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University Notes- Block Two: What is English?

Unit 8- English in the UK

As you’ll see, for social, geographical and historical reasons, English is a complex and varied phenomenon. You’ll be introduced to a range of different forms of English found in the UK and to the terms accent and dialect, and you’ll consider where boundaries between languages and dialects can be drawn.


In this unit you will:

  • consider whether Scots is a language in its own right or a dialect of English

  • gain an understanding of how political and social context shapes attitudes towards accents and dialects

  • gain knowledge about dialects in the UK and how they have been studied

  • develop your ability to closely read texts and to find and evaluate the evidence writers use to support their arguments.

The UK is a multilingual nation. For example, census data for 2011 show that among the residents of England and Wales, 4.2 million, or about 8% of the population, had a main language other than English; of these, 3.3 million could speak English ‘well or very well’. You may be surprised to learn that of the hundreds of languages spoken in the UK, as many as 11 are indigenous; that is, they did not come directly to the UK through immigration, but arose among local communities (although they developed from languages that had arrived from elsewhere through a series of early population movements).


In most cases, it’s easy to identify these as being different languages. For example, Panjabi, Chinese and Scottish Gaelic are linguistically very different from English; they have different sounds, grammars and vocabularies, and Panjabi and Chinese also use different scripts.However, in deciding whether or not something is spoken or written in English or another language, it’s important to remember that English is not a monolithic entity – there’s more than one way to write and speak English, even in places like the UK where it’s the dominant language.


Dialect is used primarily to describe characteristic grammatical features, vocabulary and even spelling. The broken arrow between dialect and pronunciation shows that sometimes when people talk about dialect, they also include pronunciation. This is especially the case when clusters of grammatical features, vocabulary and spelling are associated with a particular geographical area. For example, we might expect someone who speaks a Yorkshire dialect to speak it with a Yorkshire accent. However, it’s possible to speak standard English with a Yorkshire (or any other) accent. Everyone has an accent because accent means ‘how language is pronounced’.


In the case of the Received Pronunciation (RP) accent of English alone, there are approximately 44 sounds, but there are only 26 letters in the standard English alphabet. This presented a challenge to linguists who wanted to be able to describe particular sounds very precisely and unambiguously, and who might need to represent sounds from any of the some 7000 human languages spoken worldwide. In response to this challenge, linguists have developed a system of symbols called the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).

Until now, we’ve taken the difference between language and dialect to be clear-cut. However, this is not always the case. For example, in the case of Scots (spoken in Lowland Scotland) and Ulster Scots (spoken in Northern Ireland), the linguistic distinction from English isn’t always obvious, with similarities as well as differences across all language components. Scots (not to be confused with Scottish Gaelic) shares its origins with English in the languages spoken by the Anglo-Saxon tribes who invaded the British Isles from the east and south from the fifth century onwards. These tribes traded with and married local people, eventually settling not just most of what is now England, but also what is now the Lowlands of Scotland. It’s this shared early history that mainly gives rise to the many linguistic similarities between Scots and English.


Scots provides a particularly illuminating case study because it’s linguistically similar to standard English and to other English-based dialects (including those spoken in northern England and Northern Ireland). However, a popular cultural and political movement seeks to celebrate Scots as distinct from English, claiming for it the status of a language in its own right, and as a symbol of Scottish identity. Whether people are persuaded by these arguments may depend on their personal sense of identity and on their political convictions, among other things. While policymakers have a strong influence, there’s also a role for speakers who use, advocate and even fight for language varieties that are important to them. What is and isn’t English is ultimately a social rather than a linguistic matter. Scots has been promoted by the devolved Scottish government. This situation has parallels with debates in other regions and countries where English sits alongside less closely related languages. For example, in the Canadian province of Quebec, official policy dictates that French text used on signs should be in a type size three times larger than text in any other language, including English (Mallinder, 2013).


Unit 9- English in the world

English is not the only language to exhibit considerable variation or to qualify as a ‘global’ phenomenon. For example, Chinese, Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic and French have long been used across various regions and nations. As a result of migration, today many languages are spoken by dispersed populations (diasporas) in locations across all six populated continents. However, English provides a particularly striking example of the global spread of a language due to economic and political phenomena such as trade, colonial exploitation, tourism and business.


