English as Our Privilege


I like to pat myself on the back sometimes for picking English as a native language. I won the language lottery: everyone else has to speak my tongue to communicate with me. My halfhearted forays into Spanish, French, and German (Old English, really) aside, I never had to leave my language home to visit another. These other languages won’t die anytime soon (Russian, Japanese, and, especially, Chinese will probably also live on quite awhile), but nothing will dethrone King English. Except maybe English.

More specifically, Simple English, Basic English, or some facsimile. As far as I can tell, this is a new sub-language of English (clearly I’m not a linguist), one whose central words are English, though its spellings and perhaps its usage has been simplified. If English is to be humanity’s lingua franca, then it ought to make some concessions to the masses, as a simplified English might. “Tough” softens to “tuf,” perhaps; rhythm transforms into “rithm,” philately becomes—forget it. Besides spelling, many words must vanish: we have too many repeats for our own good.

Why hasn’t a simpler English caught on? Charles Kay Ogden was ahead of his time, describing a list of 850 essential English words in 1930. Are these words taught in schools? Only in foreign classrooms. They are primary words to all English, certainly, but few Americans have even thought about any such list of words being made, much less one existing (though these word lists are critical in TESOL contexts).

I suspect no simplified English would catch on with native English speakers because they don’t need it. The only way we’d have to engage with it is if the rest of the world (or a majority of English speakers) decided that simplified English was a better way. An English built on a basic vocabulary and unified spelling and phonetics would make a useful universal tongue.

Thus native English speakers may eventually require a second English language to communicate. Would this lead us to drop Traditional English? Literature demands we keep Traditional English alive: literature in English thrives on the meanings of a vast vocabulary culled from the world’s languages, and its forms—sound and sight—contain additional artistic matter. To dispose with Traditional English is to abandon both specificity and ambiguity—for something simple and vague. The paradox.

Other reasons? Cost of changing government documents and signage. That could be done in stages. Should we keep tradition for its own sake? Americans love their “standard” measurements; maybe we love our language “thoughts” and “psychologies” just as much. There are cultural reasons to keep English as it is: it’s old, and natural, and beautiful. There are racist reasons to maintain it: to deny others its use and power.

But I don’t think that’s entirely why we cleave to Traditional English. I think it’s a question of personal growth or personal insult, depending on your perspective. Why would anyone who has spent a lifetime mastering a language—floating, owning, parading, and bequeathing English—willingly return to first grade phonics class? A movement for a universal simplified English must originate from the bottom up, because, as with all power, the ones on top have no incentive to give it up and sacrifice their own position. English privilege is too difficult to abandon. Simple English proponents need a linguistic George Washington who will defy the King’s English and take up the case of the disenfranchised. Political, religious, and cultural shifts made English, and it will take some awesome momentum to reverse its millennial movement.

It’s unfair to call this purely a power struggle. Do we ask the enlightened to return to the dust? It is unjust to demand one turn over wisdom (whatever its form) to the authorities (though Lord knows they need it). We can unlearn, but that is tragedy, not success. I can’t ask you to abandon your life’s work.

And it turns out I’m not George Washington.

Gud luk, un-Inglisht frend!