Nation languages, local literatures, and international readers:a new indigenization in native English writers?

NB: Earlier versions of this paper were delivered as a plenary lecture at the ACLALS Commonwealth Literature Conference, Kuala Lumpur, December 1998; and at the NWAVE II Conference, on New Varieties of English, University of Lincoln, UK, September 1999.

The following comprises a cluster of speculations, some more tightly linked than others, on present trends and possible developments in certain kinds of English (from among its numerous varieties and registers). In particular, two kinds (neither of which is a sharply-bounded quasi-natural kind): the English used internationally and cross-culturally in non-specialized circumstances by second-language speakers and, in their wake, native speakers; and the English used by writers of literature (particularly novels) with national, regional or local-culture readerships as their first audience. I begin with brief remarks on globalization, multilingualism, and translation, before turning to the post-colonial writer, no longer writing ‘back’ to any particular notional centre.

1. A word on Globalization

I would like to reflect on the changing place of the English language in the world, and in the process revisit some issues which are of concern to writers and readers everywhere, but which are perhaps acute preoccupations of post-colonial writers and readers. Those issues include sense of identity, of place, and of nationality, and the pressures brought to bear on these by new technologies and the globalization, of seemingly everything, that they are facilitating. The globalization of markets and economies, and of politics, and of culture, lies behind many of the interesting shifts of value and implication that seem to be emerging. But this is not a paper on Globalization itself. It is certainly arguable that the word Globalization (which incidentally is never far from the lips of senior British cabinet ministers these days) is both a misnomer and a euphemism. We may feel that what underlies so-called Globalization is a new kind of regimentation, in which all countries and companies and markets are brought into line with certain standards set by corporate America and corporate Europe, so as to give those corporate powers total and unfettered access to the world’s five billion consumers. Maybe so; but that is not my present topic. Rather my topic is some of the consequences of the globalization we see, in particular the consequences for English.

It is widely acknowledged that, in some sense, English is emerging as a world language and, in view of the illogicality and cost of having two global lingua francas, is emerging as the one and only world language. In recent years, an acceleration of distinguished scholars have reflected on this development, including Braj Kachru, Randolph Quirk, David Graddol in association with the British Council, and many more. I will turn briefly to the comments of a linguist who, in terms of audience, may be the most influential of them all–Professor David Crystal, whose book on the matter, English as a Global Language, appeared in 1997.

2. Multilingualism and/versus a Shared Global Language?

Crystal begins by declaring his commitment to two fundamental principles: multilingualism and a global common language. The former, he says, ‘presents us with different perspectives and insights, and thus enables us to reach a more profound understanding of the nature of the human mind’ (viii), while the latter would offer ‘unprecedented possibilities for mutual understanding, and thus enables us to find fresh opportunities for international cooperation'(viii). The argument in favour of multilingualism is that with it comes diversity and depth of understanding—the depth that comes from engaging difference, contrast, the depth of field made possible where one language calibrates the world one way, while another language calibrates it differently, to the point where the first way’s strangeness is grasped. A multilingual experiencing of the world is thus a thoroughgoing access to metaphorical understanding, with all the freshness and difference that this implies; it is also a constant rather than intermittent experience of Bakhtinian polyphony. And at least in the terms used by Professor Crystal, the arguments in favour of multilingualism are strikingly reminiscent of those famously advanced by John Stuart Mill in justifying freedom of expression. If this is so, it is then but a short step to conclude that, in view of the benefits it may confer, multilingualism should perhaps be constitutionally protected in a true democracy, just as heterodox speech and opinion is.

But all these delights of multilingualism (which I take to subsume its simplest variant, bilingualism) are uncertainly shared. Very many people in Asia, for example, are bi- or tri-lingual, and thereby have access to contrastive understandings and insights that a monolingual person may lack. But since those bilinguals are often not bilingual in the same single pair of languages, but in very many different groupings of two and three languages, the extent to which there is a sharedness or commonality of experience is less certain than it might first appear. Multilingualism as an abstract idea seems easily summarized in general terms; but one individual’s experience of multilingualism may be so different from another’s that a description that will fit both may be nearly impossible.

At this point Crystal and others might say “Precisely: for sharedness of experience we need that second desideratum, a common language”. But is it true, as Crystal claims, that a common language can step in to permit mutual understanding and fresh opportunities for national and international cooperation? My intuition has always been that events proceed in the reverse order: that a commitment to mutual understanding and cooperation between two parties may lead to the subsequent devising or adoption of a common language. (Nor need such cooperation be inter-national, since there are plenty of nations which have comprised different language communities and at have at some past time lacked a common language.) But if we do look at things from this perspective it is surely clear that adoption of a common language is not a necessary outcome; the major alternatives are extensive bilingualism, and extensive translation.

