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Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc. (TESOL)

The Ownership of English Author(s): H. G. Widdowson Source: TESOL Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Summer, 1994), pp. 377-389 Published by: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc. (TESOL) Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3587438

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THEFORUM

The TESOL Quarterly invites commentary on current trends or

TESOL profession.

published

to previous Forum exchanges.

practices

in the

It also welcomes responses

or rebuttals to articles or reviews

in the

Quarterly.Unfortunately,

we are not able to publish responses

The Ownership of English

H. G. WIDDOWSON Universityof London

The following

in Atlanta at the 27th Annual TESOL Convention.

of the presentation has been preserved.

is the text of a plenary address delivered

in April, 1993,

The oral character

I

* Given the theme of this convention,

a time when territorial disputes and matters of

are so prominent in the affairs of the world in general, this is

an appropriate occasion to raise the question of how we stake out our

teachers in delimiting and designing our

world. And to ask who does the

of the subject itself?

We are teaching pose is to develop

closely as possible to that of native speakers. But who are these native speakers?

Designing

Our World, and at

and identity

perhaps

ownership

own territory as English

designing

and on what authority.

To start with, who determines

the demarcation

English and the general in students

assumption

which

is that our pur- as

approximates

a proficiency

One answer might be:

the English. And why not? A modest

the language

originated

part) live. The

morphology

language

and

and

history.

territory.

the

proposal

and this is where

people

surely. England is where the English (for the most

are bound together by both

legitimately

And they are the custodians.

is

National

So they

can

lay claim to this linguistic

It belongs

to them.

this

of the

If you want real or proper

English,

where it is to be found,

Trust.

preserved,

and listed like a property

spread-

ing, a luxuriant

For the English

still cling tenaciously to their property and try to protect it from abuse.

ple but not ceded to them. At least not

seed. Seeded among other peo-

Of course English, of a kind, is found elsewhere

growth from imperial

as well, still

completely.

377

Let us acknowledge

English,

There are all further afield,

an

wine

Perignon

be all kinds of derivative versions else-

way, but they are not real or proper

Champagne,

larly, there is real English, Anglais real, RoyalEnglish, Queen's English,

or

vintage language.

I do not imagine that such a view would gain much support in

present company. The response is more likely to be outrage. You

cannot be serious.

in somewhat extravagant terms, this position

people

totally unacceptable. And the

as I have

expressed associations of

it,

very few

analogy, denied others the

They have, untiljust recently, successfully

analogy, kinds of cola, but

(let us concede) that there are other kinds of

outgrowths, but they are not real or proper article.

offshoots and

English, not the genuine

As an

consider a certain kind of

beverage. only one which is the real thing. Or,

to use the

from the French.

right

appellation Champagne for any

that does not come from the region of that name where Dom

first invented it. There

may where, excellent no doubt in their

(for those unsympathetic

even though loose talk may refer to them as such. Simi-

to

the monarchy) Oxford English.

The

Well, not entirely,

it is true. As I have

expressed is one which

would associate themselves with. It is

reactionary, arrogant, absurd.

Perhaps

argument is patently

it. But then why is it absurd? The particular

England, Queen and country, and Colonel Blimp which

I have invoked to demonstrate the argument also in some respects

disguise it. If we now remove the position

strip the argument down to its essential tenets, is it so readily dismissed?

that the ideas

suggest burlesque are still very

Is it indeed so uncommon after all? I want to

from these associations and

and attitudes which I have

just presented

in

much with us in a different and less obvious guise.

To return briefly to Champagne. One argument frequently ad-

of its good name has to do with

free to use it, there can be no

Recently an English on bottles

Champagne

firm won a court case

containing

a

nonalcoholic

Champagne lobby was

products And the same

on bottles all over the

Champagne, and so laying

would not be controllee.Standards be made, is made, about the local

The

appellation

point can

There can

only be one. This is it. Be wary of

of lower quality.

point is frequently made about English. In this case,

exclusive use of the name and indeed

vanced for

quality

guarantee of quality. If any Tom, Jane, or

Harry producing fizzy wine is

control.

enabling it to put

made from elderflowers. Elderflowers! The

outraged. Here, they said, was the thin end of the wedge. Before long

the label would be

appearing concoctions of all kinds calling themselves

claim to its

quality. were at stake. The same

Georgian beverage.

