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Simpson - English


The English Language: what happens when language policy is not explicit?

John Simpson (United Kingdom)

Chief Editor,

Oxford English Dictionary

This paper addresses briefly a number of issues relating to the English language,

language policy, and Europe:

1. What sort of language is English?

2. English is a sprawling language. Can it ever be regulated?

3. What does regulate English?

4. English and functional domain

5. English in Europe.


What sort of language is English?

Few people in the United Kingdom who happened to encounter a passage of Old

English text (for example, an old land charter dating from around 900 AD) would be

able to make sense of it. Reading and understanding Old English is a specialist study.

Since the Anglo-Saxon (Old English) period the

words of the language have changed,syntax and grammar have changed, the spelling and pronunciation of words have

with the influence of other languages, as a result of Britain’s colourful journey

through history.

Nowadays it is commonly assumed that English contains an equal proportion of

words of Germanic and Romance origin. The situation is actually more complex. It is

not generally realized, for example, that of the hundred

most frequently used words innation!


English is a sprawling language. Can it ever be regulated?

Could English ever have been regulated? There have certainly been regulatory

influences in the past, but they are not official ones. Caxton had a significant

standardizing influence on the orthography of English in the late Middle Ages and

beyond, as had the forms of the language made familiar by the

King James Bible fromDictionary of 1755 was, in its turn,

But unlike the case in some other European languages English today has no official

word-book (unless of course one counts the

Official Scrabble-Players Dictionary!).


What does regulate English?

So does anything regulate English? The trite answer is that it is regulated by usage.

People choose to accept or reject a word according to whether it meets a need

amongst speakers of the language. As a general statement this seems to hold true, but

are there more formal guides? What are the authorities?

General-purpose dictionaries and grammars are indispensable guides to language

usage in the home and at school and college. They are mostly produced by

commercial or educational publishers, but do not follow rules laid down by legislative

bodies. There are of course official terminological glossaries, but these live in a

different world from the popular dictionary and usage guide.

Although there is no official regulatory body for the language in the United Kingdom,

dictionaries often seem to agree amongst themselves on a number of very basic


which core words should be included?

how should these words be spelled?

what do they mean?

how are they pronounced?

This is an over-simplified picture, as different editorial conventions and policies

introduce differences between dictionaries. But it is certainly true to say that the

language is not in a state of immanent collapse. How does this come about?

Occasionally there are difficulties, but these are usually with regard to new words of

unfamiliar appearance which enter the language:

wannabe (one e or two?) was oneare unofficial regulators, anddoes play a part, especially through the educational system. But most

apparently self-regulatory, which accepts change, but which is guided by a number of

unofficial ‘authorities’.


English and functional domain

So where does English stand on the issue of functional domain? English is hardly

losing ground to other languages within the United Kingdom as regards functional

domain, although some of the indigenous minority languages are experiencing growth

as a result, amongst other things, of successful nationalist movements and the

devolution of some political power to the regions.

But there are pressures on English. Nowadays we talk about different varieties of

English, or different ‘Englishes’: British English, American English, Australian

English, Singaporean English, etc. For many years the English have complained that

their language is being overrun by Americanisms. The glamour and excitement of the

movies, dance crazes, new technology, and other areas of economic expansionism are

blamed for bringing British English closer to American English.

What has really happened over the last fifty years – and doubtless longer – is that

British English has assimilated aspects of American English into itself, almost without

realizing it. And the British English we speak today is significantly different for many

reasons from the British English spoken in the 1960s. For a while new usages upset

certain speakers, but as time passes a new generation arises which doesn’t find

anything odd about a usage which grated with the previous generation. There is a lot

of ‘functional creep’ here!

In the case of English, would it be feasible to co-ordinate the development of all these

different Englishes, to standardize? Would America, or Australia, agree with what we

proposed, or would we agree with their proposals for standardization?

And indeed there are functional domains where British English

has lost ground over

being up to date, following the latest fashion, and therefore being a passport to other

forms of success. ‘Global English’ – if such a construct currently exists – is perhaps

regarded widely as a dialect of American English, and the European speaker may feel

that he or she gains by association with this. Other functional domains in which

British English is losing out to American English: popular music? Information

technology? Even some sports? You might argue that the language of much academic

discourse is based on American models. This is an area which would certainly repay

further study, based on the categories relevant to the European debate.


English in Europe

But can English be pulled in quite so many ways? How does the English of people for

whom it is not a first language or ‘mother tongue’ fit in? Even if some people speak

English as a second language very fluently, it will never – as a system of

communication between non-native speakers – have the same range of idiom and

nuance as for a first-language speaker. One of the curious things I’ve learnt in my

association with the Federation is that members find my English more difficult to

understand than the English of my continental European colleagues, simply because

theirs is a functional language for communication between second-language users,

and my variety is a functional language for communication between native speakers.

Idioms arise between second-language speakers that exist for convenience and which

do not correspond to any feature of native English.

The existence of Euro-English as an unstable form of the language, and one which is

(certainly at present) unsuitable for many purposes, suggests that simultaneous

interpretation, native-language research publication, etc., will remain significant

issues within Europe. English escaped from its boundaries within the British Isles

many years ago. Nowadays it has taken root in many places around the world.

Sometimes, like a weed, it is regarded as a threat. Sometimes, it enables

communication which would otherwise be impossible. It will be interesting to monitor

its progress within Europe in the years to come.

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