Chapter Three: English as a Primary Language 

National languages tend towards exclusivity. The purist movement in Iceland, supreme for about 200 years, has kept Icelandic notably free of foreign vocabulary and grammar. When Norway achieved independence it began to develop a Norwegian language purged of "Danishisms"; and similarly when Romania became a nation it set about replacing Slavic elements. Purifying the national language is something that nations try to do. International languages on the other hand tend to be inclusive. Spanish has been very influenced by Arabic, and by the languages of South America; and Persian also absorbed huge quantities of Arabic when it became an international language. Russian has likewise been ready to admit foreign elements, receiving words from all quarters, in contrast to the majority of Slavic languages (e.g. Czech and Slovak which are rooting out words of German origin).

It would be almost impossible to "purify" English in this way. Most of the vocabulary is from other languages and the grammar has drawn in elements from around world for centuries. The attempts in Scotland to establish Scottish English suffer from the same problem since Scottish English is shot through with foreign influences from the same sources. Whereas languages obviously limited to a national role, like Welsh and Irish, are amenable to "purification", it would make no sense for varieties of English, all of which have departed from the "national" type. English has apparently been abandoned to internationalism: no language, including Latin, has been so separated from its roots. This means that an offspring from English might be consciously developed as a basis for an orthographically-regular international auxiliary language, while the rest of the English language continued in its present national and international roles.

Although English has gone well beyond the boundaries of national exclusivity, it is far from culturally neutral. Its pre-eminence as an auxiliary is very much a result of the former political and commercial dominance of the English-speaking peoples. But it is also seen to be the best, or the least bad, existing language for international purposes from the linguistic point of view: a state which it has achieved by incorporating a greater variety of words from diverse languages, by disposing of genders and other superfluous or non-essential parts of speech, and by avoiding the kind of "national" linguistic reform which would have made English less appealing at the international level - the consequent incongruity of T.O. with any known speech has given English the benefit of a measure of cultural neutrality.

These relative advantages, compared with other languages, have allowed English to function as a second language for necessary communications, but the heart of the language is still fixed in the English-speaking world, which limits its creative usefulness for speakers and writers from other cultures. Such internationally-acclaimed authors as Professors Chinua Achebe and Wole Solinka still value English as an auxiliary language, but for essentially this reason do not write in it as much as before. They now have serious reservations about English as a literary medium for African expression. Other writers resent the pervasive implication in Anglo-American culture, often explicit in the mass-media, that the typical African lifestyle is inferior. Consequently they refuse to use English, and propose Hausa or kiSwahili as the pan-African language. A similar attitude is widespread in various ex-colonies of the U.K. and U.S.A.

The difficult question is how English might become a distinctly idiomatic language without, as Achebe put it, losing its "value as a medium of international exchange". Unfortunately, what tends to happen at present is the worst of both worlds, for whatever the historical assimilative capacity of English, the scleroticising combination of businesspeak culture and spellchecker orthography is now stifling its capacity to adapt to, or represent, varieties of ethnicity. Moreover, much if not most of the English in many of these countries is more or less suffused with the characteristic stress-patterns, rhythms and intonations of indigenous languages, and is infused with elements of their grammars and vocabularies. For example, in India, the West Indies and West Africa, the English spoken tends to be timed by individual syllables rather than by stressed syllables, as in British and American English. The result is that, although these indigenised varieties of English may function efficiently as lingua francas between or within these countries, they may be sometimes difficult to comprehend when used in international circumstances.

The tendency of the English-speaking world to overestimate the global use of the language is largely due to colonial legacies, such as the third-world élites at American and British universities and military colleges who subsequently maintain the profile of English through commercial contacts and domination of the local media. This English-speaking leadership may have come into existence partly because the colonial administration was ambivalent about native peoples en masse learning English since, as a common tongue, opposition to Empire spread through it; but, for whatever reason, such prominent figures are wholly unrepresentative of the penetration of English into the general population of these countries. The international usage of English is actually quite precarious; but by the same token it is well positioned for a thorough revision.

English is the sole or joint official language in about forty-five nations; but in most of these countries, and especially in Africa and Asia, it is the native tongue of no more than a small minority. Moreover, the desire to affirm national cultural identities is beginning to promote indigenous languages in the education system and elsewhere at the expense of English, not least through television. Thus English is gradually losing even more of its limited influence on the masses; and is becoming almost exclusively the auxiliary language for international communication.

But that is not necessarily a great honour either, for an exclusively auxiliary status might threaten the long-term survival of English in these countries, since it would no longer be used as a primary language. Moreover, the international focus in these parts is moving away from the English-speaking world, and more towards regional economic communities which favour other languages.

On the other hand it must be admitted that, although the English-speakers in these nations are numerically small, some of them exert an influence far beyond their numbers by reason of international relationships or links - whether in administration, commerce, literature, the arts, science or religion. This is the point of view from which the prospect for English looks hopeful. For were its orthography to be entirely reformed and its name changed, so that it became politically and linguistically acceptable to many more progressive thinkers within these nations, primary status as the living world language - the growing conduit for global culture - might well be realised.

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