English belongs to everyone?

English belongs to everyone?

The claim that “English belongs to everyone who uses it” has continued to gain more and more cultural cache, at least in global (English) academic circles.

On the surface, the claim that “English belongs to everyone who uses it” makes perfect sense. Indeed, one might say it’s a restatement of the obvious: The people who use a language (re)create it, (re)shape it, and therefore “own” it.

Trouble is, “English belongs to everyone who owns it” is a gross over-simplification, one that (willfully?) ignores the fundamentally hierarchical nature of society.

A more refined and accurate phrasing would be: “English belongs to everyone who uses it in these particular ways in these particular contexts according to these particular rules established by these particular powerful social actors to achieve these particular ends.”

Using China English in an international academic journal?
Let’s take one example: Writing in Bahamian, Singaporean, China, or even so-called Euro English isn’t likely to get you far in the realm of global academic publishing, which generally demands that authors use Standard American or Standard British English.

Similarly, neither is the English version of the United Nation’s web site written in Bahamian, Singaporean, China or Euro-English. More broadly, as far as I know (I confess I can’t read these languages), the UN does not publish its Spanish, French, Russian, Chinese, etc. language versions using local forms of those languages; it uses “Standard (Written) French,” etc.

The larger point – one that’s glossed over among those who adhere to the “English belongs to everyone who uses it” view: You have to use particular, standardized forms of languages, including English, in order to be welcomed into, one might also say in order to “belong to”, the linguistic community located in a given (international) power domain.

If you accept this argument, and, frankly, I think it’s difficult to refute – trying submitting your next article to the Journal of Sociolinguistics in a form of English other than Standard British or American English — then the façade of “English belongs to everyone who uses it” begins to crumble.

Core country elites still hold control
On an theoretical level, it’s certainly true that the core countries don’t really “own” English anymore, if they ever really did. However, that doesn’t mean these countries, or, more accurately, the elite social actors who establish, maintain, and enforce “Standard American/British/Australian, etc. English” domestically, in particular in power domains, have given up the fight to control English globally, or that they have somehow already lost this battle.

Far from it. These elite social actors – international academics among them – continue to fight hard to maintain “inner circle” English as the form to which those “outside” the circle must adhere.

Moving down the social hierarchy somewhat, I’m pretty certain it would come as a surprise – and a rather unwelcome one at that — to many, if not most, average Americans (or British, etc.) that they do not own English, and, furthermore, that those for whom English is a second/foreign language now control the global fate of the language.

In fact, comparatively little empirical work has been conducted on attitudes held by those in the “inner circle” speaking countries toward global English, much less on how they might view, and respond to the claim that they no longer have (any?) control over English, globally speaking.

Core country attitudes toward global English
Additionally, as far as I know, no one has examined core country English speaker attitudes toward the crucial question of “a” global English written standard, and how, and by whom, this ought to be determined. Nor, as far as I am aware, has much empirical research been conducted into what specific types of standardized written English are used in particular global power domains. I do strongly suspect that such research would reveal that, contrary to what the “English belongs to everyone who uses it” claim implies, in fact English only “belongs” to those using it in power domains, in written form, if they use it in this particular American or British standardized manner.

In fact, I am a strong advocate for destabilizing and deconstructing a hierarchical global English language order in which educational elites from core English speaking countries establish the exclusive language rules by which everyone must play in order to “belong.” However, I don’t believe that acting as if the global English language hierarchy has miraculously already disappeared and simply declaring, “English belongs to everyone who uses it” is the best way to accomplish this.

Indeed, ironically, those declaring, even if indirectly, that there is no more hierarchy, no more center, in terms of  global English reinforce the very unjust language order they seek to deconstruct. You can’t, after all, take something down if it isn’t there anymore to begin with, can you?

ResearchBlogging.org Demont-Heinrich, C. (2008). The Death of Cultural Imperialism — and Power Too?: A Critical Analysis of American Prestige Press Representations of the Hegemony of English International Communication Gazette, 70 (5), 378-394 DOI: 10.1177/1748048508094289

Author Christof Demont-Heinrich

A lifelong interest in language and writing motivated in large part by a desire to learn my father’s mother tongue, German, has played a large role in my professional and educational trajectory. I spent my junior year of college studying in Freiburg, Germany. After graduating from Allegheny College with a B.A. in German, I worked as a print journalist for eight years in the Boston area.

