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Who cares about English? Part 2

We at the Oxford English Dictionary recently partnered with the British Council to host a panel discussion entitled ‘Who cares about English?’

The panel was chaired by John Knagg, Head of English Research at the British Council, and consisted of:

  • John Simpson, Chief Editor of the OED
  • Romesh Gunesekera, Booker prize shortlisted novelist
  • Henry Hitchings, journalist and author of The Language Wars
  • Prudence Raper, former Hon Secretary of the Queen’s English Society

Over the next few months we’ll be featuring extracts from the discussion which considered issues including:

  • Does ‘standard English’ exist in today’s globalized society?
  • Who regulates the language – lexicographers, the education system, the media – or the public?
  • Is the language being dumbed down? And does this matter?

This is the second extract from the panel’s discussion. The first video and transcript were posted earlier in 2013.

Question: “What are the effects of social media, such as Facebook, on English?”

Question: “What is English, given that it is spoken in so many different countries?”

Watch the video to see what they said, or scroll down for the transcript of their answers.

Henry Hitchings

I think where social media are concerned, one of the things which I would say, having done quite a lot of research into the history of arguments about English usage, is that with a lot of the things that have worried people most in the past, the worry hasn’t actually been justified.

I’m not a particularly active user of Facebook, but I do use it, and I don’t notice English being used on Facebook in particularly innovative or unorthodox ways, because Facebook doesn’t constrain you to be concise. It’s much more, for instance, on Twitter, where there’s a constraint as regards the length of what you can say, that you get people innovating and using more abbreviations.

But it seems to me that what we need to recognize here is that people use language in different ways in different contexts. Just because I use abbreviations on Twitter or in a text message, doesn’t mean I import those into every other area of my life. We do it all the time; linguists call it ‘code switching’. I use a different form of English when I’m speaking to you now, and when I’m writing, and in a job interview, from what I use when I’m getting a kebab at 3 o’clock in the morning in Turnpike Lane. And it’s probably in my interests to do that!

And we all do it, although we may not catch ourselves in the act of doing it. It can be modifying our vocabulary because we’re talking to a child, or someone that we recognize is not a native speaker. It may be moderating my accent for fear of getting thumped at the football. We all do it, and I don’t necessarily see that, even if social media are propagating somewhat distinct forms of the language, that they are going to titrate into the mainstream of English. I don’t think that necessarily happens, I think we all carry around within us variant forms, and it’s perfectly viable to use what some people might regard as a debased form, and to use English in the most elevated form.

Romesh Gunesekera

On the topic of social media; it doesn’t have as much effect as we might think. On Twitter, people aren’t saying so much as pointing, really. When texts started, people did a lot of abbreviation. But for me to abbreviate something seems to take a lot longer than the predictive spelling that comes through! My phone has a much bigger vocabulary than me, and seems to know exactly what I want to say whenever I want to say it!

The restriction was to be concise, at one point, and I used to try to be very concise, it was very much like writing telegrams – until my children said “Why are you so rude in your text messages?” They showed me how to put a smiley face in a text, and now they’re full of smiley faces, and nothing else, really. But I think being concise is probably quite a good thing, there’s no harm in being concise. I’m not being concise now, because I’m not texting this! The simplification of spelling – I think that happens naturally. Some people are appalled by the way that it gets simplified, but I think it does get simplified.

Henry Hitchings

I want to return to the question about different varieties of English; I don’t want that to be overlooked. It seems to me, English is not something monolithic, and when we speak of English as something single and unified, that’s a necessary fiction. The reality is that there is a whole family of Englishes, including Singapore English, and British English, and within British English different variants – and obviously Liberian English is something very different from Canadian English, and so on and so forth.

One of the things we need to recognize is that, if you’re a British, native speaker of English, it doesn’t mean you own English. Nobody owns English, and there are far more non-British English-speakers in the world than there are British English-speakers. Ever since British people started firing English into places all over the rest of the world, we’ve no longer had a monopoly on dictating how it should be.

Prudence Raper

Can I just pick up on that? I was brought up in darkest Somerset. Everybody in the village where I lived spoke two languages. When they spoke to their friends and families they spoke ‘broad’; when they spoke to anyone that they thought wouldn’t understand them, they spoke ‘proper’. They all spoke ‘broad’ and ‘proper’, and everyone could understand them!

John Knagg

Emma Thompson went back to her old girls’ school a couple of years ago, and was appalled at the ‘innits’ and ‘likes’, and made the point that that wasn’t very sensible when they were talking to her in an official capacity. In fact, everyone needed two languages – one to speak in an official capacity, and one to speak with your mates.

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