3. Translation

In fact the relations between Translation and a common Global language are in many ways the most interesting to explore, but I can dwell on translation here only briefly. As Crystal acknowledges, one pressure to adopt a global lingua franca may have little directly to do with fostering world harmony, but is simply to do with cheapness. A global language may be adopted for all the kinds of international communication that are such a pervasive corollary of globalization in its many forms—political, financial, fiscal, commercial, industrial, agricultural, educational, scientific, cultural, academic, and so on. The argument for adopting it is that it appears to be cheap and efficient by comparison with ‘expensive and impracticable multi-way translation facilities’ (Crystal, 1997: 10). And what follows from this is that if anything is to halt the spread of use of a genuinely global language, it is likely to be the emergence, before that global language takes hold to the extent of becoming a pervasive second or school language, of a cheap and widespread technology that allows near instantaneous translation of speech and writing among the major native languages. If such technology were soon to emerge, much of the rationale for a global language would fall away. As Crystal notes, ‘the economics of automatic translation’ might so undercut the cost of a global language that the latter becomes otiose (1997: 22). But if that is the case, if a global language can so easily be displaced by economic and technological forces, it seems that one of Crystal’s foundational convictions, namely that a worldwide common language has inestimable value as a resource for world understanding, might turn out to have come and gone quite cheaply after all.

Political and economic power, and a facilitative technology, are what cause a language to ‘go international’ and even begin to have a global status. On all those counts, English has repeatedly turned out to be the language in the right place at the right time. As is common knowledge, although two-thirds of the world’s population have few encounters with English, global, international, and even many national enterprises and organizations have adopted English as their working language. The breadth of use of English in international relations of all kinds, in the media and in advertising, in western or western-oriented business, in education, science, and so on, does not need rehearsing.

4. Literature in the market-place: non-English as a cost

You can think of English-mediated products as at an advantage, or equally, of non-English-mediated products as at a disadvantage. I think the latter may be the more appropriate formulation. That is to say, arguably, and purely in crudely market-driven economic terms, any kind of product that is in any way language-dependent and that seeks a global audience or market, may be thought of as competing at a disadvantage if it originates in any language other than English. English may not be an added value, of English-mediated products; but non-English is an added cost, of non-English-mediated products.

But again, to repeat, this is value in a purely economic sense, and is only relevant to globally-marketed products. But it does mean, from the point of view of globally-organized publishing, that, if all other factors were equal–and they may well not be–and reading fiction, for example, had an equivalent social standing in Scotland, say, as in Malaysia, then the novels of Scotland’s best novelist, written in English, would have a significantly greater economic value than those of Malaysia’s best novelist, written in Malay. Cultural and aesthetic values are of course a quite separate issue, and may be almost beyond price when one is contemplating verbal art, where the very language used (Malay, Hindi, or whatever) is intrinsic to the creative artistic process. The contrast I have in mind here is with, say, writing and selling a cookbook of Indian cooking, or providing the labels and washing instructions to accompany the manufacture of cotton shirts in India: the parties involved have choices–e.g. between using Hindi or English or both, and so on–with contrasting consequences, in each case. In the literary case, ultimately, you do not: you cannot write a Gaelic or Malay or Hindi poem in English, although you can certainly write an Irish, Malaysian or Indian one.

There are tensions, clearly, between market forces and cultural and political needs, and the need for intelligibility and the need for identity often pull people and countries in opposing directions (Crystal: 116). Wide-band intelligibility motivates the learning of an international language, with English the first choice in most cases; while the need for identity-ratification motivates the promotion of ethnic language and culture. Conflict, Crystal notes, is the common consequence when either position is promoted insensitively. Some sort of bilingual policy, in which people can ‘have their cake and eat it too’ is a potential solution, but it is costly in time and money and requires a ‘climate of cooperation’. But if the proposed solution is indeed costly, and sufficiently difficult that success is uncertain, I suspect that it is on the right track. This is a corollary of H. L. Mencken’s important reminder to us, that ‘For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong’. Our societies are recurringly pressured into quick cheap fixes that do not actually work; perhaps it is time to take the route which, though difficult and costly, might be correct.