I moved to Colorado in August of 1996 so that I could attend Colorado State University where I earned an M.A. in English (1998). After a couple years of working as an adjunct faculty member at CSU and the University of Northern Colorado, I began a Ph.D. program at the University of Colorado, Boulder School of Journalism and Mass Communication in the fall of 2000. I completed my dissertation in December of 2005. I started a tenure-track position at the University of Denver in the fall of 2005 where I am now an Associate Professor in the Department of Media, Film & Journalism Studies.

My general research interests are in linguistic and cultural dimensions of globalization, transnational and national identity, and the relation between media discourse and hegemony.

More posts by Christof Demont-Heinrich
  • What an excellent article – for more on “critical linguistics” watch these video talks: Julian Edge talks about “a darker side”; Widin on “illegitimate practices” both from ; Alistair Pennycook documents how “we are never just teachers” and of course most recently Robert Philipson continues to challenge us to question the implications of our practice with notions of “linguistic imperialism.” both of these talks from http://www.tesolacademic.org/keynotesnew.htm
    Enjoy, share and challenge … 🙂

  • don’t know why the book link got cut off http://www.tesolacademic.org/bookauthorseds0810.htm

  • Charlie L.

    Y r u ignoring SMS english? This is fast becoming the English written standard in ages groups up to the early 30’s, especially within core English countries. Should we not praise the elite hierarchy’s attempts to protect the language?

  • Sheila Pham

    Great piece and agree about calling a spade, a spade. When I was copy editing international publications from UN agencies and other international organisations, I found that I had to be conversant with American, British and even on one or two occasions, Australian English.

    I would be interested to know what language researchers from places like Quebec for French and Mexico (or South America) for Spanish have to adhere to for publication – it’s a really good question.

    A bit off-topic but as I was reading your post I started thinking music is one realm where it does actually feel like English is owned by ‘everybody’ and there isn’t as much of a hierarchy evident compared to more formal contexts. All kinds of English seems pretty acceptable these days in music. So for example K-Pop artists from Seoul will weave English into songs that become popular all over Asia to millions – and those fans will surely just see that the English language lyrics belong to the Korean singers.

    • Good point Sheila. Music is good example of a context where hybridization, creolization, bricolage, etc. clearly rule, both linguistically and musically, though it would be interesting to see how young people in the linguistic center — U.S., UK, Australia, Canada New Zealand — view, and respond to, K-Pop, etc. sung in English, linguistically speaking. That is, how do they view “foreign” artists singing in English.

      Also very interesting to me is the question of to what extent are young monolingual English speakers in the linguistic center aware of, and open to/not open to, consuming music with lyrics in languages other than English. In fact, I’ve regularly discussed this topic and informally surveyed undergraduates on this in my International Communication course. Generally, speaking, there is little awareness among my students of music produced in languages other than English — except among students who are already “global”, in particular those with mulitnational backgrounds. On the other hand, there seems to be a fair amount of interest in the idea of exploring and discovering music sung in languages other than English — but very little knowledge of how to go about finding it, etc.

  • Thanks for a thought-provoking article. In London, everyone claims they do speak English. And everyone has their own English: Ponglish, Chinglish, Franglish, etc. And we do seem to accept the fact that British English exists only on BBC.

    • Great point about London! Global cities like London, New York, Tokyo etc. really exist on a separate level from the nation state in which they are located (Saskia Sassen, of course, The Global City); small wonder that language ideologies works differently in these cities than in the rest of the country, too …

  • Khan

    English, English everywhere, not a drop to drink,
    ‘’It’s yours, use it the way you do, are we not in the world of global Englishes” my teacher said
    Sir you taught me that history is locally constituted through the power of discourse, how can then yours English and my English have the same power
    ‘Come on Khan, ‘you are always stuck in history of colonization; a bit dated if you don’t mind, we are in the world of global English; it is as much yours and as much mine’ my teacher said
    Sir you have taught me bilingualism is a resources and I have three languages in my linguistic repertoire
    ‘Come on Khan, it is all theoretical stuff, stop being the slave of books and theories, it is as much yours as ours’
    Sir my English gets me to local labour market
    ‘Come on Khan, it is not the question of English, you are obsessed with it, I am afraid’
    Sir international labor market tells a different story
    ‘Stop it, you have got a chip on your shoulder, you Indian will never know how to write in English’
    English English everywhere, not a drop to drink

    • Alia Amir

      Good point about Englishes, Khan! I disagree with your teacher 🙂 and I understood the point you are trying to make through ‘your’ English 🙂

  • ‘ … that those for whom English is a second/foreign language now control the global fate of the language.’ I think this is a key sentence here. Non-native speakers outnumber native speakers. As globalisation continues and our lives become more entwined, native speakers will find themselves increasingly having to adapt their speech to that of non-native speakers, not the other way around as it often is now.

