What is English? And Why Should We Care?

TW Machan, Oxford University Press, 2013, 416pp, £20.00 (hbk), ISBN 978 0 19960 125 7

Reviewed by Colin Lester

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It would be interesting to read a book that gave the answer to the title's questions from an editor's perspective, but this isn't it. Written by the professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, it's an academic work of sociolinguistics, presenting his arguments to the debates within the field.

His approach includes codification (in orthography and grammar) and pragmatics (usage, both standard or basic and relational). The historical and geographical spread reaches back to include Old English (Anglo-Saxon) and out to cover the world. Later parts of the book involve overviews and case studies of the effects on our language of British and American global expansion, of World War Two, and of English language education for Native Americans and foreign-speaking immigrants. There are places where he overstretches his interpretation to fit his views, particularly the belief that teaching English to non-anglophones added to their low status rather than helping them out of it.

There are plenty of different definitions or descriptions of English, and views of why we should care what it is, but an early statement (pp27–28) sets out Machan's stall: 'there can be no one definition of English … So by extension all definitions can be only examples … All definitions of English are situational.'

Machan points out that, of a global population of seven billion, one to one-and-a-half billion now speak English, and the UK population is only about five per cent of that number. This makes it more important than ever for editors to be aware of specific markets a work may be aimed at. The author helpfully notes that dictionaries exist not only for American English and Scots English but also for Australian English, Chinese English, Indian English, Jamaican English, Japanese English, Korean English, New Zealand English, Nigerian English, Singaporean English and South African English, not to mention broken English tongues such as Pidgin.

If typographical errors constitute a breaking of English, then this book is suspect. I noticed several, and was sad to find these errors in an OUP publication.

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