5. The Post-colonial Writer: Does she write back to the centre?

Many have felt that the crux of the best post-colonial attitude to English, an attitude in which it is taken, possessed, and used alongside other languages, was well articulated long ago by Raja Rao when he said:

We Indians cannot write like the English. We should not. We can write only as Indians…[creating a dialect] as distinctive and colourful as the Irish or the American. (1989 [1938])

While Rao stipulates what Indian writers of English should do, Salman Rushdie reports, perhaps a little breezily, what they are doing. This comes in his hilarious essay titled ‘Commonwealth literature does not exist’, when he suggests that users of English in former colonies are “rapidly remaking it, domesticating it, becoming more and more relaxed about the way they use it… in India they use it as an Indian language” (1991). And then there is Chinua Achebe, most famously of all, requiring an English at once universal and “able to carry the weight of my African experience.” This new English, Achebe specified, needed to be “still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings”. Well, at this distance, I think there’s need for a little more caution in endorsing the scenarios of Rushdie and Achebe and those of a similar mind. After all, they are internationally-recognized men of letters, writing for international audiences, in an English which is only occasionally regional. Are they truly representative of postcolonial writers in English in general, for some of whom a substantial national audience may be the highest priority?

No doubt it was already something of a conceit, lithe with irony and ambivalence, when Salman Rushdie famously remarked that in post-colonial culture the Empire writes back, to the centre. But I wonder if even that inverted truth holds good today. From my selective encounter with writing from the so-called New Literatures in English, I have little sense that this literature particularly addresses the one-time metropolitan centre–not least because there is no longer such a centre. Does Achebe speak more to London than to Lagos, or to Vancouver? Is his ‘core’ readership more in Cape Town than in Delhi or Sydney? The unanswerability of these questions makes the point: there is no predominant audience, amounting to a centre that requires to be written to, for the Achebes or indeed the Atwoods or the Heaneys of English literature. There may have been thirty or forty years ago, but not now, and not in the foreseeable future. The logic of the designation ‘post-colonial’, for some, is that the United Kingdom, for example, will never cease to be post-colonial. Maybe so; but the quality of post-coloniality as a part of social and cultural reality in Britain, and the prominence of post-coloniality as experienced, is I believe diminishing. The situation has changed and continues to do so. Things do not stand as they did only a few short years ago. I notice, for instance, that when the authors of the much-admired critical study entitled The Empire Writes Back raised the question of the continued relevance of postcoloniality, they remark that “Britain and the other European imperial powers have been superseded by the emergent powers of the USA and USSR” (Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin, 1989:7). But in less than a decade that characterization has become quite defunct. Not just because the USSR is irrevocably dismantled, but also because it makes no sense to characterize the USA as an emergent power. It is the single fully-emerged superpower, while the chief emergent one is currently the EU, with China and India not very far behind.

6. The European Union: a Commonwealth in everything but Literature?

But the UK’s own status and identity are changing rapidly too, and are not what they were a mere decade ago, in the distant Thatcherite 80’s. A movement towards non-violent closure in relation to Britain’s nearest and dearest overseas settlement, Northern Ireland, is now in progress after many years of multi-lateral denial. If this succeeds, it will be thanks to that loveliest and dirtiest of words, compromise. Another kind of accommodation, striking uncomfortably close to British hearts and minds, is entailed in our ‘ever closer union’, as the Treaty of Amsterdam puts it, with fellow member states of the European Union. The British body politic seems not quite ready for the revised role we are actually already beginning to play–but if anything can help us cope with the transition it will be the current rapid rate of change in our mass media and the technologies underpinning them. The fact is that, short of an almost unimaginable slamming on of political brakes, we are on a Eurotrain headed into the continent and won’t be getting off. In terms of trade, industry, agriculture, constitutional and legal arrangements, and now gradually also in education, employment, defence and policing, we are more integrated into Europe, and therefore in less of a position to attend to other and earlier binding ties with former colonies, than ever before. Yes, Britain is still post-colonial; but now it is also, and pressingly, pre-federal.

7. Global: the international English used by globetrotting professionals.

Before saying more about the UK’s identity crisis, I want to make a few more points about the World English that is emerging. This is sometimes called simply English as an International Language; Crystal calls it World Standard Spoken English (1997: 137). And I prefer to call it Global, “the public international English used by globetrotting professionals” (Toolan, 1997:3). Calling it simply Global removes the ethnic affiliation that any use of the word English inevitably carries: an appropriate revision, in my view, since Global is evolving into a language that is to a large degree ethnically non-aligned–the only natural language to be so.

Global is already coming into existence, and really does have a pan-national reach: some of those people who are educated and comparatively affluent, from every country, are writing and speaking this language. In the year which has seen Microsoft emerge as the biggest company in the United States, after a mere 20 years of growth, we might say that by comparison the tidal wave of Global English has been developing for a comparatively long time. The tsunami has been building not so much from the time of Shakespeare and the King James bible as from the time of Drake and the defeat of the Spanish Armada, with major boosts via the Industrial Revolution, the predominance of English in North America, and the spread of the language with and through colonization. But a kind of Global is now upon us, and all around us: on the planes and in the airports that we used to get to this conference, we heard Global being used by Finns and Burmese, Angolans and Chileans, Chinese and Moroccans. Global English is now the world’s second language of choice, if for no other reason then simply because the world has found that, in most of the situations where you might need to have recourse to a second language, English will be recognized and will do the job. Now some may resort to Global English with gritted teeth, as some do with Microsoft’s Windows. But resort to it they do, knowing that it’s hard to fight with near-monopoly. I am not here recording the power and reach of Global in any spirit of pride or satisfaction, but simply because those seem to be the facts. Nor am I convinced that the dominance of English is a force for good; and I greatly distrust the ‘global village’ metaphor. Global, I would emphasize, is at an immense distance from being universal, being the support language specifically of the educated and the affluent and the travelled.