variant

place containing

the name

beverage

quality

being protective assurance. The label is a

you cannot, of course, preserve

378

TESOL

QUARTERLY

it would work

preserve own brand of

your

quality, The usual answer is:

of

If the language disperses into different forms, a

then it ceases to serve as a means of international

which case the

spreads, can be conceded. But these

but as radialalso and traceablebackto the stablecentre of the standard.

changes must be seen not only as peripheral

changes out on the periphery; so much

learning it largely disappears. As the language

myriad of Englishes, communication; in

these are assured.

of clear communication and standards

is this

implying that there is an exclusive quality in

can seek to

against your

by

interests to do so, but

called

you

standards

English, aptly

standard English. What

then? What are these standards?

quality

intelligibility. With standard English, it is argued,

point

of

there are bound to be

If this centre does not hold, things fall apart, mere anarchy is loosed the world. Back to Babel.

upon

Let us

replay it again. Standard English promotes

communication, so we must maintain the central

stability of the stan-

dard as the common

Obviously the promoters of standard

English at their disposal. But

And this

authority is claimed by those who possess

ture and due of birth, as Shakespeare puts it. In other words, the

native speakers. They do not have to be English,

be too restrictive a

tactless to propose

to the

language come to think of it, not most

who are to the language born speak nonstandard English and have

themselves to be instructed in the standard at school. We cannot have

English to maintain it is another matter. This

suspect. the cause of international

In itself, this

argument sounds plausible and it is difficult to refute.

something

about it which is

frame of reference.

But for all that, there is

linguistic

To begin with, who are we?

must themselves have standard

presupposes authority.

the

language by primogeni-

of course, that would

condition, and one in

especially

it would (to say the least) be

they understand. In fact,

but

have to be

present company,

speakers, you

born. Not all native

native speakers, for the majority of those

any Tom, Jane, are

Harry

to maintain the standard

native-speaker endowment. It is

have the power to impose it. The custodians of standard English are

self-elected

authority

on a natural

people who

and Harry claiming authority, for Tom, Jane, and

of some dialector other. So the

is

not consequent

by a minority

of

likely to be speakers

language

claimed

members of a rather exclusive club.

important to be clear that in saying this I am not

arguing

against

accepting the authority that

claims the right to maintain it. It is, I think, very generally assumed

England, or

that

custody

of the

New England, or wherever, have the natural entitlement to

Now it is

standard

English.

accept I do, without

You can

the

argument for language

in

hands:

maintenance, as indeed

a particular subset of educated native speakers

language, that the preservation of its integrity is in their

THE FORUM

379

their right and their

Not in

because I think such

about the

of

responsibility. radical rebellion

questioning

teaching

and

of the

question. as such but

raises a number of crucial issues

It is this which I wish to

against authority

language.

any spirit

learning

Consideration of who

the custodians are leads

exactly

that is in their

logically on to a What is

custody. reference to its dialect which

consideration of what it is

standard English?

grammar and lexis: It is a variety, a kind of superposed

is

well

manifested by any accent. So it is generally

English

however, extended to its

spelling

condemnation. There is something of a contradiction here. If standard

English is defined as a distinctive

can be substantially realized in different ways, then what does spelling

have to do with it? It is true that some

function (like the 'swhich but most of it does not. If

graphological

kind of written

varia-

distinguishes the possessive from the plural)

grammatical

The usual way of defining it is in

socially

sanctioned for institutional use and therefore

particularly form it can be

suited to written communication. In its

has no

distinctive phonology.

graphology.

spoken conceded that standard

The same concession is not,

On the contrary, it is deviant

out for

frequently singled

which, in Britain at least, is most

grammatical and lexical system which

spelling

has a

you are going to ignore phonological

you should surely ignore spelling as a

tion, then, to be consistent,

variation as well and overlook variationsin

accent. The reason it is not overlooked, I think, is that standard

unlike other

for institutional

Its

these institutions. This means that

is

because

establish institutional values, deviations from

English,

dialects, is essentially a written variety and mainlydesigned

purposes

(education, administration, business, etc.).

those who control not matter how it

does matter how it is written. Furthermore,

is used to express and orthographic conven-

they serve.

of social instability: a sign of things

that those who have a

by

interferes with communication: It

version is

secondary, and typically used by

although it may

spoken

spoken, it emphatically

writing,

as a more durable medium,

degree

tions undermine in some

the institutions which

They can be seen as evidence

beginning to fall apart. So it is not surprising

vested interest in maintaining these institutions should be so vexed

bad spelling. It is not that it greatly

is usually not difficult to identify words

appearance.

