What are “World Englishes”

English — the language Papua New Guineans write in.

In these monthly discussions we answer one question about language in PNG and beyond. This month we are looking at the phenomenon of English as an international language and what the term “World Englishes” means.

THROUGHOUT history there have been languages that have been learned by people of other countries because of the political and military power of their speakers. This is why so much of the world today uses the languages of small European countries, such as French, English, Portuguese, and Spanish.
Although small in size, the countries where these languages originated had access to weapons and other technology that enabled them until recently to control huge parts of the rest of the world.
English had a double advantage because it was not only the language of the powerful British Empire, but also of the rapidly growing United States. At the end of World War II, just as Britain lost its grip on the world, the United States became the most powerful superpower. It emerged from World War II with little damage, and became the scientific, technological, and, through Hollywood, cultural centre of the world.
English was already the home language of most people in countries like Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States, New Zealand, and Australia. To these were added the many people in many newly independent multilingual countries in Africa, Asia, and Melanesia that had been British or American colonies, who spoke many languages at home, but who used English as a language of school and government.
In many other countries, such as Russia, Japan, Germany, and Brazil, persons used their native languages at school and in government, but when choosing a foreign language to learn at school, more and more chose English because it could be used in more countries than most other languages.
The different uses of English was first described in a chart by Braj Kachru in 1992. His chart used three circles to describe the three ways in which English is used in the world. In the inner circle are countries where English is the home language of most people. These include countries like the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia. For these people, English fulfils nearly all their language needs.
Beyond this there is a larger outer circle where English is not a home language of many people, but is used daily as the language of education and government. Papua New Guinea is one of these countries, as are India and many African countries.
The outermost or expanding circle is formed of countries which use their own or another colonial language for education and government, and where almost no one uses English as a home language. These countries include most European countries, most Latin American countries, and Asian countries such as Indonesia and Japan. For people in these countries, English is a language to be learned for international communication, but not for everyday use.
Unlike many other languages, such as French, Spanish, and Bahasa Indonesia, English does not have a central governing body that accepts or rejects new words or grammatical patterns. This means that in each country or region that uses English, new ways of pronunciation, new words, and even new grammatical patterns are developed without any external body telling speakers that these are incorrect.

Language Toktok
– a monthly discussion about language in PNG and beyond
by Craig Alan Volker

This is one of the factors that gives English flexibility and expression.
If you look at a PNG dictionary of English, you will see words such as “wantok” and “bilum”, just as you will see words such as “lakh” (“one hundred thousand”) or “do the needful” (“do what is necessary”) in an Indian dictionary of English. Each area of the English-speaking world uses English with its own flavour.
This comes from the fact that there is no such thing as an “English-speaking culture”. When we think of languages such as Motu, Japanese, Kiwai, or German, we can associate them with the culture of one specific area and group of people. But what cultural similarities exist between an English speaker in Edinburgh, Scotland, another in Wewak, PNG, and another in Lagos, Nigeria? English is being used by each of them to express Scots, Sepik, or Nigerian culture, not “English” culture.
It is for this reason that linguists speak of “World Englishes” to describe today’s use of English in the world. By using this term, they acknowledge that there is no one “correct” form of English which all English speakers should try to follow. At the same time each variety of English expresses a different culture and has adapted itself to fit that local culture. This term “World Englishes” shows that each variety of English has its own history and validity.
What is unique in this process is that today the vast majority of English speakers are in Kachru’s “outer circle” or “expanding circle”. This means that only a minority of users are actual native speakers of English. This must be the first time in modern history that a language has become an international language because speakers of other languages are choosing to use it. Usually languages have spread because colonial invaders have either killed off the speakers of local languages (as in Australia) or have forced the local population to drop their own language in favour of the colonial language (as in Ireland). The current spread of English is not forced and is driven more by music videos than by gunpoint.
Some people worry that this multitude of different Englishes might mean that the language will someday break up into different languages, just as ancient Latin broke up into modern Italian, French, Spanish, and other European languages. At the moment this is unlikely. The worldwide connectivity that the internet and modern media offer mean that a new slang word in Jamaica may find itself being used on the streets of London or in PNG reggae songs in a matter of months.
People realise that the value of English is its universality because they regularly communicate across national borders and need to understand each other. When people from different countries come together and use English to communicate, they change their pronunciation, speak more clearly, and avoid local slang. If they don’t, they just cannot communicate.
We can assume that this process of World Englishes developing will continue for the next few decades at least. In the process, English will become richer as it absorbs expressions and words from even more cultures. As a language no longer tied to one culture, people, or standard set of rules, English has become one language with many intertwined varieties that has become the closest we have to a universal international language.

  • Professor Volker is a linguist living in New Ireland, and an adjunct professor in The Cairns Institute, James Cook University in Australia. He welcomes your language questions for this monthly discussion at http://craig.volker@jcu.edu.au. Or continue the discussion on the Facebook Language Toktok page.

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