The Englishness of English

Roy Harris

  • Studies in English Linguistics for Randolph Quirk edited by Sidney Greenbaum and Jan Svartvik
    Longman, 304 pp, £18.00, September 1980, ISBN 0 582 55079 3

England has never had an official body equivalent to the Académic Française or the Italian Accademia della Crusca. And that is no accident. For the Englishman has scant respect for experts, of whatever kind. Telling Englishmen what they ought to do for their own good has been a hazardous enterprise throughout history. But a permanent committee to tell them how they ought to use their own native language would be an institutionalised insult. Setting up an English Academy to watchdog it over the language would have guaranteed defeat or exile for any government or monarch foolish enough to try it on.

If we are to believe one of the contributions in this volume, ‘Americans are characteristically more concerned about details of usage the English either accept or ignore as a matter of course.’ (This is explained as due to the fact that in the United States no single urban centre – New York, Chicago or Los Angeles – or any combination of them – ever managed to become accepted as providing the model for ‘correct’ speech.) Be that as it may, it would of course be grossly misleading to suggest that in England people do not care much about their language, or that they have no views about what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’. Floods of letters to the BBC, not to mention regular complaints in the correspondence columns of the Times, bear witness to the contrary. But there is a world of difference between caring for one’s language and allowing some English Academy of experts to care for it. The advice an Englishman might well take from a badly-informed neighbour he will treat with the utmost suspicion when offered by a well-informed civil servant.

But if England ever did go as far even as establishing a kind of Ombudsman for the English language, there is no doubt that a natural choice for the post, in many people’s view, would be the honorand to whom this collection of essays is dedicated, Professor Randolph Quirk of University College, London. Thirty years of scholarly activity devoted primarily to the study of the English language have won him the deserved respect of academic colleagues both here and abroad. Doubtless one of the secrets of his success is that he does not make the mistake of appearing to take sides on matters of how English should be spoken or written. Although he has, I am told, on at least one occasion been called upon to give expert opinion in court upon English usage, he is not an authority of the pontifical kind who, when asked to distinguish between fact and opinion, replies: ‘Sir, in this field my opinions are facts.’ As far as Professor Quirk is concerned, the basis of English linguistics as an academic discipline has always been and must always be an impartial and thorough observation of how the language is and has been used. The Grammar of Contemporary English and the Survey of English Usage stand as monuments to his philosophy as a linguist. They are also sources to which these essays constantly refer for evidence and confirmation.

The list of contributors to Professor Quirk’s Festschrift (and before Anglicists throw up their hands in horror, let me assure them that the word is given in the Pocket Oxford Dictionary of Current English) is itself impressive: Noam Chomsky, Ruth Kempson, Sidney Greenbaum, Dwight Bolinger, P.H. Matthews, Sven Jacobson, M.A.K. Halliday, Rodney Huddleston, Geoffrey Leech, Jennifer Coates, F.R. Palmer, R.A. Close, John Sinclair, Jan Firbas, Nils Enkvist, David Crystal, Jan Svartvik, Wolf-Dietrich Bald, Nelson Francis, Morton Bloomfield, E.L. Epstein, John Lyons, Archibald Hill, James Sledd, R.I. McDavid Jr, R.K. O’Cain, Linda Barnes, Josef Vachck and Barbara Strang. So varied as well as distinguished a gathering must surely prompt the reader to ponder upon what the editors call the ‘Quirkian sense of the unity underlying diversities of model, method and topic in contemporary research on English’.

Diversities of lopic are certainly there for all to see. The essays are divided into various groups: on language theory, on English grammar, on the semantics of English modals, on text and discourse, on stylistic, on attitudes to language, on lexicology and phonology. The discussion ranges from such lofty matters as the syntax of English poetry to such mundane ones as the use of yes and no in everyday conversation. But these diversities are, from one point of view, merely superficial. More significant, and more potentially divisive, are the diversities of approach already hinted at by the ambiguous term ‘English linguistics’. For the study of English and the study of linguistics, to many people’s minds, do not necessarily go hand in hand.

To put the point in terms recently suggested by an eminent French linguist, Jean Gagnepain, what makes the English language English is not what makes it language, nor vice versa. And this is confirmed by an examination of the contributions brought together in this volume. Some are primarily concerned with the Englishness of English, and others with its languageness. The division by no means corresponds to the editors’ arrangement by topics, even though one of those topics happens to be called ‘language Theory’. One circumstance that has helped to skew the distinction is that, for better or worse, modern linguistic theory during the past quarter of a century has been mainly developed by scholars whose native language was English, and who knew or wanted to know no other, at least for academic purposes. Hence the whole terminology of contemporary linguistics is an English terminology. So beside the Englishness of English, one has to reckon with the current Englishness of linguistics.

The crucial difference between those scholars in the field of English linguistics who are mostly concerned with what makes the English language English and those who are mostly concerned with what makes it language is roughly this. The former believe that describing the facts of English usage is in itself a worthy, interesting and self-validating academic endeavour, whereas the latter feel that just describing the facts without attempting to ‘explain’ them in more general terms is unscientific. For the former, the English language is unique. For the latter, the English language is just one among many possible versions of a common type of system exemplified in all known languages.