One or two caveats are in order here. By Global I emphatically do not mean all kinds of international second-language spoken English. It is not the English spoken by the Japanese Chaucer specialist in conversation with his German fellow conference-delegate–or, indeed, by language specialists–where a higher proficiency is likely. Nor is it the English spoken during a medical conference discussion, on new techniques in neurosurgery, by the Taiwanese and Moroccan delegates, where specialist lexis (and knowledge) will be present. Rather, as a broad rule of thumb, we might say that Global is the kind of non-specialist core-vocabulary English that even moderately­-educated native speakers of English might be expected to understand–although in its accent, grammar, and so on it may well not be the kind of English that they themselves would produce.

To a certain extent I want to suggest that the prospects for particular regional and national Englishes–Nigerian English, Malaysian English, and so on–seem to be now as they have been for some time: uncertain, in transition, of still-contested status within their national or regional areas of influence. But when Malaysians and Nigerians are communicating ‘extra-nationally’, to German businesspeople in KL, or Lagos, or Frankfurt, then Global is used. So to a degree previously unparalleled, there is a worldwide usership of English, a worldwide stratum of people who are, typically, educated, skilled, in one or another profession. This should be good news for Don DeLillo and Tom Wolfe and A.S.Byatt; and good news too for Derek Walcott and Namita Gokhale and K.S.Maniam.

The standard view of the postcolonial writer’s linguistic dilemma, if they identify with a nation or region where English is not the predominant native language, is that they face a decision with consequences that may be ethically or financially or culturally painful–or all three at once. The postcolonial writer, it is said, can decide to resist imperial linguistic domination by rejecting the language of the colonizer, like Ngugi wa Thiongo; alternatively and more commonly, it is said that they can subvert the empire by writing back in a European language. I have already questioned whether the latter characterization, once valid, is still correct. Writers from Malawi to Manitoba, using English, are ‘writing back’ less and less, partly because in its internationally standardizing form, Global, English is ceasing to be a specifically European language at all. Rather, like the internet, Global has no single metropolitan base or homeland. An exemplary product of postmodernity, it is always in exile (and, if you wish, alien), or, equally, it can be said to be at home everywhere.

Alongside Global, a range of nationally- or regionally-recognized varieties is developing. These are more locally expressive and identity-ratifying, but less internationally intelligible (as they do not need to be). And from where I’m standing, in Birmingham England, the old problem of say, Nigerians recycling the imperial language called English is a problem that is fading away. The new problem, facing people in Birmingham rather than those in Lagos, is that we are losing our imaginary possession of and identification with the internationally viable version of the only language most of us know. We in Britain do not own Global: London is not its centre, in anything like the way Paris is the centre for French, Tokyo for Japanese. To say that London or Oxford or the BBC is the homeland of Global is increasingly imaginary. And paradoxically, while English advances across the world, our complacent monolingual proficiency in that language alone, with educational emphasis on a standard form, seems less and less sufficient.

8. Nation and Global Englishes: the two Alchemies of English diglossia.

From the point of view of the rooted writer in, say, Mombasa, to write in Global English is indeed still to submit to an exonormic standard, in a way that Fanon’s thinking might still regard as problematic. But the logic of the emergence of Global is that for the rooted writer in Birmingham as well (Jim Crace, for example), to write in Global or anything resembling it is also to submit to an exonormic standard. Both writers–the one in Birmingham and the one in Mombasa– will I suggest feel pressure, from without and from within, to nativize their writing, to make it more Kenyan or more Anglo, in the respective cases. What this may amount to, now in the UK and Canada and Australia, and so on, as formerly noted in the Caribbean and India, is the emergence of ‘Nation’ languages, to borrow and extend Kamau Brathwaite’s idea. In the case of Britain, this comes just at the point where some of our national identity is being reconfigured. This ‘nationizing’ will always be a matter of degree, and more congenial to some writers and readers than to others, so that British novels are likely to continue to appear across the whole range from nearly unintelligibly vernacular to utterly internationally transparent. But is there any evidence of ‘Nation’ language, of local pride English, in recent British and Irish novels? I would say emphatically yes, citing James Kelman, Alasdair Gray and Irvine Welsh from Scotland, and Roddy Doyle and Sebastian Barry from Ireland, among many others. In fact cultural or literary language seems to be vernacularizing quite extensively anyway, by comparison with the non-vernacular pragmatic language of Global; it is enacting that recurrent Wordsworthian turn towards the ‘real language of men’. The wider vernacularization seems partly a response to pressure and competition from audiovisual media which, perhaps surprisingly, are far less good at the business of close and celebratory examination of speech. (Typically in the audiovisual media, speech is relayed without analysis; in print records and representations, it can be scrutinized, glossed, and is of necessity objectified.)

