Time and Space

Varieties of English

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

Aphorism, unknown (first published by Max Weinreich)

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:

Class Activity

Place reading materials about different dialects (above) on different tables. Decide how long you will have at each table – 10 minutes might be a good time. Move from table to table, collecting information about grammars, vocabulary, idioms and expressions of different dialects of the English language. (Optional variation: each time you switch, one person could remain. Over time this person would become an ‘expert’ at one particular dialect and could ‘teach’ it to people who visit the table. This would save on reading time as the lesson goes on.)

Learner Portfolio

Write the text for an imaginary blog post in which you describe a variety of English you have collected information about (eg Singlish, Babu English, American English, and so on), and argue that it is an expression of a particular character and culture rather than an attack on the purity of the English language.

You might like to read this example of a fantastic piece of student’s writing.

Body of Work: Babu English

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 Baboo English As ‘Tis Writ, extracts of which you can find below:

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)

IB Language and Literature Guide

An extract from Baboo English As ‘Tis Writ would be good to use in this oral exercise. The author of the work would be ‘Arnold Wright’ although you should specify the primary texts he presents which may have particular authors. It connects particularly well to the Global Issue of Culture, Identity and Community. Speak to your teacher about ideas for literary pairings before you start to plan your presentation. For example, the begging letter could be paired nicely with extracts which demonstrate an unequal power dynamic between speaker and listener. Ideas include, but are not limited to:

  • Shaw’s Pygmalion (Doolittle’s Act 1 interaction with Higgins when he tries to persuade Higgins he owes Doolittle money)
  • Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (compare the tone of this letter to the way Antonio and Bassanio interact with Shylock when they want to borrow his ducats).

From the TOK Newsletter: So Liddat Lor

Description: “Singlish is the unofficial language – or dialect? or slang? – of Singapore, born out of the contact between the several cultures that make up the city state. It’s a living example of how languages can change and develop. It is also an expression of the Singaporean character and culture, a national treasure – or a detriment and danger to the country, depending on whom you ask.”

Discussion points and exploration: This article provides a great starting point for a discussion of language. What is it in a language that makes governments and authorities try to suppress it? 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?

Learner Portfolio

  1. Write a one-two page journal entry in which you consider the following points raised by this article:
  • What is the grammatical structure of ‘Singlish’?
  • What is the difference between a language, a dialect, and slang?
  • Why do authorities try to control the language we speak?

Categories:Time and Space

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