The basis of the descriptivist’s position is a practical and utilitarian one. However desirable it might be to systematise the observable facts of a language in accordance with some coherent general linguistic theory about the human faculty of language, the plain fact is, as Professor Greenbaum observes in his essay on ‘The Treatment of Clause and Sentence in A Grammar of Contemporary English’, that ‘no theories are yet capable of permitting a comprehensive description.’ Thus the Grammar of Contemporary English resorts to unashamed eclecticism in its descriptive framework for the facts of English, drawing both on traditional grammar and on more recent theorising. Such an approach tends to favour taking a corpus of recorded linguistic material and proceeding to analyse it in terms of distinctions and classifications suggested by inspection of the material itself, reducing the role of theoretical preconceptions about its structuring to a minimum. This is well exemplified in the present volume by Professor Crystal’s paper on ‘Neglected Grammatical Factors in Conversational English’. It leads Crystal to query whether English conversation is based on any grammatical unit which can plausibly be identified as ‘the sentence’. If it is not, Crystal points out, ‘the organisation of this variety of English has been fundamentally misconceived.’

Among scholars who want the English language to be not merely described but also ‘explained’, what counts as explanation has tended to vary according to fashion and individual predilection. But, as Professor Sinclair here notes in his paper on ‘Discourse in relation to Language Structure and Semiotics’, those explanations ‘that achieve respectability in linguistics are seen as being in an orderly relationship to some model or metaphor’. At one time, half a century ago, historical explanation was the most highly favoured form. It sufficed to ‘explain’ the facts of English to show how the usage of one generation of English-users had systematically ‘evolved’ from the usage of some previous generation. That was in the heyday of historical and comparative philology. Few of the present contributors to Professor Quirk’s volume seem to be interested in that kind of linguistic explanation; and indeed historical studies of any sort are poorly represented in the book. (The editors are conscious of the lacuna and apologise for it. But the excuse – ‘for reasons of space and coherence’ – is feeble. After all, they have found space to include an essay on personal pronouns in Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina: which, however interesting, can scarcely be regarded as a study in ‘English linguistics’ at all.)

The only type of case in which historical explanation retains its attraction seems to be where it can be married to explanation in terms of structure or functional utility. Professor Halliday offers a pretty example with constructions of the type being teaching. A generation ago, the English tense and aspect system lacked a present non-finite form constructed with the aspect auxiliary be. But this was a gap in an otherwise regular paradigm. So one might expect, as Professor Halliday points out, that it would begin to be filled, and over the past 12 years he has collected instances in casual speech which suggest that this prophecy is correct. His examples include ‘on the grounds of being teaching’, ‘through not being standing at the bus stop’, and ‘I’m always in favour of being doing something’. Furthermore, he observes that the innovation enriches the resources of English expression in various ways. In some cases it avoids circumlocution. In others it dodges commitment to unwanted specificity. In others again it allows emphasis upon the notion of current engagement. So the language is better-off. The particular Englishness of the innovation resides in the preexisting English structural pattern which made it possible.

But on the whole other kinds of linguistic explanation are more fashionable today. Why, for example, if we run for a bus but do not manage to catch it, can we state what happened by saying, ‘I ran fast, but I couldn’t catch the bus,’ whereas if we do catch it, this is not normally reported by saying: ‘I ran fast and could catch the bus’? Why, in other words, is English can all right with the negative but not with the affirmative? The explanation offered in the essay by Professor F.R. Palmer has nothing to do with the history of can: it appeals to the logic of the inferences involved. When referring to single past events, claims Professor Palmer, negative modality implies negative actuality: if you couldn’t, it follows that you didn’t. Whereas in the positive case, can is inappropriate unless the context makes it clear that there is no implication of actuality. To sum up the argument, can will not do when potentiality is overtaken by events, and this is what distinguishes the modal can semantically from the non-modal verb to be able (cf. ‘I ran fast, and was able to catch the bus’). Professor Palmer’s explanation strikes me as particularly unconvincing. However, I do not pick it out to criticise it, but in order to exemplify how English usage may be explained in ways which make no special appeal to the particularity of English, but simply to the (presumed) rationality of its users.

A similar appeal occurs in R.A. Close’s discussion of a statement made by a Norwegian minister on BBC Television in 1977. The occasion was a blow-out from the Ecofisk oil-rig, and the ensuing worries about where the oil-slick would end up. What the Norwegian said was: ‘If the slick will come as far as Stavanger, then of course I must take precautions on a massive scale.’ Now those of us who were brought up on the rule which said that one does not use will in an if-clause unless it is intended to imply volition might well suppose simply that the Norwegian’s English was not very good. Not so, according to Close’s argument. For had the minister said, ‘If the slick comes as far as Stavanger, then of course I must take precautions on a massive scale,’ that would have meant he was envisaging the possibility of the slick actually arriving at Stavanger and only then taking precautions to prevent the disaster. Which, Close says, would have been ‘absurd and totally irresponsible’. Again the explanation is not immediately convincing. Again it appeals to a hypothetical reasoning process in order to justify a particular point of usage.

In recent years, the most determined attempts to explain features of linguistic usage as deriving not from mere accidents of cultural history but from universal workings of the human mind have been associated with the emergence of generative grammar. Hence it is not surprising to find Professor Chomsky explaining why in his view one does not say things like ‘Each other saw the men’ and ‘The candidates believe each other are crooks’ in a way which minimises the Englishness of English almost to vanishing point. According to him ‘a person learning English must learn the language-specific fact that each other is a reciprocal and therefore requires an antecedent. It seems doubtful that anything else must be learned’ (that is, for acquiring automatically the correct ways of using each other). Everything else follows ‘by principles of universal grammar’.

What one cannot help wondering is where, if the rationalists are right about language and the human mind, so many of the manifest irrationalities which make the English language English come from.