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English - Whose Language?

December 24, 2005

Who owns English? It’s a strange question but I was reading an article by David Crystal recently on this very topic.

Hello dear friends,

I've brought this subject up before in the distant past but recently I've been thinking about it once again. Since I got such little feedback the first time, I hope you might provide a comment or two this time around.

The reason I find the question "Who does English belong to?" so strange is that a language is not something you can patent or copyright. It is certainly part of a culture and heritage but these are not property, rather they are attributes that help define our identity.

Culture is subject to constant evolution as is language. After all, modern English looks quite different from the Old English from which it derives. And languages like cultures absorb elements from rubbing up against others. Think of the vast numbers of words in English that derive from Greek, Latin and French, not to mention smaller sprinklings of words from many other sources reflecting the interaction of English with the world at large.

Crystal points out that English “ is used as a first language by some 400 million people…has achieved special status as a ‘second’ language in over 70 countries… has become the foreign language which children are most likely to learn in school. The number of foreign learners may now exceed a billion.” All this provides sufficient evidence to accord English the status of a global language, he believes.

So what are the implications for English when it is now so far-flung? Inevitably the varieties English will proliferate and become more and more distinct from each other. But that’s part of the evolutionary process. When we use a language we wish to express our own thoughts and that means we have to make it a customized tool. Think of how different generations have their own slang, for example. In the process of evolution of course some languages, like some species, become extinct. Not that English is in danger of doing that yet.

I don't think we should bother ourselves with questions of ownership but rather celebrate the very flexibility and resilience of a language that helps people all over the world communicate with each other.

Season's Greetings!

Patricia.

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Comments

  1. EFL Geek Says:

    Patricia,

    I also read this article when I was doing my M.A.

    EFL Geek

  1. PittsburghPete Says:

    If you ask me English belongs to whoever speaks it. Kind of getting tired of all the debate quite frankly. What's there not to understand? To those that don't speak it, how can they own it anyhow?

  1. Kevin Landry Says:

    Dear Patricia,

    It is a good question you pose. Many languages have some kind of governing body dictating what is correct or acceptable. French comes to mind but also I think in English there are many style guides and rules that are followed and used.

    For example in any paragraph if it is written for publication the editor acts as a gatekeeper and the owners of the magazine or periodical are responsible for content. They make decisions what to print and what is acceptable. I guess the type of magazine or newspaper makes the language very different. Compare for example what could be proper in a kids book to how the New York Times is geared. I think the group that identifies with it owns the language.

    I mean British English is acceptable by those that use it and like someone using dialect or regional accent would feel included if they recognized themselves as being in the in-group. I think language is so specialized and English can be divided into so many different properties just like land.

    Who owns the Earth?

  1. Ornella Says:

    Intellectually speaking, the English language should belong to everyone who uses it. That means both native and non-native speakers alike. Regardless of heritage or culture, the English language is meant for people to learn more about each other. The English language helps people in economical, political, and/or governmental situations that can benefit people especially within peace processes, for example. English is meant to be used as a tool that helps support and encourage all people to do their best at any cost. The connection it brings is a positive one; therefore I believe it should belong to all of us that use it.

  1. PDean Says:

    Thank you Pete, Kevin and Ornella for those thoughts. When it comes to our ideas of what is or isn't acceptable English usage, we tend to reveal our inner beliefs wbout whose language it is. But now that English has international currency, it is increasingly harder to find an authoritative version spoken by a community that sets the gold standard. Nobody today, I think, would dare try to lay down precise rules in the way that eighteenth-century grammarians did.

  1. Jason Figueroa Says:

    Well speaking from a personal perspective, I believe I own my own brand of English. I consider my brand of English unique to my culture. For example I was somewhat offended when I heard L'il Kim giving a speech during the MTV video awards and she used the term "Big House" for jail. As recently as a hundred years ago the term "Big House" meant the master's central residence in a system of plantations and slavery in the United States. Slaves used this term because it represented a place of privilege to be enslaved; it had the richest things and the least oppressive overseers. To hear a contemporary African American icon use the term in such a way simply mocks her own heritage. I guess this would go more under the category of generational owenership of language. Being a history major, this change in language can be termed ignorance of the past for the convenience of the moment. I believe slang should be used a little more carefully because it only encourages the degeneration of my language.

  1. Sohaib -Madinah Saudi Arabia Says:

    Although I think many of us seem to be of the view that no one really owns the language, you'll find that in many countries where English has a special status (e.g. as a second or business language), that the texts that are used to teach the language are still very much the older and traditional classical stories and plays. So in an indirect way a kind of "standard English" is being taught and spread. I think that once we move to a situation where texts are locally produced works and are more culturally sensitive, only then will peoples fears about cultural imperialism be removed. In Saudi Arabia (where I work although I'm from Britain)English is about to become a major subject and there are concerns about how it could impact on this society. I think the views on this web page so far, are really the "views of the English teaching profession". This view is not really being discussed in the public domain. Traditionalists will argue that English belongs to someone and that it is "their property". The issue is still an important one in the developing world, and far from dead.

