restricted access What Is English?
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What Is English? Thomas H. Luxon What is English? Well, sure, you already know it’s a language—maybe even the language you grew up speaking, although maybe not! In fact, English is a language spoken by millions of people all over the world. Its oldest form, Anglo-Saxon (or Old English), was spoken in England and southern Scotland beginning around the middle of the fifth century CE.By the late twentieth century ,modern English—the kind that we speak now (and even that is continually changing) had replaced French as the “lingua franca,”or semi-official,language of international business and law. In almost all countries where English is not the “official”language,most people will still learn English as part of their regular studies in school. There are lots of people who think about English as a language, as one of the many languages spoken around the world. If you are an expert in linguistics, you might be interested in how English has changed over time and adapted to different environments. For example, the “English” that we use when we communicate on the computer or by texting is very different from the English we use where we are speaking to each other face-to-face (I hope you still do some of that!). Also, the English that we speak up here in New Hampshire might have subtle differences from the English that our friends in Illinois speak (what we call “soda,”you call “pop”—and why do you do that,anyway?).Each of these variations is known as a “dialect.” In addition to the words that we each use in our forms of English, it’s also deeply interesting how we put those words together —that is the syntax and grammar of the language. In fact, making sense of this has enabled innovations like machines that you can talk to—like “asking” your phone to give your directions,a piece of something called “natural language processing.”Yes,there is a lot you can do and hope to do by better understanding the language of English. What Is English? 151 But when someone says “I study English,”say in college,generally they don’t mean any of those things; instead they’d say “I study linguistics”(read the “What Is Linguistics” chapter to learn more!) or “I study natural language processing” (which is a mixture of linguistics and computer science).“Studying English”almost always means thinking intensively about literature—poetry and prose—and English literature in particular. First, English literature means not just works written in England, but works connected to England in some fashion. Now I don’t know, that might either seem really big (“You mean everything ever written in English?”) or really little (“Why just English? What about other languages?”),and you’d be right on both accounts. If you think it’s too small, don’t worry, we’ll get to that. The kinds of questions we can ask about English literature, we can ask about any collection of writings with some shared origin. So let’s talk about that first. Like linguists, English scholars are interested in how the language works— how it encodes meaning and how readers decode it. But unlike linguists, the language users we’re most interested in are those whose writings expand the possibilities of how the language works.Lawmakers,judges,and technical writers want language to work as precisely, simply and predictably as possible. Poets, novelists,and playwrights explore the ways language can surprise us with complicated ,even contradictory,meanings.They also work hard to make the language’s sounds interact with its senses. For instance, take this poem by the American poet Emily Dickinson (okay, she’s not from England, but too wonderful not to include for an example!): There’s a certain Slant of light, Winter Afternoons – That oppresses, like the Heft Of Cathedral Tunes – Heavenly Hurt, it gives us – We can find no scar, But internal difference, Where the Meanings, are – None may teach it – Any – ’Tis the Seal Despair – An imperial affliction Sent us of the Air – 152 Thomas H. Luxon When it comes, the Landscape listens – Shadows – hold their breath – When it goes,’tis like the Distance On the look of Death – Besides the rhymes,which use sound to couple disparate senses like “breath”and “Death,”Dickinson also plays with alliteration—“certain Slant”and “Heavenly Hurt”and “Landscape listens.”In each case the sounds bring special textures to the meanings of the words. The...