How do you decolonise the English language? | Aeon Essays

nglish class at the primary school run alongside the Kitabi Tea Factory. English has recently replaced French as the language taught in all Rwandan schools. Photo by Tim Smith/Panos Pictures

Is Earth’s most-spoken language a living ‘gift’ or a many-headed ‘monster’? Both views distract us from the real dilemma

In 400 years, English went from being a small language spoken in the British Isles to becoming the most dominant language in the world. In the year 1600, at the end of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, English was spoken by 4 million people. By the 2020s, at the end of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, that number had risen to nearly 2 billion. Today, English is the main language in the United Kingdom, Ireland, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand; and it’s an ‘intra-national’ language in former British colonies such as India, Singapore, South Africa and Nigeria. It is Earth’s lingua franca.

For some, English is Britain’s greatest ‘gift’ to the world. In an online interview with ConservativeHome in May 2022, Suella Braverman, now the UK’s Home Secretary, said she was proud of the British Empire for giving its colonies infrastructure, legal systems, the civil service, militaries and, in her words, ‘of course, the English language’. On the other side of the political spectrum, in 2008 Gordon Brown, then the prime minister, delivered a speech in which he stated that he wanted ‘Britain to make a new gift to the world’ by supporting anyone outside the UK who wished to learn English. In the same year, The Times announced proposals for a new museum dedicated to the language, to ‘celebrate England’s most elaborate gift to the world’. And, more recently, Mark Robson of the British Council described English as ‘the UK’s greatest gift to the world’. The notion of English as a gift from Britain to the planet is so commonplace it’s almost unremarkable.

English may have become universal, but not everyone believes it is a gift. In fact, many hold diametrically opposite views. In an article in The Guardian in 2018, the journalist Jacob Mikanowski described English as a ‘behemoth, bully, loudmouth, thief’, highlighting that the dominance of English threatens local cultures and languages. Due to the ways in which English continues to gain ground worldwide, many languages are becoming endangered or extinct. This not only impacts relatively small languages like Welsh or Irish, but also larger languages, such as Yoruba in Nigeria, which are pressured by English in business, trade, education, the media and technology.

For this reason, a number of scholars in the field of sociolinguistics consider English a killer language and have described it as a kind of monster, like the deadly multi-headed Hydra from Greek mythology. Those who see English from this perspective consider its global roles a form of linguistic imperialism, a system of profound inequality between English and other languages, which are crushed under the might of a former colonial power, Britain, and the current world superpower, the US. In The Oxford Handbook of World Englishes (2017), the sociolinguists Robert Phillipson and Tove Skutnabb-Kangas note how ‘the international prestige and instrumental value of English can lead to linguistic territory being occupied at the expense of local languages and the broad democratic role that national languages play.’

The concept of linguistic imperialism is a reminder that the historical root of the dominance of English is four centuries of British Empire. English has a heavy load on its conscience. Its spread through space and time from the end of the 16th centuryuntil the end of the empire in the second half of the 20th century occurred in conjunction with imperial expansion, involving land-grabbing, genocide, slavery, famine, subjugation, looting and exploitation. This ought to be central in any discussion about English as a global language, not only because it is historically accurate but also because, in the words of the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe in 1965, English ‘came as part of a package deal which included many other items of doubtful value and the positive atrocity of racial arrogance and prejudice’.

So, why is the English language not foregrounded in debates about decolonisation?


Continue reading: How do you decolonise the English language? | Aeon Essays


Edited byCameron Allan McKean

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