    With time, as a uniform and simple ‘Global English’ takes over, idioms and phrasal verbs (among other things) will fall by the wayside and become the preserve of ‘Native English’, a minority and obsolescent language.

    Good article, Christof.

  • Jo

    You have to use particular, standardized forms of languages, including English, in order to be welcomed into, one might also say in order to “belong to”, the linguistic community located in a given (international) power domain.

    The above does not highlight a change for a lot of inner-circle speakers…
    I know a lot of L1 (British) speakers who write in a colloquial/ idiosyncratic/ dialectal manner and I know a lot of L2 users who write better standard English than some of my ‘mother-tongue friends’.
    L1 users also have to learn this ‘correct’ form in order to progress academically (e.t.c.) but it doesn’t make them any less fluent or creative in speech and it doesn’t mean the language ‘belongs’ any less to them (I should really include myself in “them” too!).
    Language rarely changes drastically through print, it changes through its users speech.
    (British) English is a perfect example of such incongruity regarding speech and writing.
    I think English DOES belong to anyone who uses it; while it might take a long time (if at all) for writing habits to reflect speech habits, day-to-day, spoken English is constantly evolving (in inner and outer circles).
    Take American English (its users having made spelling and vocabulary alterations to the ‘British original’) as an example of proof!
    We wouldn’t be talking about American, British, Australian (e.t.c) English if there hadn’t been some evolution and user-changes involved… and we accept all of these as ‘standards’!

  • I think the next best step in this whole discussion would be to conduct some empirical study into how the speakers on the so-called “inner core” feel about Global English, that is if they know what it is or what it is supposed to mean.
    This is coming from a speaker that belongs to the “middle cores” – as a native of Trinidad and Tobago, where strangely enough, it occurred to us that the English we speak is inferior to that spoken in the US or the UK or vice versa.

  • Perhaps I over simplify, but to me (British English) there are 2 distinct types of English.

    There is the spoken kind, which is used as a global language of communication. I see this as a tool that is shared by all and can be adapted as the user feels is appropriate. Street talk, using the pronounciation mechanisms of another language (used to grate on me, but I am getting over it) etc … if it is agreed, understood & makes sense to the parties involved, then go for it – I am just another user (who is lucky enough to have English as his first language).

    Also, we have written English. This is designed for more formal or for specific purposes and must operate as a standalone medium (I cannot use para-verbals etc. to help understand your meaning). As such, it has to be standardised to ensure that anyone using it, knows what to expect & what is meant. Controling votes have always gone to the highest stock holder, so the rule makers are mainly British & US English. The fact that US English makes many (common sense) changes to its British varient is reflective that English can encompass change, & as bodies of English users increase (i.e. Australian English), then others gain more of a say in its use.

    We wouldn’t tell people they are not speaking ‘correctly’ though, unless this made a difference to their overall communication & conveyed image. In writing though, WYSIWYG; so if standards are conformed to, there is more chance you will be understood (read Burns).

  • Alf Riley

    The principle should be universally agreed that the UK owns the “Master” copy, and any country adopting it as their own should be free to adapt it to their needs, and would thus take ownership of their version. The argument of who speaks the correct English is an interesting one. Those of us who are now retired pensioners spent our formative years being taught the correct version, with examinations insisting on correct spelling and the use of concise and lucid English. We therefore find it irksome when foreigners such as the US proceed with gay abandon in changing the spelling of words considered sacrosanct here in the UK, but provided the use of their English conforms to a universally recognised conciseness and lucidity, and are therefore well understood, we can be fairly tolerant. We are therefore proud that it has become the world’s first global language, whether American or British, and it still never fails to amaze us that such a tiny country could achieve such a distinction; a boast not even the US could make.