sents conformity to convention and so serves to maintain institutional

stability. Similar

through their unorthodox

good spelling repre-

What seems to be more crucialis that

can

many

points

be made about grammatical features. Because is

kinds of communicative transaction.

actually

language has built-in redundancy, grammaticalconformity

not

What we

particularly

crucial for

generally do in the interpretative process is actually to edit

380

TESOL

QUARTERLY

grammar out of the text, referring lexis directly to context, using

lexical items as indexical clues to

on standard

English

be on vocabulary rather than grammar. But

the champions of standard English do not see it in this way: On the

should this

contrary, they be so? There it is

communicative

namely that of expressing social identity.

grammatical system, especially perhaps

dundant, marks you

oped that system for its own social purposes. Conversely, of course,

those who are

significance,

emphasis should logically

because it guarantees effective communication, then the

when we need it for fine

We edit grammar back in

meaning. If the reason for

tuning.

insisting

is

focus attention on

grammatical abuse. Why

are, I think, two reasons.

Firstly,

precisely because grammar

is so often redundant in

transactions that it takes on another

The mastery of a particular

those features which are re-

as a member of the community which has devel-

system

are excluded from the

English complain

are in

unable to master the

grammar is a sort of shib-

community. They do not belong. In short, boleth. So when the custodians of standard

ungrammatical language of the populace, they

that the perpetrators are outsiders, nonmembers of the community.

effect indicating

about the

The only way they can become members, and so benefit from the

English, and these privi-

leges include, of course, access to the institutions which the community

controls. Standard English is an entry condition and the custodians of

it the

ways if

kept out on the periphery. What you say

will be less readily attended to, assigned less importance, if it is not

expressed in the grammaticallyapproved manner. And if you express

yourself in writing

taken very seriously.

but the

its identity, its conventions, and values. As such it needs to be carefully

preserved, it stands for: the

what

you are not likely to be

privileges of membership,

gatekeepers.

you

is to learn standard

You can, of course,

persist in your surprised to

nonstandard

find yourself

choose, but then do not be

marginalized, perpetually

which is both

ungrammatical and badly spelled,

means of communication

Standard

English, then, is not simply a

of a

symbolic possession

for to undermine

particular community, expressive of

standard English is to undermine

security of this community

and its institutions. Thus,

it tends to be the communal rather than the communicative features

of

and

standard English that are most jealously protected: its grammar

spelling. I do not wish to imply that this communal function is to be

of

variety have this dual

every

communication

the

deplored.

Languages

means for

community, represent

short its culture. All communities

the

a sense of

and values, in

possess and protect their languages.

character: They provide

express

and at the same time

stability

of its conventions

THE FORUM

381

question is which community, and which culture, have a rightful

claim to

is no

Euro-

pean

tran-

scend traditional communal and cultural boundaries.

re-

searchers and scholars in science and

Standard

provides

lishes

their own

practice;

And

language

is irrelevant.

What I have in mind here is vocabulary. I said earlier that the custodi-

grammatical rather than

that one reason for this is that

ex-

you want to make them

on

powerless What then of lexis.

kind of dialect, in that

grammar

its lexical features.

ans of standard

The

ownership

of

standard

English? For standard English

of

people living

in an offshore

longer the preserve of a group

It is

island, or even an international

of larger groups living

As

in continents elsewhere.

range of

language. different communities and their institutional

to the business

community,

English, especially

for

effective

the status and

for

such it serves a whole

purposes and these

I am referring

of

disciplines.

It

language.

example, and the community

and other

technology in its written form, is their

communication, but at the same time it estab-

of the institutional conventions which

develop customs and codes of

stability define these international activities. These activities

conventions of

in

short, they in

thought

and

procedure,

obviously

the least,

to have a standard

not need native

speakers And indeed in one crucial

to tell

respect,

is

English

I

tend

have

effect create their own cultures, their own standards.

for the maintenance of standards it is helpful, to say

you

at

your disposal.

what it is.

the native

speaker

But

you

do

its

to emphasize

suggested symbolic of communal

solidarity. "Ungrammatical"

What

if

you

pressions or coerce them

periphery

if

mark

people

somehow

as nonmembers.

then do is to coax

into conformity

education)

members (generally through

the

or make them

grammar.

fact, when

It is

my

you

for

example,

don't. So much for

you

It is said that standard

its lexis and

very

English is a variety,

grammar.

elusive.

