"All Englishes are equal"

I had the pleasure, some months ago, of meeting some of the English Project’s Trustees at an event in the run-up to English Language Day.  We got talking about the Project’s scope and aims – admirable but ambitious – and the fact that it observes and records, rather than taking sides in, the various debates about the language.

So far so good.  But I confess that I cocked an eyebrow when one of the Trustees told me:  “Our position is that all Englishes are equal.”

All Englishes are equal.  Discuss.

The Project has, I entirely accept, good reasons not to take sides.  But one of its roles is to provide a platform where these discussions can take place.  So, having dwelt upon this rather astonishing statement for some six months or so, I am ready to discuss.

For now, I shall step cautiously around the word “Englishes” as I am not entirely sure what would happen if I trod on it.  I do not like the word (any more than I like the word “celebrity”, which implies that the person thus described has accomplished something worth celebrating).  However,  it’s perfectly clear from the context what it means, and that will have to do.

But equal?  I turned to the Concise Oxford Dictionary and found:

  • the same in quantity, quality, size, degree, rank, etc
  • having the same rights or status
  • uniform in application or effect

Now, back in the early Mesolithic era when I was taking A-levels, we had Hamlet as one of our set texts.  My teacher was a lateral thinker and got us reading Richard Curtis’s Skinhead Hamlet one wet afternoon.  Curtis’s stated intention with this piece was to do for Shakespeare’s original language roughly what the New English Bible had done to the King James Version.  I quote from Act I, Scene 2, which – trust me – gives an accurate flavour of the whole:

[Enter KING CLAUDIUS, GERTRUDE, HAMLET and COURT.]

CLAUDIUS: Oi! You, Hamlet, give over!

HAMLET: F*** off, won’t you?

[Exit CLAUDIUS, GERTRUDE, COURT.]

HAMLET: (Alone) They could have f***ing waited.

It’s an extreme example of different “Englishes” [sic], but not, I believe, an invalid one.  Now, be honest.  Is there anyone out there who thinks that this language is “the same in quantity, quality, size, degree, rank, etc” as the original?  Or “uniform in application or effect”?  Does anyone honestly suggest it should be accorded the same status as this?

A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she follow’d my poor father’s body,
Like Niobe, all tears:–why she, even she–
O, God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason,
Would have mourn’d longer–married with my uncle.

That, or “They could have f***ing waited.”  Yeah, right.

It makes me wonder what language is for.  For communication, obviously.  But communication is about more than bare facts or a simple message.  There are times when it’s about nuance, emotion, sometimes even ambiguity.

There are times when it isn’t, obviously.  A lot of my day job is about reporting to councillors and communicating with staff, where ambiguity is the last thing you want.  The language of the committee report and the staff bulletin is ordered, precise, and as concise as one can get it without destroying the message.

But even in the workplace there is a difference between the kind of English used in a leaflet for the public, the kind that gets a Plain English Campaign kitemark, and the kind used in a technical report.  (Whatever the Plain English Campaign may say, there are some circumstances when it’s quite appropriate to use jargon; the e-mail from the architect which I mentioned in my last Power of Language post is a case in point.)

Let’s assume for the moment that the English Project is actually trying to say “All forms of English are equally worthy of study”.  I entirely agree.  Much of the Project’s current focus appears to be on contemporary informal English; among other things, they want to investigate the impact of texting on the language – a phenomenon which has drawn scorn, contempt and fear from linguistic purists for the last ten years at least.

Back in October, The Power of Language kicked off its discussion by asking, ”Why shouldn’t we express ourselves lucidly and eloquently in 140 characters?”  Here’s Professor David Crystal in the Guardian in 2008, giving some examples of just that (and, incidentally, offering a pertinent reminder that every technological breakthrough from the printing press to broadcasting has been heralded as the assassin of language).   Here’s the runner-up (a lady in her late 60s) of the T-Mobile Txt Laureate competition in 2007:

O hart tht sorz
My luv adorz
He mAks me liv
He mAks me giv
Myslf 2 him
As my luv porz

And here’s the master of brevity, Hemingway, setting the gold standard that texters will always struggle to attain:  “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Which brings me back to ambiguity.  The whole point of Hemingway’s eight syllables (33 characters including spaces and punctuation, to save you counting) is the story he doesn’t tell – the worlds he opens up in the imagination; the perennial question to any great storyteller, “What happened next?”;  the great unspoken “Why?” which hangs over these six short words – the “Why?” which, if Hemingway had answered it, would have completely destroyed the power and impact of the story.

Writing here last week, Behira Wanono distinguished between language and reality, between the signifier and the signified.  Hemingway’s six words are a perfect case in point for the way they create a “reality” in our imagination, a reality which may in fact be completely false.  It brings a whole new meaning to the hackneyed phrase ‘creative writing’.

That text-speak is capable of far more than raw communication is beyond cavil.  But by definition, that must mean that there are multiple 140-character “Englishes” [sic] – one for Hemingway and the Txt Laureates, capable of conveying more than it contains, poetic and inspiring; one for day-to-day communication; and many others in between.  They are fit for different purposes, as are the “Englishes” of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, of the committee report, of the housing benefit leaflet, of the airport novel.

All are equally worthy of study.  But they are not equal.

“All Englishes are equally worthy of study” and “All Englishes are equal” mean different things.  And the meaning is what matters.  Behira said at the end of her essay, “We have a shared vocabulary, not our own.”  Professor Crystal pointed out that the only reason txt-abbreviations work is because of a shared understanding of their meaning.

The reduction of “All Englishes are equally worthy of study” to “All Englishes are equal” remains an abuse of the very language the English Project is there to investigate.  It is the work of the political spin-doctor or the tabloid headline writer, distorting fact in pursuit of a catchy phrase.  It is a statement unworthy of the English Project and its aims.

Or is it?

After all, it got me thinking.  And if I’d been told last October that “All Englishes are equally worthy of study”, I’d never have written this essay.

For more on this topic, read the post Precision Tools

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2 Responses to "All Englishes are equal"

  1. Ben,your observations are absolutely valid. And I’m ashamed at the glibness of the Trustee who bandies the concept of equality around so irresponsibly. It doesn’t bode well for the long-term credibility of the Project.

    • Ben Bennetts says:

      Thanks, Wendy. Funnily enough it says on the EP website that “The English Project is underwritten in its intellectual integrity by the University of Winchester” – I’d like to think that someone from the University will respond (though they haven’t yet), and I’d like to think, too, that it will generate some kind of discussion about the value of different “Englishes” for different purposes – and who knows, the continuing value of grammatical correctness and clarity in an increasingly informal world.

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