Is English the problem, or the Western ideals surrounding it?

During discussion for class on Wednesday, we focused on the paragraph in Samuel Johnson’s preface to his dictionary that dealt with his idea of the contamination of the English language. He states, “Commerce, however necessary, however lucrative, as it depraves the manners, corrupts the language…” (10) which implies that through trade, there is a necessary exchange of foreign words which is ultimately negative. His point is that the English language what is corrupted and wrong, but perhaps is it not the imperialist ideals that are brought along with English that are really the problem?

I thought this was an interesting idea after watching the video provided on the history of the English language. Essentially, English is but a collective mix of a wide variety of languages, and thus it is seemingly ironic to say it can ever be corrupted. English is a language that learns and continuously takes from others, that is its existence, its purity, and how it will always be. I think it is clear that because of this flexibility, it can be a very inclusive and valuable tool for learning and communication.

Which is of course to say it was indeed used for such. However, what if English is becoming too powerful a language? It does in fact open up more to be known, but in a sense, it also causing a divide. In Macaulay’s letter he states,

“In India, English is the language spoken by the ruling class. It is spoken by the higher class of natives at the seats of Government. It is likely to become the language of commerce throughout the seas of the East. It is the language of two great European communities which are rising, the one in the south of Africa, the other in Australia, –communities which are every year becoming more important and more closely connected with our Indian empire. Whether we look at the intrinsic value of our literature, or at the particular situation of this country, we shall see the strongest reason to think that, of all foreign tongues, the English tongue is that which would be the most useful to our native subjects.”

Class divisions amongst communities are becoming more severe with the English language as a means of separating further and causing a deeper rift in countries of a similar background. Learning English isn’t just opening up scientific or mathematic knowledge, it’s opening up a whole culture. Western culture seeps in through language, in which native culture can be forgotten or seen as old-fashioned. The individual becomes separated from their own heritage. English not only becomes an elitist language, but it also becomes an overflow of intruding culture.

You could say, well one could learn English and not be swayed into Western ways, but that was not the case. Like stated in the above passage, English was a means to connect communities of conquest. In which, these places were being dominated for the use of commerce, not just knowledge. They were exploited, their language and their heritage was frowned upon.

English is of course a contaminated language, and it is spreading as rapidly today as it was in the past, but what effects is English having on cultures today compared to the past? The difficult thing about this question is that we are already living in a predominantly English speaking culture, but what would it be like to speak English but throughout our lives we are being forced to learn a complicated and foreign language? And that the idea of success is seen through the scope of this language? How does this effect a person and their culture? Even if English is an inclusive one, perhaps the ideals connected with English is whats really contaminated.

-Chloe Ray


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