And as it happens the large role played by dialect in many recent fiction bestsellers is increasingly noted by others: see, for example, the commentary by Martin Cullingford, ‘Our Novel Way of Speaking’ in The Times, July 20, 1999. Quoting a prominent publisher, Cullingford relates the rise in use of dialect in fiction to political dissent and ‘a move to a decentralising ethic of writing’, according to which ‘writers…on the periphery… have decided to speak in their own voice’. The anomaly here, of writing (rather than speaking) in your own voice is not emphasized in the article; but I believe it needs to be, in the course of a fuller explanation of the emergence of quasi-transcriptionally rendered speech. (The article also suggests that in the new dialectal genre ‘literature and conversation collide’, a notion worthy of exploration.)

In the terms of Braj Kachru’s metaphor of “The Alchemy of English”, I see two kinds of alchemy at work: one which denatures English so that it encircles the globe free of the influence of any single majority shareholder, or any single native place; and this denatured English I call Global. Like denatured alcohol, it’s not great to drink but it does certain jobs, of a functional or therapeutic kind, very well. The second alchemy nativizes and indigenizes English. Thus customized, the better to fit a particular national or regional identity, it can stand as one of several languages that may serve community and intra-national needs.

Certainly under these conditions, in particular cases, such as that of India which Kachru discusses, the validity of even this diglossic English arrangement remains limited, and oriented towards a privileged elite. Why resort to a national Indian English, for any intra-national purposes, when there are several other languages available, far more deeply rooted locally, and not marked by a colonial past? The answer to this question seems to be that even intra-nationally in countries like India, and even though the language may be only fully available to the elite, still English has a currency as a national lingua franca, connecting speakers of Bengali with speakers of Tamil, and speakers of Hindi with speakers of Kannada, in a way that no other language does. In this situation, nationalizing English in the distinct ways needed for India, Jamaica, Nigeria, New Zealand, and so on, has been seen as a demarginalizing of the postcolonial experience. That demarginalizing is thus very centrally linguistic, and can take many forms, from Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah, to Saro-Wiwa’s A Forest of Flowers, to Soyinka’s Ake, to give just a few Nigerian examples. All contribute to the creation of what Brathwaite calls a ‘nation language’, a need felt by a host of post-colonial writers (to the point where it becomes a characteristic of literary post-coloniality).

9. Intelligibility.

I do not wish to imply, simply because regionally-distinct varieties of English may be now best thought of as Englishes, that these varieties too will certainly develop into thoroughly divergent languages with low mutual intelligibility, and separate names to boot: Caribbean, Scottish, Indian, Singaporean, and so on. The situation today is significantly different from that which faced Latin or Germanic, because technology, affluence, the mobility of labour and tourism and emigration, and the financial and economic mobility that can switch investment from Liverpool to Madras more rapidly than ever before, are all forces which will hold centrifugal divergences in check. And, to emphasize the point, all this relates to the regionally distinct varieties of English, the vernacular Englishes of Kingston, Jamaica, Galway in Ireland, Cape Town, Hong Kong, rural Queensland, Ipoh, and so on and so forth. In all of these places we will also find Global, the acrolectal English that is as internationally tradeable as the dollar or the euro.

But what of the international intelligibility of the vernacular Englishes? Denied the degree of mutual splendid isolation enjoyed by the Latins and Germanics of one and two thousand years ago respectively, these are unlikely to become so mutually unintelligible as to count as different languages. And yet these regionally-rooted Englishes are unlikely to remain so mutually intelligible that the reader in Bangalore will invariably be able to follow the novelist from Barbados with ease, or that the poet using Belfast English will always communicate easily to the reader in Jos. You may say everything depends on which Barbadian novelist, and which Belfast poet, I have in mind; and I would agree. My suggestion is simply that some Barbadian novelists and some Belfast poets will not be unproblematically internationally intelligible.

