Time and Space

Varieties of English

“A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”

Aphorism, unknown origin (first published by Max Weinreich)
The Adventure of English is an eight-part BBC documentary written and presented by journalist Melvyn Bragg. In this, the fifth episode subtitled English in America, Melvin explores how American culture changed the English language in a variety of different ways.

The previous two sections have dealt mostly with English spreading and changing over time. Now we will explore how changes of space, place and regional variations have created amazing linguistic diversity around the Anglophone world. We all speak a variety of English that tells the world something about who we are, where we come from, whom we socialize with and what we aspire to become. In this section we will discover why people speak English differently by learning about the process of divergence. As you will see, people have taken the English language and made it their own.

Here you will be encouraged to research a variety of English (present or past) that interests you, and examine how the vocabulary, grammar, idiomatic flavour and other features make it a distinct ‘brand’ of the English language. My advice is to read at least two articles from the list below. Get started with English Around the World, then choose a place that interests you to continue your journey:

Reading Challenge

This is a longer and more challenging piece of reading, but spending time on this piece, and discussing it with your teacher, will help you master this topic:

Class Activity 1: Do you speak…?

Choose a variety of English from this list. Read the attached materials and summarise them in a simple resource (such as a poster, leaflet or ppt). Form small groups and teach each other about the non-standard variety of English you have read about. In your resource, include: examples of vocabulary; slangs; idiomatic expressions; a little history of your chosen dialect.

Class Activity 2: so liddat lor

What is it in a language that makes governments and authorities try to suppress it? Take Singlish as an example. Although the Singaporean government justifies its clamp-down on Singlish by arguing it hampers people’s ability in English, is there a darker side here – akin to Orwell’s Newspeak, or the way in which indigenous languages have been suppressed in countries like Canada, Australia, and South Africa? Does language = identity, and non-official languages = an identity not sanctioned by the government?

After reading the embedded articles about Singlish, write your answers to these key questions: Is the attempt to control language unique to Singapore? Is it only governments who want to control which language people speak, or other ‘authorities’? Why do various authorities try to control the languages we speak? Share your ideas with others in the class.

Discussion Points

After you’ve got your head around the material in this section, pair up, pick a question, spend five minutes thinking and noting down your thoughts – then discuss your ideas with a friend and report back to the class:

  1. If Standard English is, well… ‘standard’, does that mean other dialects of English are sub-standard? What are prevailing attitudes towards varieties of English? Is there an alternative way to think about varieties of English rather than ‘sub-standard’?
  2. What is the difference between a language, a dialect, a slang? Do these differences matter? Why or why not?
  3. How do people use languages to define themselves? How do people use languages to create social relationships?

Learner Portfolio

Write the text for an imaginary blog post in which you describe a variety of English you know or have collected information about (eg Singlish, Chinglish, American English, Jafaican. Geordie, and so on), and argue that it is an expression of a particular character and culture. (You might like to read this example of a fantastic piece of another student’s writing to see what kind of work you can try to produce).

Paper 1 Text Type Focus: texts written in non-standard English

At the end of your course you will be asked to analyse unseen texts (1 at Standard Level and 2 at Higher Level) in an examination. You will be given a guiding question that will focus your attention on formal or stylistic elements of the text(s), and help you decode the text(s)’ purpose(s). While this is not a text type, occasionally you may be given a text written in non-standard English, for example a text written in a particular dialect or a text from another country where English is not the first language. Use the following resources to practice suitable responses to these kinds of text and add them to your Learner Portfolio; you will want to revise text types thoroughly before your Paper 1 exam. You can find more information – including text type features and sample Paper 1 analysis – by visiting 20/20. Read through one or two of the exemplars, then choose a new paper and have a go at writing your own Paper 1 analysis response:

Body of Work: Babu English As ‘Tis Writ

British commentators during the colonial period sometimes expressed amusement at the kinds of English used by their subject populations. Babu, or Baboo, English of India attracted particular attention because it aspired to poetic heights in vocabulary and learning, despite being full of errors. Linguists today find a great deal in common between Babu English and the ornate style used by many British writers in past centuries. In 1891, journalist Arnold Wright collected examples of this dialect, and published them in his book Babu English As ‘Tis Writ, extracts of which you can study as a Body of Work.

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work, students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt: Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)

An extract from Baboo English As ‘Tis Writ would be an unusual, but possibly very effective, choice to bring to your Individual Oral. Here are two suggestions as to how you might use this Body of Work to create a Global Issue. You can use one of these ideas, or develop your own. You should always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own thoughts, discussions and programme of study when devising your assessment tasks:

  • Field of Inquiry: Power, Politics and Justice
  • Global Issue: Language Currency
  • Rationale:

Because English spread around the world on the back of the powerful British Empire, and is now the language of American corporate success, English has become the language of those in power (a tradition continued in International Schools where English has become associated with an ‘elite’ style of education despite it rarely being the first-language of a host country). Babu English developed out of the need for English colonialists to teach a servant and administrative class the language of trade. This Body of Work reveals the power dynamics inherent in this use of language.

  • Field of Inquiry: Power, Politics and Justice
  • Global Issue: How language reveals power dynamics between people
  • Rationale:

Language may not have any real power of its own – but language can produce influence and control by revealing relationships of power between those who use it. Particular languages also reflect the collective historical power of the language community that uses it, in this case a servile underclass.

possible literary pairings
  • Shaw’s Pygmalion – try pairing this Body of Work with the interaction between Alfred Doolittle and Henry Higgins; when Doolittle uses a mixture of servile and persuasive language to try to get Higgins to give him the money he feels he is owed in Act 1.
  • Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – compare the ‘servile’ or ‘flowery’ style of Babu English to the way Antonio and Bassanio interact with Shylock when they want to borrow his ducats.
  • J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians – in chapter one of this powerful allegory, the narrator discovers for himself the power of language when wielded by an officer of the empire, covering up the torture and murder of a political prisoner in his charge.
  • Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet – this is a play about the power of language and would make an interesting, if unusual, pairing with Wright’s collection. You might like to examine how Roma uses language to seduce and deceive Lingk in Act 1 Scene 3, or how any of the men try to exert power over one another through the way they speak.

Towards Assessment: Higher Level Essay

Students submit an essay on one non-literary text or a collection of non-literary texts by one same author, or a literary text or work studied during the course. The essay must be 1,200-1,500 words in length. (20 marks).††

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

Investigating a particular dialect of English would make an extremely interesting subject for your Higher Level essay, should you choose to write about this topic. Of particular note in the study of Babu English might be what the primary texts in this collection reveal about Anglo-Indian relations during the colonial period.

Wider Reading and Research

  • Englishes – online exhibit at Kansas University Library ‘Histories of English’

Categories:Time and Space

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