On This Week’s Episode of “I’m So Tired of Talking About Ye Olde White Supremacists:” The Racialization and Privileging of the English Language 

First of all: at this point, I would prefer the damn cookbook.

It gets so exhausting investigating historical racism. Every time we have to write about how much white people hated on and oppressed non-white people, I have to fight the urge to skip class and spend the fifty minutes at Lake Yosemite screaming at the water. Don’t get me wrong–I enjoy investigating race dynamics. But I’d genuinely enjoy taking a break to talk about what prose versus meter tells you about a character, or how their diction illuminates their true motives, etc. I already know pretty well how these building blocks came together to form modern systematic racism.

That being said: I did not have to read any of these texts to know about the deep racialization of the English language and its use to subjugate colonized nations. I’ve studied it since high school. It begins with Astérix and the Gaullians turning Latin into French, the Nordic with their proto-Swedish and German, and both conquering parts of Albion, and shoving their languages together to craft some dysfunctional train wreck into a means of communication. It continues on to become a divide where the upper class use French loan words to refer to things like food, and the lower class use their more Germanic counterparts. I.e: “beef,” derived from “bœuf,” instead of cow. “Pork,” directly from “porc,” instead of “pig.” It carries on to the privileging of French and Latin over English, and the constructions of texts like The Canterbury Tales as linguistically transgressive. To write such a work in such a lowly language was wild at the time. Slowly, English becomes accepted, evolves from Chaucer’s English to Shakespeare and Marlowe’s English.

And then enter the sweetly elitist Samuel Johnson. By claiming to be “fixing” the English language, he created the concept that dialects of lesser people were not “correct” and that the whole entire language needed to be brought into hand. He had the help of six people. Six people. Johnson and his six friends decided on the entire composition of the English language. They clung to dated Latin grammatical structures. That’s why we supposedly can’t end sentences with a preposition (even though that is some bullshit up with which we should not put) and split infinitives are largely phased out. They decided that they were scholarly enough to dictate how entire countries should speak and write. Who was okay with that?!

The push for “English language education” in colonised India was a special cross between linguistic nationalism, white man’s burden, and cultural erasure. Trevor Noah has a very interesting stand up bit on British colonialism, the crux of which is: the British sought to make more British out of non-British. The enforcement of English language education was, whether par erreur où par hasard, an effort to erase the parts of Indian culture the British found undesirable in a subject.

This cultural erasure is still an issue today; we face not only the fallout of Ye Olde Actions, but the current continuation of it. English, for some insipid reason, is still touted as one of the most necessary languages to know. As someone who is formally fluent in a Romance language, I can fully attest that there is nothing worse than English. The grammatical structures are untrustworthy, the pronunciation rules are unreliable, and the tenses get so out of hand. And yet, our language is held above. We’ve certainly heard stories of Americans demanding that anyone speaking a foreign language–Spanish, Urdu, Tagalog, etc–learn to speak English because they’re in America now. We still seek to erase the undesirable parts of a foreign immigrant’s culture. We also deal with the fallout–entire languages that English managed to completely destroy. Entire cultures lost because of the privileging of English. All because men like Johnson felt like making his neatened-up English language model a matter of national importance. Thanks, dude.
-TaNayiah Bryels


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