it and its possible multiple outcomes.

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