10. Subsidiarity

As soon as I began work on this topic, the word subsidiarity spontaneously came to mind, but for a long time I was unclear in my own mind whether it truly applied to any particular part of the diglossic situation I have sketched. But in certain other respects the word and its histories are, I think, usefully emblematic. Subsidiarity is a recently-promoted term, within the EU, which is intended to express the principle that, while the Union continues to create and enforce harmony of essential and union-wide economic and political arrangements, at the same time as much as possible of the authority for detailed implementation, and for oversight of governance related to individual member states, shall remain with or be devolved to those individual member states. The member states are to control everything, ‘locally’, that the central institutions do not of necessity have to control. A similar provision is set down in the United States constitution, and underpins the sovereignty arrangements shared between the states and the federal government.

As indicated, I am still a little uncertain as to whether subsidiarity describes the new English diglossia, as if Global ‘agreed to devolve’ distinctive and self-regulatory national or regional varieties to the ‘member states’ where Global is used. But the word itself is eloquent of the shifts of authoritative and originating centre, away from New York, Los Angeles and London, found in the Global era. For–as many British commentators remarked when it first became current–subsidiarity is not a native English word, but a French-derived Brussels coinage. To some British ears, it still sounds like an anglicized French import. Again, the British are not used to the idea of new and mainstream English words being coined in Brussels, for our consumption. But this is part of what begins to happen when you can no longer claim and enforce chief proprietorship of the language in its Global version.

11. Global as culturally uninteresting

Why is Global culturally uninteresting? Perhaps simply because such English, the language of airports and business meetings and BBC World, is too like the jar that Wallace Stevens’s persona placed on a hill in Tennessee. I quote the poem in its entirety:

Wallace Stevens, ‘Anecdote of the Jar’ (1929)
I placed a jar in Tennessee,

And round it was, upon a hill.

It made the slovenly wilderness

Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,

And sprawled around, no longer wild.

The jar was round upon the ground

And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion everywhere.

The jar was gray and bare.

It did not give of bird or bush,

Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Like Global, the jar also “took dominion everywhere” but, almost worse, it “was gray and bare. // It did not give of bird or bush, like nothing else in Tennessee.” Pure Global English, as a vehicle of verbal art, like a diet purely of Pepsi’s and McDonald burgers, an audiovisual experience comprising only MTV and SkySports, and so on and so forth, would be a grim version of Bakhtinian monologism, a doped, desensitized, automotized, worldspeak: a language detached from the pains and joys of identity. Perhaps Quirk had some of these conditions in mind when, in arguing on international intelligibility grounds in favour of a single global standard, he suggested that the purposes to be catered for might be well served by ‘a single monochrome standard form’ (Quirk 1985: 8). Among those educated to degree-level worldwide, English is becoming a ‘natural’ second language, read and spoken with greater or lesser facility. As a result, and using a phrasing which is intentionally less flattering to its users, a certain kind of international English is becoming a very common language.

I hope to have outlined the case for claiming that, in one of its guises, English is emerging as a Global variety, used by the educated and professional elite from every country and ethnicity in some of their international dealings. Now I want to comment on certain consequences for us in the United Kingdom, particularly in view of our increasingly federal standing within the European Union.

12. Global in the EU: the consequences for the UK

Here let me begin with jobs and the prosperity they bring. Typically, middle-income educated citizens of virtually every member state of the European Union have some facility with at least two languages, one of which is almost invariably English. The single and very large exception to this state of affairs is the United Kingdom, and in particular England and Scotland, rather than Wales or Northern Ireland. Even the Republic of Ireland, with its school-backed maintenance of Irish, is less monolingually-minded than us. The upshot may be that, increasingly, the young EU citizen from Bonn or Milan or Lyons, with skills and qualifications statutorily accorded EU-wide recognition, and “naturally” nearly fluent in English, will be sought out as a desirable employee in London or Glasgow in a way that the London- or Glasgow-born citizen will not. In short, educated EU citizens of every member state typically are competent in English in addition to at least one another European language, with the glaring exception of the UK. Thus the emergence of Global is by no means an unqualified bonus for the British (the US, within NAFTA, are in a different ballgame); for while we have relatively easy access to Global, so too, it seems, do well-educated mainland Europeans, who have other linguistic assets besides. Incidentally, in his recent book David Graddol has made a somewhat different point; namely, that as companies increasingly find a ready supply of skilled staff who are fluent in English residing in, say, Rotterdam or Barcelona, they will have less motivation for setting up at least a local office in Britain at all.

