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?
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