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  • What is English? And Why Should We Care? by Tim William Machan
  • Michael Fox
Tim William Machan. What is English? And Why Should We Care? Oxford UP, 2016. 404 pp. $24.95.

This book purports to be "for everyone interested in English and the role of language in society and culture." In some ways, the book fulfils its promise, as Machan explores various "case studies," exhibiting a wide-ranging and sensitive awareness of the various roles of English over time. The titular questions of the book—What is English, and Why should we care?—are, however, never answered in satisfactory ways. Machan's answers amount to saying that any definition of English is a definition of ourselves (which is both a "what" and a "why"), that who "we" are is as problematic as what English is, and that, for those reasons, there can be no one definition of English. One might argue that this lack of specific answers is precisely the point, and that argument makes sense, but the difficulty is that this approach makes the book read more like a fractured set of anecdotes than a cohesive argument. In other words, although every section and chapter of the book would be clear to a general audience (but would offer little new to scholars of the history of the language), trying to puzzle out why the book exists as a book is a task as daunting as the definition. [End Page 123]

The book is divided into four parts. Part one addresses the "consequences of definition," establishing the metaphor to which the book returns constantly: English is a river. Machan borrows the metaphor from Heraclitus, conflating Heraclitus' belief that "life's discontinuities fabricate the unity that holds all life together" (19) with the idea that a person can never step into the same water twice: "the paradox of a river is that for it to retain its unity as a river, it must always be changing" (19). The book, therefore, "explores various locales on the river of English," a selective approach that, Machan says, "mirrors the impermanence and changeability of English itself" (27). Although one definition of English is impossible (any one definition can only be an example), we should care because English and its definition are connected to educational, financial, and political issues and because "defining the language amounts to saying who we are" (28).

Part two contains four case studies on what Machan calls "grammar," covering first issues of lexicon in definitions of English, pointing out the role of dictionaries in the codification of the language, and then how lexicon changes as words "die." As Machan points out," when we try to kill words … we really try to kill the speakers and ideas behind the words, along with their historical and cultural associations" (83). The final two case studies in this section cover accounts of change and variation and how grammars, dictionaries, and linguistic histories indirectly define English, asking first how geography (space) and time are part of the definition and then how codification (dictionaries and grammars) creates an identity for English. Both approaches, Machan argues, "can blur distinctions between history and heritage" (129), concepts that he has earlier defined as the search for what's known and testable (history) and the search for a past that will enhance and provide meaning to the present (heritage).

Part three moves from grammar to pragmatics, offering a further six case studies that "shift from metalinguistic discussions that identify the language by identifying acceptable vocabulary, syntax, or linguistic history to institutional or individual interactions that presume and demonstrate some particular definition," definitions which are often more instinctual than intentional (138). These six case studies are presented chronologically, moving from English before the Early Modern English period to Churchill and his popularization of the phrase "the English-speaking peoples" in the twentieth century. The section opens with the origin and application of the term "English" in the early medieval period and moves quickly into the expansion of the language after Cabot's 1497 expedition to North America. Machan is at his best in this section of the book, in the ways he identifies the implications of definitions of and judgments...


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pp. 123-125
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