• Thu. Jul 25th, 2024

‘Proper English’ is a racist and outdated concept

ByTanuj Raut

Jan 19, 2016

For an inhabitant of an English speaking territory, one cannot remain isolated from the vast array of dialects and variations in the English language. However, there lingers a largely misconceived notion of the ‘proper’ kind of English in every-day communication, i.e., the Standard English. This view, indicative of a heavily misguided understanding, lends itself to a nationalist and traditionalized version of the language’s history, without any basis in historicity.
For several reasons, it is fairly logical and reasonable to discard the idea ‘proper English’ is anything but racist and elitist.

Initially, it is quite often a product of a self-fabricated understanding of the domain of the rules of syntax and grammar in everyday speech. This gross notion of a ‘proper’ English as confined to a fixed set of rules hints more at the lack of understanding of the nation’s past than it does at the tendency of specific individuals to exercise authority over a constantly transforming language, they did not create. With the conquests of the British Empire in several parts of the world like the Caribbean, Asia and the Middle East, any mode of communication was subject to an entirely new set of speakers with a diverse cultural background. Keeping this in mind, it would be utterly naïve to hold an image of a ‘pure’ and ‘authentic’ version of English language.

For instance, workers in the colonial plantations in West Indies, mostly people transported as slaves from West Africa, had English as the sole medium of communication imposed upon them. However, the use of a pidgin language soon emerged, where the two speakers naturally used a relatively simplified version of another language based on syntax and grammar, to understand each other. Soon this pidgin language adopted the status of a creole with a vast set of vocabulary and structure for the next generation. What could never be one’s mother-tongue, soon became the first language of many children. Hence, it is clear that once a language comes in contact with a culture, foreign to its initial speakers, it is bound to be stretched beyond its initial rules and yet remain equally valid. It would be foolish to claim authority over what is already an integral part of another culture, literary history. To quote Salman Rushdie, ‘The English Language ceased to be the sole possession of the English a long time ago’.

Moreover, with the advent of the printing press in the 1400’s, English language within Britain itself, underwent a process of rapid transformation for a standard printed text. This period also faced a disintegration of less popular dialects due to Standardization. A widespread dispersal of printed text provided impetus to what was already an ongoing process of elimination of local dialects at the peripheral parts of Britain. The current misguided notion of a ‘proper’ English itself ignores that it is an amalgamation of several dialects, created over centuries. Therefore, it is to be noted that the argument of the ‘proper’ speaker, falls prey to its own charge.

Lastly, when a person is falsely accused of not speaking proper English, the implications are downright chauvinistic. It implies that English, is chiefly and primarily the proper speaker’s property, which can only be borrowed by ‘others’. One can never accept it as its own and must rectify any possible contribution to the vast pedigree of the English Language. It also implies that one’s distinct way of speaking is far from acceptable. It would be better to point out that as speakers, we never stop learning and adapting a language, which never remains unchanged. One cannot possibly advocate adherence to a ‘proper’ English without presupposing an entitled self, on grounds of authenticity, remain above those who speak at the outskirts.

Image: Hyacinth50

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