English Never Loved Us

I learnt the phrase 'English never loved us' from my South African friends. If you're a follower of this blog then you'll know that I've just finished a four year stint with the Hamburg production of The Lion King, where I had the pleasure of working with people from a number of different countries around the world, including South Africa, France, Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago and a fellow Nigerian (we are everywhere). Apart from feeling sorely inadequate as one of the few people in the company that spoke only one language in a company with an average of three languages per person (I can tentatively add German now), I also learnt a lot about the English language, the difficulties in learning it and the different varieties of it that are spoken around the world. I also learnt a lot about the different attitudes towards the language that, let's be honest, I kind of love.

First, let me give you some personal context. I am a first generation Brit. As the daughter of a Nigerian expat, and a former English teacher at that, I was brought up with a colonial, middle class view of the English language. Basically, my mother is of the camp that there is right English and wrong English; good English and bad English and, until recently, I too was of that camp. As well as many other activities, I have been studying for an English literature and language degree with The Open University. One of the most eye-opening parts of my linguistic module has been learning that linguists, the people we rely on to tell us about our languages and how they work, do not believe in right or wrong versions of any language. They believe in different varieties and dialects and all varieties and dialects are equal. It is the average Joe on the street, the writers, the teachers, the upper classes, the people who think they know a lot about what they have never studied, that insist on imparting their own preference as the norm whilst those with the academic knowledge say what's most important is to be understood. I have often heard West African Pidgin English referred to as 'Broken English' and wrongly assumed that, as a native speaker of English, I would be able to understand it. I naively tried to read a play written by Wole Soyinka in Pidgin and soon realised my folly.

I took it for granted that my mum and dad had an English medium education in Nigeria, not thinking about why they would or whether this was right. I've taken for granted that most Africans speak English, thinking that to assume they don't is racist - because civilised people speak English and Africans are civilised - not thinking about what this says about their mother tongues. You see, English isn't a bad language and the spread of English isn't necessarily a bad thing. The problem with the spread of English is that it was done under an oppressive regime and has left us all with a biased assumption regarding the English language and how to use it. The result is that English is now used in an administrative capacity - and is often an official language - in over 70 countries in the world, and it is taught as a second language in an additional 100. In each country in which English is widely spoken the language has grown and added new terminology and new meanings to words to suit the accent and culture it is being used in. Here's food for thought: English no longer belongs to the English.

Linguist use the phrase 'world Englishes' to describe the many different varieties of the language around the world. These include; British English, American English, Australian English, Singlish, Hinglish, Jamaican Patois, West African Pidgin English, South African English, Indian English and South African Indian English, to name a few. These all have their different traits regarding vocabulary, grammar and, according to linguists, are all valid in their own right. What often happens is that as society we pit one English against another giving authority and prestige to British and American English, enjoying Australian English as harmless and looking down at the other 'hybrids'. But each English is formed within a community of speakers who have taken a language forced upon them by a foreign nation and made it into a language they can relate to and, therefore, as long as they are valid within the community in which they are used, then they should be valued worldwide.

British English involves a lot, and I mean a lot, of idioms; something I wasn't aware of until I started speaking to second language English speakers who just didn't understand me. I am not fluent in South African English but I learnt a few 'isms'. I learnt that if you are coming 'now' then I should be prepared to wait and if you are coming 'now now' then you really are on you way and that if something surprises you then you were 'never ready'. I say South African English but of course within SA there are many different Englishes just as with the UK a Scottish person will speak a different English to an Englishman who will speak a different English to an Irish person; just as in America, African Americans have African American English.

African American English gets a lot of flack for being 'ghetto speak' and I remember reading a while back a quote from Bill Crosby where he berated young black people for using it, but the reality is that African American English has a history, a vocabulary and a grammar. African American English is a legitimate dialect or variety of English and deserves to be treated as such. Instead it is looked down on. Why? Because the people to whom it belongs are not the people in power. American English was legitimised by one person and one person alone: Noah Webster. He is the reason why British people run to the Oxford English Dictionary for verification and Americans run to Webster's. After winning their independence from the British, the Americans wanted a way in which to unify them as a people and so they created a new way of spelling, a slightly altered grammar and legitimised their alternative vocabulary.  Essentially they formed a language for their community and, because they now held the power, they legitimised it and we all know call it Standard American English.

Let me tell you something about British English, the English often touted as 'real' English. The English in Britain today is a convoluted language of Germanic decent with a splash of Latin and French thrown in for good measure and the odd Gaelic word that survived, plus any other loan word we thought to 'borrow' from other languages. The 'correct grammar' we use today was made up by a small group of snooty rich white men who decided to borrow Latin grammar rules in order to try and regulate English usage, instead of seeing what the usage of the language actually looked like and going from there. These grammarians decided, for example, that double negatives are not good English. However, the giants of English literature, Shakespeare and Chaucer, both used double negatives. Chaucer we can excuse because he was using Middle English but Shakespeare is legit Modern English and a fan of the double negatives. He was also a fan of the word 'ain't'. The reason learners of English find so many discrepancies within our language rules is because English is a language of discrepancies. English allows us to say 'I ain't done nothing' as well as 'I didn't do anything.' It is our societal values that forbid the former. 

You will often find that those who feel the need to correct another person's English are those that have the most insecurities about their own. When they speak of what is correct and what is incorrect, what they mean is, how I speak is correct and everything else is incorrect. Rather that add or take away anything from a language that continues to evolve, as all living languages do, all this way of thinking does is belittle one group – or groups – of people and elevate another.

The linguist, Michael Halliday said, 'A speaker who is made ashamed of his own language habits suffers a basic injury as a human being.' Language is a personally thing deeply connected to who we are and the communities we belong to. All I ask is that you think twice about your reaction when faced with an unfamiliar form of a language you thought you were familiar with. Maybe the problem isn't with the speakers but closer to home. Here's another thought, maybe you're not supposed to understand the particularly variety of English you're criticising because you're not a part of the community of which it belongs to. The English language is like a virus the British unleashed onto the world. Do you know what viruses do? They evolve.