Who speaks the real English language? is there such a thing as the "real" English in England?
It might sound an odd question. Who speaks real English or the original English? You could suggest the clue is in the name – being that English derives from England. Surely, then, this is where real English was spoken. But, the question is flawed on many levels. Here are some challenges:
By answering these questions, it is interesting to explore whether it is possible at all to find something called “real English” and whether we are all just speaking our own idiolect.
The simple answer is no. The longer answer requires a trip through the history of the British Isles and the emergence of spoken and then written English.
At 6000BC Britain was separated from the continent of Europe but there was still a long time to wait before the country has its own language. The Romans arrived in England long before an official English language had been formed, leaving the shores in 56BC.
Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, emerged around 550. Here is the first thorn in the side of the argument that English belongs to the English. Anglo-Saxon was made up of a set of North Sea Germanic (yes, as of Germany) dialects originally spoken on the coasts of Frisia, Lower Saxony, Jutland and Southern Sweden (yes, Sweden).
St Augustine arrived to introduce Christianity to the Anglo-Saxons and introduced yet more Latin into the English language, such as church, bishop, baptism, monk and more. Religious influence was replaced by yet more army invasion when the Vikings, based in the Scandinavian countries, invaded the country and English was similarly overtaken with Norse words such as sky, egg, cake, skin, leg, and more.
Middle English emerged from the invasion of the French in 1066. The higher classes wrote in Latin and spoke in French. The language of the lower classes of the English was considered vulgar. English for a long time became a spoken language and was rarely written down. When it did return it was with a lot of French words embedded. Notably, as the English cooked for the Normans, there was an introduction of a lot of French words for domestic animals such as beef, veal, pork – rather than the previous “English” of cow, calf and pig.
Modern English emerged with the development of the printing press by Willian Caxton. Up to this point English was really a mix of dialects, with no single shared English across the island. The printing press made it necessary for there to be a standard English that could be printed for all to read. The Bible was one of the first books to be printed. Shakespeare, despite the cries of many students around the world, is in fact written in modern English and his use of language helped move the English language on further than most – adding thousands of words.
So, English is already a mongrel of much of Europe before Modern English emerges – but with the renaissance words from Greek and Latin entered English in greater number. Then, with the emergence of sea travel and then the industrial revolution, words from far and wide came into the language due to the British Empire that covered a third of the world – with words like kangaroo and boomerang coming from Australian Aborigines and Juggernaut from India.
Now, with a global interconnected web of documents, there is even more spread of vocabulary into English. Technology brings new words almost daily, the origin of which cannot be pinned down to one language.
So, it seems there is no such thing as an English language. From the very beginning the Angles who named England shared dialects with many other Europeans. From this point forward there is a mixture of invasion – both of armies, religion and culture – which shaped what is realistically a global language.
If there was any basis for England to be the place of “real” English then there would be a single, standard English spoken in the country. Is this true? Well, of course not.
English is made up of many, many dialects. There is a mixture of diverse words, structures and sounds in English that make it far from possible to suggest there is a single English in England. Oddly, the accents and dialects that are separated by the North, the Midlands, East Anglia and the West Country mimic the ancient kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex. However, if you speak to people in Manchester they would tell you their dialect is distinct from those who live in Liverpool, just 32 miles away.
The dialects have become more diverse in modern times with the influx of immigrants from around the world. There are now dialects such as London Jamaican and Bradford Asian.
With movement around the world and even within the country, dialects have merged and become less distinct. The counter argument to the point that there is more than one English in England is that the differences have become so small as to make them indistinct. However, ask someone in England what they call the end cut from a loaf of bread and they will tell you different words. Ask them to tell you the name of rubber training shoes – again it will vary around the country.
There are two concepts that might lead us to suggest there is a “real” English. The concepts are “Queen’s English” and received pronunciation.
Queen’s English is defined as the English Language as written and spoken correctly by educated people in Britain.
Received pronunciation is defined as the accent of Standard English in the United Kingdom.
“Spoken correctly” and “Standard” could be argued to be the better form of English and therefore the real English. It is the English you will hear if you listen to the BBC more than not. There is a lot of prejudgement about language even in England and many believe those that speak Queen’s English in Received Pronunciation appear more intelligent than those that don’t.
Americans would have problems with this view of “real” English being a product of the Queen. There are lots of conflicting meanings between the largest English speaking country in the world, and England – the supposed country of origin. Words such as sidewalk, candy and more are becoming more popular in Millennial English youngsters than words such as pavement and sweets. However, Americans also have their standards. The Mid-Atlantic accent is an accent that no American speaks unless they are educated to do so. Therefore, it is the accent of the upper class American and therefore perceived higher standard. Whether this makes this form of English more real than any other is debatable – but it is often spoken by presidents.
With the emergence of a global economy there has been a trend towards business English. English has become the shared language across countries that helps to overcome language barriers. The level of fluency to read, speak, write and listen need to be high but they also tend to be specific to the workplace. Fluent business English is seen as an internationally recognised benchmark – so, could be argued to be a form of English seen as better than others. Part of business English courses tend to include units such as natural English but many argue the demarcation between the two is said to be closing.
Overall, who speaks the “real” English language? Well, everybody and nobody is the most accurate answer. Everybody who speaks English around the world speaks their version of the English language – and there are said to be about 2 billion of these, with a further 1 billion looking to learn. The differences in vocabulary, structure and sound are a result of the evolution of the language – which has essentially been a mongrel language from the beginning. Yet, realistically, nobody speaks the real English language because nothing of the sort exists. English is an amalgam of all the languages that seeped into its development over centuries.
What this discussion reveals is an elitism that can come with language. There are many who would say BBC English is the real English language – spoken in standard grammatical form with an educated vocabulary. However, this is less a choice made for superiority and more a desire to bring clarity to communication. If you have ever heard pidgin English spoken or cockney, you will know there is a poetry in dialects that is alive and beautiful but is ultimately impossible for outsiders to thoroughly understand.
So, a debate about real English is not about which one is best or not – which one is the most valid to be called English. It is about how to share a common language that makes shared understanding possible.
The great thing about the evolution of the English language is the diversity of influence. It is a symbol of what happens when people come together. If you track it back to its origins you narrate the story of humanity – how we fight, share, love, learn and more. The differences across the world may becoming smaller, the need to standardise language becoming more powerful but this does not mean that there will ever be a real English. English belongs to the individual and the mix of words and phrases and structures this individual uses – in this respect the real English language is the idiolect of an everyday person who speaks to communicate.