But jobs are only the tip of the iceberg, when I relate the development of Global to the UK situation. What about identity? When English is being acquired natively by at least a few children, of every nationality and every ethnicity, in virtually every city on the planet, how distinctive of ‘Britishness’ is it, that people like me can claim English as our native language? In itself, not very. This is unlike the situation with almost every other nation-language nexus. Citizens of most nations can lean on the idea that their nationality is discriminated by one of the languages they speak, a language which nationals of other countries do not speak. This is a simplistic equation of course, but a powerful one nonetheless. Thus Malaysians can say ‘Of course I’m Malaysian–I speak Malay; and you foreigners don’t’; or Brazilians can say ‘Of course I’m Brazilian–I speak Portuguese; and overwhelmingly you foreigners do not’. But just this crude nationality-discriminator is unavailable to the British–and more particularly the Scots and the English–because as far as standard English is concerned, all sorts of nationalities have what the British have. The national flavour of English in Britain is now only available if Britons nurture and play up the distinctively British aspects of British English, which is to say its non-international dialectal features, whether of pronunciation, lexis, grammar, semantics, or pragmatics. Because if Britons don’t do that, they won’t be speaking or writing English in ways that differ from the English spoken by German or Indian or American professionals. But if Britons do indeed strive to promote and maintain the dialectal side of their English, as one means of bolstering their sense of national identity, then ironically they will be moving in a direction which is the opposite from that promoted by a succession of British governments since the 19th century. Those governments have emphasized the educational importance of imposing and spreading a standardized English.

13. British Identity, English Identity, Nationality, and ‘Post-Nationality’

Now the foregoing remarks, very clearly, relate to some simple assumptions about languages fitting nations, and about nations as bodied forth by relatively exclusive languages. And the foregoing has assumed, too, that nationality and national identity are important issues for people in countries like the United Kingdom. But that last claim, on many measures, is itself currently a matter of debate and contention. And here I speak as a UK citizen. The spirit of doubt and uncertainty as to what it means to be English, or to be British if that is what we are, is more widespread today, at least as a matter of cultural, intellectual and constitutional debate, than it has been for decades, arguably centuries. There is no end of books, articles, opinion pieces, and pamphlets (but rather fewer poems, films or novels), batting about such questions as the following:

‘If the Scots and the Welsh have their own cultures, parliaments, languages, and can wear their Scottishness or Welshness with pride, what do we English have? What is the nature of Englishness? What does it mean to be English? Is England a nation?’

Those questions have arisen in part, I would suggest, because over the past few years certain alternative questions–or are they answers?–have implicitly arisen, and been tacitly spoken by some at least of those living within the UK. These include the following:

Does it matter if there is not any strong sense of British or English nationality? It seems that we rubbed along for many years within the UK as a mingling of at least three nations without deep pathology, and now we are moving towards a similar arrangement within the EU. Does it matter to someone resident in England, whether England is a nation or not? Of course there has to be some sort of identification of community boundaries, for the purposes of taxation and state intervention in education, health and welfare, and to identify legal jurisdiction, but beyond these what are the benefits derived from emphasizing the exclusivity and difference that nationality entails?

For some in Britain today, the answers to these questions are not all of a piece and compelling, but mixed and inconclusive. They see a present and future in which they might work in Germany, and eat Indian food while watching American tv, or sit on Scandinavian furniture while surfing the nation-transcending internet. But they are less and less discriminatingly conscious that the furniture is Scandinavian, the tv is American, and the food is Indian. Or, they have a more critical awareness of the succinct imprecision of referring to Scandinavian furniture or Indian food–as if the furniture was made by the Swedish nation when we know it actually comes from Ikea, and was quite conceivably manufactured in Portugal. And once such citizen-consumers are surfing the net, nationality really does slip away, along with specificity of time and place. The world-wide web and the Internet are post-national if any things are. And in the future, perhaps, many other things besides the web will be world-wide: not just Coca-cola and burgers and Microsoft and, to a degree, Global English, but also MTV, World Cup football, the Olympics, the funerals of royalty, and so on–the whole panoply of consumer-targeted and monopoly-ridden material that fills what Benjamin Barber has called “the infotainment telesector” (Barber, 1998).

Perhaps some people in Britain (even if a tiny minority) are indeed as accepting as I have suggested of the idea that English is no longer owned by the British or even defining of Britishness. Perhaps, furthermore, that minority is also accepting of the idea that nothing particularly has to be defining of Britain in that way. For that minority, such definition is less important than the supranational rights and principles we hold dear, along with the diverse local cultures that are held together within Britishness on an asserted family-resemblance relatedness. If those conditions have any validity, then it might be argued that the UK is on its way to becoming the first postmodern nation–because it would amount to the first post-national nation. People who hold these views may well foster, as writers and readers, a literary culture that is not strongly oriented to a local or indigenized language. I am sure that there are such readers, and such writers, essential travellers in the Joyce/Rushdie mould; but the movement discussed here is in a contrary direction.