English, like any other language, doesn’t ‘spread’ by itself but diffuses through the movement, activities and contacts of the human beings who speak or write it. As language users encounter new contexts and make new contacts, the language they use changes. In this unit you’ll explore this phenomenon of variation in English, across the world. Focusing on education, you’ll look at how different ways of using English are labelled in contexts where English is the main language, as well as in contexts where it’s one among others in regular use. You’ll also begin to consider how these different ways of using English are more or less highly valued.


In this Unit:

  • learn about where English is spoken across the globe

  • explore whether English is a single language or a cluster of distinct Englishes

  • learn how certain standard forms of English tend to be more highly valued than other forms

  • develop your ability to engage critically with evidence presented in academic texts


Living as we do in the modern era of travel and global communication, we may be used to hearing people use English in different ways. These differences may be related to where the speaker lives or was brought up – for example, a speaker from the south of England will probably sound quite different to a speaker from the north, and a speaker from the Caribbean will not sound the same as one from India. Nevertheless, all these people are speaking a language that could be labelled English. Differences may also be associated with other factors such as the speaker’s status, education or social class. You may also encounter speakers whose language use seems to indicate a mix of influences and who are therefore difficult to ‘pigeonhole’ on the basis of their speech. Even though you may not hear all these different ways of speaking English on a regular basis, you don’t generally expect everyone to talk in exactly the same way, so such language variation should come as no surprise.


It’s clear that English has far more multilingual speakers, who use it alongside other languages depending on context and purpose, than it does monolingual speakers (although exact figures are hard to establish). This is important when you come to think about who, if anyone, English ‘belongs’ to or where, if anywhere, it belongs. This, in turn, has implications for the way we value different types of English in comparison to one another. There are many ways to categorise the different types of English spoken around the world. One way to describe English relates to its status in a particular country. Many countries have a main language or languages (sometimes called principal language[s]). This refers to a language that is in widespread use within a particular nation.


The term national language is used for a language associated with a particular nation-state and national identity. In some countries a language may be given explicit legal status. Such a language is described as an official language (or sometimes a statutory language). In other cases the use of a national language is not statutory (de jure) but de facto (meaning it gains its status through use). For example, English isn’t an official language in either England or the USA – its use is not enshrined in law – despite being the main language of communication in both countries. This may be because in these countries the role of English is taken for granted. In contrast, English is recognised as an official language in Wales, alongside Welsh, and in Singapore, alongside Chinese (Mandarin), Malay and Tamil.

A language such as English can be described in terms of its differing status in the countries where it’s used. Another way to describe types of English (or another language) relates to how speakers have learnt and use the language. If English has been learnt by a speaker or speakers from an early age in a family setting, it’s described as a first language. If English has been learnt later, particularly in a school setting, and/or is commonly used only for only certain functions of daily life (such as dealing with the authorities, for higher education or for broadcasting), it’s described as a second language . If English has been learnt mainly for use outside of a speaker’s national context, or for communication with people from other countries, it’s described as a foreign language.For example, English is a first language for most people in Ireland and New Zealand; a second language mainly learned in school in Jamaica and also in Kenya; and usually a foreign language learned in school in Denmark and also in Spain.


In many of these contexts English has a particular role as an international language: it’s used not only within countries that have English as a main language, but also by people in a range of countries for communicating with people from all over the world, whatever their language or national background. You may not be used to seeing the word English in its plural form Englishes. The latter term is used to encourage people to move away from thinking of English as a single, though highly varied, language. The term Englishes suggests that some of the distinct types of English could be considered languages in their own right – as with, for example, Jamaican English, Indian English, Ugandan English or Singaporean English.


Linguists usually refer to distinct ways of using language, including different languages, dialects or other socially recognisable ways of speaking and writing, as varieties. For example, Scouse, standard British English and African-American English are all varieties of English. The advantage of the term variety is that it covers all possible distinct variations in use, and does not commit one to judgements about which varieties ‘count’ as languages and which as dialects. The use of the neutral term (a) language variety (also a linguistic variety) reflects the fact that, from the viewpoint of sociolinguists, all forms of variation are equal. This is consistent with the descriptive rather than prescriptive approach. individual features that differ from one variety to another are called variants . For example, differing pronunciations of -ing at the end of a word as either standard -ing /ɪŋ/ (as in watching) or non-standard -in’ /ɪn/ (as in watchin’) are both variants; similarly, past-tense forms of the verb to see as either non-standard I seed her, non-standard I seen her or standard I saw her are also all variants. Standard English tends to be the default and target variety in schools where English is the medium of instruction, and in universities the same is generally true.