In

a

it is defined

by for it, standard lexis is

actually

begin

point

to

express

this indeed which demonstrates the essential

without which it would wither users will develop specialist to others.

find

financial affairs, and so on which I

may

English? One way

work, namely

come to look

belief that it does not

exist. And on reflection it is hard to see how it could exist. To

stability, a relatively fixed

implies

of reference. So if I invent a word,

with, the notion of standard

people

by

words all the time to

world. It is

the language

groups

of

it is

not,

definition, standard. But

are inventing

to

adjust

away.

new ideas and attitudes,

their changing

dynamism

of

So it is that different

terminology

do

of

but

When I look at my daily newspaper, I

technology, law,

vocabularies, suited to their needs

incomprehensible

innumerable words from the

claim to be

English, but they are

of

deciding might

simply Greek to me. Are

not understand.

they

They

standard

be to consult a standard reference

a learners' dictionary. But most of these words of re-

382

TESOL

QUARTERLY

stricted technical use do not

enough, the dictionary

occurrence. If this is the

appear. only contains words of wide

way

For the reason

because, reasonably and common

standard is to be defined, then these

they are real of

English as

is international

has diversified to serve a range of institutional

This is

range

words of restricted use do not count by definition. Yet

enough, and indeed can be said to represent the reality

an international

is because its vocabulary uses.

language.

why English

As I indicated earlier, the custodians of standard

up into mutually unintelligible

already

English express

diversity, things will fall apart and the language

in a

used for and so on

the fear that if there is

will divide

sense have

international communication in

are

cative

and this means that their communication is

the world outside.

varieties. But

things

fallen apart. The varieties of English

science, finance, commerce,

mutually unintelligible.

viability depends

As far as lexis is concerned, their communi-

development of separate standards,

largely

closed off from

on the

The

point

for continual

then is that if English is to retain its

adjustment,

be

Nobody,

I

think,

capabil-

it cannot be confined within a standard

particular

that the abstruse

implicitly accepted as far as

vitality

says

and its

ity

lexis. And this seems to

domains of use are concerned.

terms used by physicists

is

are defined

of

their

again,

in-group define the

needs

twofold:

It

that communities or secondary cultures which

granted rights

or stockbrokers are nonstandard

concerns should be

purposes,

that

they

readily

to

primary

in the conduct of

English.

generally accepted

by

shared

ownership

specific

are

of

identity

professional

They

group

and allowed to fashion the language to meet their

purposes indeed. And these

are communicative in

needs,

we should note

meet the

in that they

cultures

every-

transactions, and they are communal

of the

itself.

The same tolerance is not extended so

and communities, where the

day cative and communal

or dialectal. Take,

first is a technical

second prepone

currency,

to put

exploits

is

nonstandard. And yet there is

tional

of the

entirely ordinary, proper,

language is used

social life. Lexical innovation

here, equally motivated by communi-

is

generally

dismissed as deviant

respectable.

depone and prepone. The

The

requirement,

for example,

legal

the two words

term and

therefore highly

bring

an

very general an event means

it forward. The coinage

It

obviously deviant in the deriva-

itself, and indeed we can see it at work in the formation

postdate. But these are sanctioned as

is not.

It is an Indian

an event is to

English

An

in

English

postpone. To postpone

word of

coined to contrastwith

it

back, to

the

prepone

morphology of

also

quaint.

entirely regular way.

excrescence:

apt.

But it is

process

odd Indian

clearly nothing

related words predate and

standard

English words. What, then, is the

THE FORUM

383

difference? The difference lies in the origin

coined by a

English

only pukka

of the so it is not

word. Prepone is

really a,proper

is itself

nonnative-speaking community,

pukka. because the British

word. It is not

And of course the word

adopted

it.

pukka

Where are we then? When we consider the

English

a

But

the

in nature,

otherwise lose its

This is

use but is not

language. So it is that

standard

past.

implies stability,

language adapting its shape

generally acknowledged

acknowledged

a

in the case of

word like depone is

is not.

prepone

But the basic

principle

of

question of standard

idea of

very be fixed in reference to

essentially protean circumstances. It would

and its communicative and communal value.