My speculation then is that nationally distinctive varieties of English are developing and are likely to establish themselves, the upshot being that educated Jamaicans and Scots and Canadians and Kenyans and English people will come to practice a kind of diglossia within their use of English, reserving the Global version for international dealings and their own dialectal variety for some or many intranational uses. And over time, if Global standardizes and homogenizes further, under centripetal pressures, then an entirely corollary centrifugal pressure will foster the emergence of differences and divergences among all the educated national varieties of English. And with such growing divergences will come a renewed asking of the question whether those national Englishes will become sufficiently distinct to be better thought of as separate languages. So I am also proposing a new answer to the old question of whether English around the world will split up into separate languages, or remain unitary and perhaps even more unified than in the past. My answer is ‘both’: the national literary varieties may and perhaps will diverge, while Global will maintain a unified English.

My thesis, admittedly, is a mixture of selective evidence and speculation. It amounts simply to noting the growth or resurgence of vernacularization that seems to be taking place in fiction written in English, this being not unrelated to increased recourse to first-person narration, dialectally-rooted narration, and a more transcript-like fullness or naturalness in fictional dialogue. I have speculated that these are partly stimulated, as a culturally-motivated affirmation of difference or distinctiveness, by the emerging similarity among second-language English acrolects used by professionals around the world: Global’s homogeneity helps foster the heterogeneity of regional or national literary Englishes. Along the way I have made a number of dubious claims, clearly open to challenge: that the nation-language association is sufficiently psychologically real to affect English people’s sense of identity. Is that a hopelessly Eurocentric assumption, to be set against the more typical situation of India, or South Africa or Brazil, where multiple languages co-exist, none exclusively defining of the respective nationality? I don’t believe the psychological association, crude and shallow though it is, is particularly Eurocentric, there being plentiful multi-language co-existence within European nations too. The point is that, by virtue of her Kannada, or her Malayalam, or her Bengali, the Indian proclaims her national identity, in a way that the English person cannot do so merely by being fluent in ‘internationally-recognizable’ English alone–since people of every nationality display such fluency. Compare this with the Welsh person (carefully excluded from the discussions above): ironically, where she is a speaker of Welsh, she thereby proclaims her British or UK identity in a way that English speakers cannot. Welsh-speaking Paraguayans rebut this association, but since it is not a logical thesis but a psychological one, I don’t believe the Paraguayan counter-example prevails. Perhaps it comes down to ‘sense of place’, of local affiliation: how do I, as resident or as writer, ‘speak’ my own place? By enumerating and interpreting its forms and values in the local terms, the local language. And can this be done in a radically a-local language, whether Global, Esperanto, or Latin? Mention of Latin may remind us that in Europe this debate is not new, but goes back at least to the time of Dante and Tuscan vernacularization. Another and related suggestion I have made is that in the decentered global reach of their writing, addressed to English readers wherever, Atwood and Rushdie are different from the kind of regionalized writing I perceive expanding. This is scarcely problematic: I am not suggesting that all fiction in English is indigenizing or regionalizing, simply that the tendency is growing. And there is a way in which Rushdie has ridden the trend, but outstripped it in multiple directions: Midnight’s Children, for example, has plenty of language rooted in local Kashmiri culture, cheek by jowl with local language from Bombay, Delhi, the Sundarbans, and so on, all cheerfully chutneyfied. It is a brilliant solution to the problem, using a multiplicity of indigenizations. But more numerous, I suggest, are the writers who cannot or will not attempt multiplicity, and solve the problem by means of a single indigenization, as Sebastian Barry or Roddy Doyle does. And the problem, to repeat, is Global, and the fact that its locality-free de-culturating, which comes with its development as a second-language language, renders it too denatured, artificial, geared to pragmatic or profitable ends, to be a vehicle for high literary culture. Global is the first natural language without native speakers to spread worldwide, hence the first pidgin to enjoy worldwide spread and high prestige. (Christian Mair–personal communication–reminds me that Etiemble [1975], outraged at the spread of Franglais, dubbed international English a sabir Atlantique or neo-Atlantic pidgin, and this description seems partially correct.) But surely, it may be protested, even if it really is a pidgin, it will–like any other pidgin–soon creolize and become enriched and divergent and hence suitable for rich cultural expression? It might, I concede. But since this would subvert the very purposes that have fostered its emergence, I would speculate to the contrary: that Global will be further unique in being a pidgin that remains a pidgin, and that the combined interests in keeping it unitary and homogenized will prevail.

One final exclusion clause: all the above trends and tendencies could be abruptly cancelled or reversed, upon the emergence and distribution of a particular technology, alluded to above, that might affordably enable near-instantaneous translation. It is hard to believe this won’t emerge in the less-than-remote future.


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    • Toolan, Michael. 1997. Recentering English: New English and Global. English Today, 13:4, 3-10.


© Michael Toolan