  1. PDean Says:

    Your comment is very interesting Sohaib. It seems to me that world events over recent years have produced an anatgonism between the Middle East and the western English-speaking world and this may have influenced how people feel about English and its domination.

    Looking back, I remember that Middle Eastern countries once placed great value of the quality of training available in Britain and the USA for police and military personnel. Before embarking on the training, the groups would have intensive English courses and I have taught Saudi policemen, Kuwait airforcemen and Qatari army officers. We all learnt a lot about each others' cultures, ideas, values and beliefs in the process, but nobody then expressed concerns about linguistic imperialism.

    Perhaps nowadays we are all much more suspicious of each other and feel more protective of our indigenous culture.

  1. John Says:

    Hi all.

    I look forward to the day when English is studied only by the archeologist on some post apocalyptic planet light years away and the rest of the galaxy has moved onto higher planes of existance with telepathic powers that cross all language barriers!

    Until then, let's let the cream rise to the top!

    Kia Ora!

    John.

  1. jim hollerin Says:

    The English language cannot be 'owned' by anyone.

    Each country has its own way of speaking English and this must be respected. Accents vary the world over, some cute, some downright awful.

    It's our job to teach the 4 skills as best we can.

    But please, can anyone shed some light on why the Americans are trying to CHANGE the original British English to their own way of incorrect spelling?

    It's even inbred into our computers! Why can't they leave the world to get on with teaching English the proper way...British English...there's no better!

  1. AMB Says:


    Frankly, I think this topic is a no-brainer and duller than yesterday's dishwater. It comes off sounding like a British topic and I think it belongs back on the other blog under that picture of Winston Churchill and the headline: "My worst nightmare." The mere suggestion of "who owns English" reeks of social snobbery, for which I have precious little time.

    Ta ta.
    Alison
    P.S. I really don't mean to be nasty, but they said they wanted personality and rants.

  1. M. Morford Says:

    Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason. Novalis
    ***********************************************

    Hmmmm... Who owns language?

    I think this is a question only our culture, at this time would come up with.

    Here's my setting; in the 1960s in America, a corollary question would have been "Who owns the radio waves?"

    If you listened to the radio back then, you would not hear the demographic ghettoization that you hear now. In the 1960s mainstream radio you would hear Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, The Supremes, Miles Davis, Broadway show tunes, Ray Charles, The Beach Boys, Barbara Streisand and many more - on the same station right next to each other!

    The premise then, was that the airwaves were public in the truest and fullest sense - not in the monochrome, predictable and corporate essence of today.

    I long to see the English language be as full, flexible and responsive as a world language needs to be.

    So who owns language? Everyone. No one. Language is far more than our experience could entail - and yet the opposite is also true - we all have experiences that words cannot capture - hence slang which may lead to the "degeneration" of language but also, perhaps equally leads to the perpetual "regeneration" of language. And this, I am convinced, is the reason English has bumbled its way into becoming the world language - it is porous enough (unlike French) to accept all kinds of new words and news uses for established words.

    It's enough to make an English teacher crazy!

    And who owns language? It's like asking who owns the weather.

  1. Paul Tagney Says:

    When the Angles brought their unique language to Britain after the Romans left, it's inhabitants were at a loss as to which of the 50+ spoken languages on their island to choose from.This new-comer whose rules could all be broken yet still allow communication & comprehension was absorbed like a wild-fire. Yet, 1500 years later, I can sit in a coffee house in my birth-city of Bristol, England, after living most of my life in Canada, & truly not understand a single word of the spoken Bristolian English dialect at the table next to me !!!!!

  1. Andreas Says:

    The question: who owns the english language is very present today, because the early British colonies changed the grammar, and the real english rally dont exist anymore.
    It’s rally hard to tell who owns the english language, and it is very many different opinions about this topic.
    My opinion is that no one has a copyright on the english language, but someone has bigger rights than others. For example, the british and americans, who talks english as their mother thounge, but it will be wrong to say that people like us in Norway, who knows how to talk english and uses it to communicate with other peoples dont own the English language at all.

  1. Andreas Says:

    The question: who owns the english language is very present today, because the early British colonies changed the grammar, and the real english rally dont exist anymore.
    It’s rally hard to tell who owns the english language, and it is very many different opinions about this topic.
    My opinion is that no one has a copyright on the english language, but someone has bigger rights than others. For example, the british and americans, who talks english as their mother thounge, but it will be wrong to say that people like us in Norway, who knows how to talk english and uses it to communicate with other peoples dont own the English language at all.

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