Unit 10- English in the landscape

In this unit, you’ll look at how written English is used in the environment around you, how this is shaped by the context, and what this tells you about the identity of local communities. You’ll consider how English is sometimes used alongside other languages. You’ll focus on everyday texts such as street signs, shop names and notices about parking restrictions, and see how even such mundane items can provide clear indications of how society is structured – that is, they show how society is comprised of different groups, and offer clues about which groups and individuals occupy positions of power and influence at any one time. In looking at the block’s main question, ‘What is English?’, you’ll see that a lot of information about the role and status of languages, including English, may be gleaned through awareness of the immediate linguistic landscape.


In this unit you’ll …

  • consider how English is used alongside other languages, and what this tells you about local communities and context

  • gain an understanding of how the everyday use of English in the urban landscape can throw light on language policy and planning

  • learn how signs and other texts (including academic texts) are, and need to be, designed to address particular readers

  • develop your ability to find and evaluate information online.

Place names can provide distinct clues as to the history of an area, including information about the languages spoken by those living there, and who occupied positions of power at a given time. Place-name research often focuses on the names of whole settlements: villages, towns or cities. However, the names of other features, such as rivers, hills, fields and individual streets may be just as revealing.


On an everyday basis you’ll frequently be involved as a writer in shaping your messages to address the particular audience or readership you have in mind. The intended reader is likely to be a family member; this is reflected in the wording as a rather direct order or imperative form Switch off and perhaps the quality of the handwriting, scrawled on an old envelope.


One way in which we often tailor our message for a particular audience or purpose is to make particular grammatical choices. We may do this automatically or following careful thought. Consider these examples:

  1. Shut the window is an order, also known as an imperative clause.

  2. Would you mind shutting the window? is a question, also known as an interrogative clause.

  3. There’s a real draught coming in through that window is a statement, also known as a declarative clause.

A key sense in which many texts may have multiple audiences can be expressed in terms of the distinction between real readers and imagined readers. In the case of street signs this distinction is between the actual individuals who come across a sign and the ‘target’ or intended readership. That’s one reason why an advertisement aimed at young people, for example, may not make much sense to an older person or may make them react negatively. In the case of a novel, the real readership are those who will actually buy and read the book, while the imagined readers are those addressed within the text itself.


The richness and uniqueness of linguistic landscapes is a strong indication that written as well as spoken language always reflects the context in which it’s used, as well as helping to create that context. A particularly important aspect of context is the issue of who’s being addressed by a particular message and what reaction it’s hoped that message will prompt – and any one sign may be addressing multiple audiences at the same time. This also applies to the less visible context of academic study. Academic communication succeeds in part because the writer judges the audience and/or readership effectively. This involves working out what can be taken for granted and what needs to be explained. Such judgements aren’t always easy to make, but come with practice and through guidance, and form part of the creative process of producing academic work.


Unit 11- English, nation and identity

A person’s linguistic choices, from the words they use, to the languages they speak, are intertwined with their identity. Language can tie a person to a particular place or social group, either in the way they see themselves, in the way others see them, or in legal terms such as citizenship entitlement. For example, a connection is sometimes made between speaking English and being British. The implication is that people who don’t (or can’t) speak English can’t claim a British identity, even if they live in the UK. A similar set of connections is often made in other English-dominant countries such as the USA and Australia. In the context of the UK, the assumption that all British people (should) speak English doesn’t acknowledge that English is an umbrella term for considerable variation, or that the UK is home to speakers of many different languages, indigenous and otherwise. There may even be a related assumption that if someone speaks another language, they can’t or don’t speak English.


In this unit you’ll …

  • learn about the historical roots of an often-made connection between speaking English and having a British identity

  • consider the social, political, and cultural factors which influence people’s views on language, policies and how they are implemented

  • explore what multilingual British citizens think about this proposed connection between speaking English and being British

  • further develop your ability to build an argument in writing.

