Author: Tim William Machan
Publisher: OUP 2013
At the very beginning of this book, the author – Professor of English at Notre Dame University in Indiana, USA – concedes that the questions posed in the title have become increasingly difficult to answer at a time when speakers of English, both native and non-native, account for around one and a half billion of the nearly 7 billion people on Earth.
He argues that an understanding of why English is important has become more and more crucial, given the language’s gate-keeping role in granting, and denying, access to some of the most important areas of life and some of the most powerful institutions in the world. Many of these are educational institutions, and two of the most fascinating chapters in this book examine English in the classroom, giving an insight into such varied educational contexts as 19th-century boarding schools for Native American children – teaching people who had become ‘in effect ... linguistically isolated foreigners without ever emigrating’ – and night classes set up to teach English to the vast wave of immigrants who helped to fuel the industrialisation of the USA in the early years of the 20th century.
Naturally, the author begins his exploration of what English is by looking at the historical perspective and tracing the development of the language through its early manifestations in England to the plethora of different ‘Englishes’ that exist today and which are, to a greater or lesser extent, acknowledged as valid. He pictures English as a flowing river, with various points along its banks where we can stop and examine specific events in history, including wars, inventions and social upheaval of various kinds, which have all influenced the language in some way or changed the course of the river. His account is wide-ranging and scholarly but extremely readable, and he has constantly in mind the issue of why we should care and how all this relates to our perception of the role of English in today’s world.
Towards the end of the book, Machan looks at various predictions about the English language that have been made throughout history, from Alfred the Great’s belief that the survival of English civilization depended on the revival of vernacular literacy, to Henry Sweet’s assertion in 1877 that within a century ‘England, America and Australia will be speaking mutually unintelligible languages, owing to their independent changes of pronunciation’. Most of these predictions did not come to pass – or, at least, not precisely in the ways that were foreseen. Machan’s own prediction is that the river of English will continue to flow and will continue to be shaped and moulded by individuals, global events, political realignments, population shifts, domestic and international law and technology, and its glassy waters will reflect back to us an image of ourselves – even if we do not all see precisely the same reflection.
A short review cannot do justice to the depth of scholarship and the endless fascination of this book, but I thoroughly recommend it to anyone who has an interest in the English language.