David Deterding

The English Languages. Tom McArthur. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, 247 pp.

Traditionalists will probably be alarmed just by the title of this book, suggesting as it does that there is no single English language but a whole host of alternative varieties; and indeed, McArthur does document in some detail the vast array of different versions of English that are now found throughout the world.  However, the existence of these varieties is a fact, so there is no point in adopting an ostrich-like approach and trying to pretend that the English used in Britain, America, Australia, India, Nigeria, and Singapore does not have substantial differences.  This book provides a fascinating discussion of the emergence and status of these different languages.

Although McArthur does not deny the value of a standard for English, he clearly maintains an enduring affection for his native dialect, Scots, which seems to differ from standard British English probably about as much as Singapore Colloquial English ("Singlish") differs from standard English.  As an illustration of Scots, he gives (p.7) an excerpt from Mark's Gospel:

Sae they wan atowre the Loch tae the kintra o the Gerasenes.

the equivalent of which, in modern English, is:

So they came to the country of the Gerasenes on the other side of the lake.

Clearly, although Scots is related to (standard) English, few people outside the Lowlands of Scotland would understand it.  This illustrates a point that is sometimes missed in Singapore, where it is often assumed that Singaporeans are at a disadvantage in having to master standard English after initially learning to speak a non-standard colloquial variety.  While it is true that the learning of two different varieties of English may indeed present a linguistic burden, it is actually no different from the situation for the vast majority of people in Britain, where only a tiny proportion of the population grow up speaking with a standard RP accent.

The fear among many people is that the proliferation of so many different varieties of English around the world will result in its break-up into a multitude of mutually incomprehensible languages, just as Latin, the unifying language that was once spoken throughout the Roman Empire, eventually broke up into Italian, French, and Spanish.  McArthur discusses this Latin analogy at length, and he quotes (p.182‑3) Henry Sweet's prediction at the end of the nineteenth century that, within a hundred years, the people of England and America would be speaking mutually unintelligible languages.  Well, that has not happened, and it seems increasingly unlikely that it will ever happen.  As McArthur points out, the analogy with Latin is almost certainly no longer valid, because recent advances in technology with films, television, telephone, and more recently the Internet have facilitated a massive increase in fast and easy global communication.

With regard to the differences between British and American English, it might be instructive for us to compare words associated with the motor-car against those used with computers.  The car was invented at the start of the 1990's, and there are considerable differences in usage between Britain and America, including bonnet / hood, boot / trunk, windscreen / windshield, and petrol / gasoline.  In contrast, for the computer, which has only more recently become a household appliance, there are hardly any such differences, as hardware, software, mouse, and modem are all common to both British and American English.  So it seems that, far from becoming separate languages, these two varieties of English may actually be becoming more similar.

Although the fears of a linguistic fragmentation for English may be unfounded, it is still certainly true that the adoption of a standard for use in schools remains a controversial topic, not just in Singapore but throughout the world.  McArthur devotes most of one chapter to a discussion of the furore that erupted when, in December 1996, the Oakland School Board in California tried to classify Ebonics as a separate language, in an attempt to acknowledge that many among the local African-American population were struggling to grasp standard English and would therefore benefit from additional funding to deal with their "foreign" home language.  Perhaps it can be reassuring to teachers in Singapore grappling with similar issues of how to deal with a non-standard local variety of English that this problem exists elsewhere, and the heat of the debate is no less intense in "native" English speaking countries such as the USA. 

Though McArthur does not try to provide answers to these issues, he provides a wealth of fascinating information that can certainly inform us and may reassure us that the problems encountered in Singapore are found in many other countries.  Furthermore, this highly readable book might help to improve the standard of the debate by providing us with solid background knowledge.

 (from SAAL Quarterly 52 November 2000 pp.10-12)