When two people share a language, they might assume that they also share a culture and experiences. When we meet someone new we might assume lots of things about them, based partly on the language or language variety that they use: where they’re from, what they believe, how they conceptualise the world and how they see themselves. In other words, language is a marker of identity. Importantly, most people’s sense of their own identity is neither entirely fixed nor singular – the way people feel, and come across to others, may differ throughout their life and depend on where they are, who they are with and what they are doing. It may therefore be more accurate to speak of the different identities that one person may have access to, and which may shift and change over time.


Given that almost a billion people on the planet speak English as an L1 or L2, the argument that such a global language should be associated with one particular nation becomes problematic. The one nation = one language argument is further challenged by the fact that monolingualism is not the norm across the globe – most people speak more than one language.


English is inextricably linked to British culture. At the same time we live in an age of mass movement, with people from many parts of the globe now living together to a degree that wasn’t previously the case. This has inevitably led to linguistic diversity becoming the norm in many more parts of the world than previously, including parts of the UK. So diverse are some parts of the world now that the early twenty-first century is sometimes referred to as an age of superdiversity.


Terms such as native speaker and mother tongue remain important in some contexts (for example, when people are fighting for minority language rights) However, it’s easy to see why such terms might not always be as useful as they once perhaps were.

Academic researchers have tried to respond to this challenge by finding new ways to describe language users’ identities and the different ways users relate to the various resources in their language repertoires. These researchers have questioned the common-sense notion that it’s easy to divide speakers of a language into native speakers and non-native speakers and argue that terms such as native speaker tend to unhelpfully mix up how competently someone speaks a language with the role of language as part of someone’s social and cultural identity. They argue that we need terms of description which acknowledge that a language can be an important part of who you are, even if you’re not conventionally ‘fluent’ in it. The idea of a mother tongue conflates a person’s biological heritage with the social process of acquiring languages – in other words, it ignores the fact that people can acquire language at different times through their lives, in various ways and for various reasons.


  1. Language Expertise: How proficient someone is in a language.

  2. Language Affiliation: The attachment someone feels for a language – whether or not they belong to the social group customarily associated with it.

  3. Language Inheritance: The language tradition someone is born into, whether or not they are experts in, or have an attachment to, that language.

The concept of nation is a form of imagined community, but in reality communities are not monolithic, separate or static. An individual can belong to different communities at once and over time. Thus one of the key themes emerging from the study of language and to identity in a super diverse world is that identity, like language itself, is fluid and complex. An individual may experience a dual sense of identity, or have access to a range of identities, and these are in turn bound up with their use of language. A language ideology which proposes a simple, one-to-one relationship between language and nationhood therefore fails to reflect many people’s everyday experience (whether monolingual, bilingual or multilingual). However, powerful forces in politics and the media (alongside education) may promote such a supposed one-to-one relationship, with serious consequences – for example, the tendency to include some and exclude others when it comes to national identity and even legal citizenship, on the grounds of their language use.


Unit 12- English in a diverse workplace

English is increasingly used in contexts of linguistic and cultural diversity, even in countries such as the UK where English is the main or principal language. In the UK and other English-dominant countries English is often used as a lingua franca – a common language – among people who also speak other languages. Variation in how English is used occurs as users flexibly adapt their English(es) to local conditions and purposes, and respond to their own and others’ views on and feelings about the language.


In this unit you’ll …

  • learn how English is often used flexibly as a common language in situations of linguistic diversity

  • appreciate that professional communication involves sensitivity to the understandings of clients, customers and colleagues

  • explore how English is changing in response to its use as a lingua franca in a range of contexts

  • learn how pronunciation can play an important part in effective communication, and how linguists have found ways to describe pronunciation.

Communication in professional settings may be complicated by the fact that professionals often have access to specialist terminology that lay people may not be familiar with. In culturally and linguistically diverse contexts in which English is used as a lingua franca the potential for misunderstanding can be heightened by the fact that people don’t share a linguistic background, meaning that very informal vocabulary and idioms may also be misunderstood. This can be especially dangerous in health and social care settings.

However, what comes across most strikingly is the range of strategies that people adopt to accommodate to each other and ensure effective communication. The use of ELF is similarly shaped by people’s concern to cooperate and achieve mutual understanding. Although ELF tends to be characterised by particular features (such as the dropping of -s in third-person present-tense verb forms), it shouldn’t necessarily be seen as another variety of English but rather as a set of flexible and innovative communicative strategies. As global mobility and linguistic diversity increase, future changes to the English language may emerge from such dynamic, creative and above all accommodating language uses.


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