Answers to exercises: Chapter 1
1. Public opinions about English
These statements illustrate widely held misconceptions about language and the
English language, in particular. Here weve provided a brief discussion of each of
them, together with some handy references that you might like to follow up.
1. English is the language of England.
At the start of Chapter 11 we quote the words of Homer Simpson: English? Who
needs that? I'm never going to England! As we describ e here, Homer is completely
mistaken and not simply for the reason that English is the standard language of the
USA. The worlds population is around six billion and a staggering proportion of this
six billion are already regular users of English approximately one out of every five
of the worlds population speaks English to some level of competence. This global
takeover by English probably began more than 450 years ago with the initial spread
towards Wales and Scotland. Since that time English has been slowly but surely
bulldozing its way to becoming the language of the world and now even the
language of space and cyberspace. The need for international intelligibility, coupled
with a series of geographical, cultural, economic and political episodes, has secured
the position of English as a global lingua franca or common language (well, at least
for the moment speakers of English should not be complacent!). Worldwide
opportunities involving trade, international travel, satellite broadcasting, the
information superhighway, world press, world stock markets and multinational
corporations are changing the concept of the English speech community beyond
recognition. No longer are we simply looking at a group of people bound together
because they live close by and speak the same language. English has now established
itself in almost every corner of the globe, and as Crystal (2006: 412) put it, No one
nation can any longer be said to own English and no one nations anxieties over
local norms of usage will make much impact in a world where diverse regional
standards are the norm, and where the Internet provides these varieties with new
levels of public display.
Svartvik, J. and Leech, G. 2006: English: one tongue, many voices. Houndvilles:
Crystal, D. 2006: Into the twenty-first century. In L. Mugglestone (ed.) The Oxford
history of English (pp. 394414). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2. English is the hardest language to learn.
In fact it is impossible to say which language is the hardest to learn. There are
basically two reasons for this. One, it depends where you start from. If English is your
mother tongue, then its going to be far harder to learn a language that isnt closely
related or indeed linguistically related at all. An English speaker would find Irish or
Welsh difficult, more difficult than Dutch and German. These languages are all
relatives, to be sure, but Dutch and German are near relatives, being in the same
Germanic family as English. Even harder to learn would be languages from a
completely different language family, say one of the Australian Aboriginal languages,
a Dravidian language like Tamil, or perhaps an Amerindian language like Nootka or
Navaho. The sounds and grammar would be very different and the vocabulary
unfamiliar, not just in form but also in content. But what also makes it hard to
determine the relative difficulty of a language is that we are dealing with complexity
at different levels. One example might involve, say, morphology. As you will see in
this book, when it comes to grammatical morphology English is rather impoverished.
An English noun like duck can have two forms only (duck/ducks) and verbs come in
fours (quack/s/ed/ing). Modern Italian and Spanish verbs have about 50 different
forms, Classical Greek verbs 350. There are some languages, such as many of the
American Indian languages, that show far greater morphological complexity than
even the Greek. Polysynthetic languages, as they are known, show mind-bogglingly
long and complicated word forms, at least from the perspective of an English speaker.
But then you have to take in other aspects of the language for example, sounds and
sentence construction. There are also languages that might be described as difficult
from the point of view of rules of politeness and indirect speech styles. So heres the
rub it is impossible to say what language is the hardest to learn because there is no
straightforward measure of simplicity. Typically what you find is complexity in one
area of the language and simplicity in another.
Trudgill, P. and Bauer, L. (eds) 1998: Myths about language. New York: Penguin.
3. Writing is a more perfect form of language than speech.
Once upon a time we wrote as we spoke. Speech was primary and writing was there
to represent it visually. Nowadays its the reverse. When reading and writing ceased
to be educational luxuries but rather became necessities, writing took centre stage and
speech started to be viewed more as its oral representation. Writing also took a hold
of our minds in ways it hadnt done before (cf. Bolinger 1980: 51). So focused are we
now on the written word that many of us dont even think words exist until we see
how they are spelled somehow they dont become real until we can actually see
them. Literate people also attribute sounds to the letters of these words we are
expected to say our hs, we are expected not to drop our gs. This is nonsensical, of course, because letters dont have sounds; they symbolise sounds. But ours is very
much a society where the linguistic tail wags the dog even what we now think of as
the rules of English grammar are based largely on written texts. As Jim Miller once
told us, when the Watergate Tapes were first transcribed and reproduced in the
papers, the public was horrified how could they have elected people who are unable
to produce a decent grammatical sentence? But this was spontaneous speech where, as
you will see in this book, the concept of sentence is simply not appropriate.
Until quite recently, even the activities of linguists and grammarians overwhelmingly
concentrated on the structures of planned and highly standardized speech (and
therefore usually written). Relatively little was known about the unplanned and more
spontaneous discourse varieties. Recording is a modern phenomenon and we simply
did not have proper access to live unsolicited speech. Unfortunately, the legacy of this
is that people have come to equate normal language with the written form. This,
together with the increasing importance of writing over speech in society, has meant
that common spoken features remain highly stigmatized. The following is one such
Melanie: Oh, theres someone came through yesterday.
If this were a piece of written language, we would expect the clause Melanie utters to
have a wh-word (who). But this is speech and what we must never do is judge it
through the spectacles of writing. Speech is a very different beast it is not spoken
writing any more than writing is speech written down. The two mediums have their
own distinctive capabilities of expression, their own very different sets of rules.
Bolinger, D. 1980: Language: the loaded weapon. Harlow: Longman.
4. The English language is going to the dogs.
English has been changing throughout its lifetime and its still changing today. For
most speakers, these changes are fine as long as theyre well and truly in the past.
Paradoxically, people can be curious about word origins and the stories that lie behind
the structures we find in our language, but they experience a queasy distaste for any
change that might be happening under their noses. There are even language critics
who are convinced that English is dying, or if not dying, at least being progressively
crippled through long years of mistreatment.
There is a special human kind of doublethink involved here. The fact that
Shakespeare might have misinterpreted the word grovelling and backformed a new
verb to grovel is interesting; the fact that younger speakers have done the same with
versus and created a new verb to verse compete against (as in Team A is versing
Team B) is calamitous. If dictionary makers and handbook writers do acknowledge