domains of

social uses of the

everyday approved and a word like

is the same in both

what we find, in effect, is double standards. The

and this can

only

is of its nature unstable. It is

vitality

to suit

changing

in the

case of specialist

dynamic adaptation

cases. And in both cases the users of the

potential and fashion it to their need, thereby demonstrating a high

cases the innovation indicates

degree

that the

to conform to, but as an adaptable resource for making meaning. And

surely, extent that you yourself through

it rather than

is a crucial

making meaning which you can call your own. This,

condition. You are proficient in a language to the

possess it, make it your own, bend it to your will, assert

submit to the dictates of its form. It is a familiar

experience to find

you

say. You feel you are going through the motions,

motions at that. You are

mind. Real proficiency is

This is

what

language, turn

and somebody else's

language exploit its protean

as a set of fixed conventions

of linguistic capability. In both

language

has been

learned, notjust

simply

oneself

saying things in a foreign language because

they express

what

you

want to

but

not speaking your of the

possession

can

them rather than because

say

speaking the language

when

you

are able to take

it to

your advantage, and make it real for you.

mastery

formity, when you

Consider these remarks of the Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe

means. So in a

way, proficiency only can take the initiative and strike out on

comes with noncon-

your own.

(1975):

feel that the Englishlanguage will be able to carry the weight of my

I

African experience

But it will have to be a new English, still in

communionwith its ancestralhome but altered to suit its new African surroundings.(p. 62)

Achebe is a novelist, and he is talking

what he says clearly has wider relevance and applies

English in this country

language are creative in the sense that they

to

express different perceptions of reality. English

here about creative

point

But

writing. to varieties of

is that all uses of

resources

linguistic is called upon to

and elsewhere. The

draw on

384

TESOL

QUARTERLY

carry

indeed from its ancestral home. The new

to is

and so in communion

allegiance

the

weight

of all kinds of

experience,

it must

ancestry

much of it

necessarily

in the

very

remote

English which Achebe refers

be related to,

its ancestral origins in the past, it owes no

present. which have been in different sur-

domains of use or to

the entirely

obviously

conventions or standards. For

people as appropriate

can claim

examples

locally developed, and although

with,

to any descendants of this

point

And this

applies to all other new

weight

of

Englishes

different experience

created to carry the

roundings,

the

normal and necessary process of adaptation,

depends

these have been established elsewhere

to

quite direct descent from the

in the world is no business whatever of native

speakers

no say

language

custody

of the

mine its international status. It is a matter of considerable pride and

satisfaction for native

international means of communication. But

international to the extent that it is not their

possession

freehold.

you communal needs

must be diverse. An international

language.

disperse

lize into

required the communities concerned. Thus it is

the international

people,

English communicative effectiveness.

purposes.

this

the

of

a

community of, for example,

extent

needs of

stabi-

will

means that no nation

anywhere else. They have

are irrelevant. The

people to do with it.

whether they are related to

everyday

specialist

contexts of

on

life. They are all

to

existing

by

a

other

of

which

process

nonconformity

different circumstances. The fact that these

founding

fathers has

nothing

How English develops in

England,

in the

the United States, or

right

matter, no

very

is

to intervene or

English

passjudgement. They is an international

and so under-

language

that it is

is an

the point is

language.

still

only It is not

a

retaining the

fact that

can have custody

over it. To grant such

development

that their

language,

necessarily

speakers

they

to arrest its

of

English

which

lease out to others, while

Other people actually own it.

accept

that

of different

As soon as

It

into

English

communities, it follows

serves the communicative and

logically that it

independent

has to be an

the language

naturally

language

does not follow logically,

mutually unintelligible

to the

however, that

varieties.For it will

in

clearly

standard form

whatever their

to meet the

vital to the interests of scientists or business

preserve

of

primary language,

that they should

keep

common standard of

order to

up

could not otherwise serve their

standards

English

speaker to tell them that. Furthermore,

towards standardization will be reinforced by

in

extending telecommunications and

point

you

new channels calls for the maintenance of a common code. And these

of these

new transmission systems if what

little

It needs no native

natural tendency

in

opening up

networks of interaction

such

through

developments

For

there is

availability

information technology.

amazing

transmit makes no sense at the other end. The

THE FORUM

385

are therefore

guage

likely to have greater of

pronouncements

point

as

influence on

stabilizing the lan-