English once had low social status!

The social status of a language is NOT set in stone.

Mention the value of Creolese in the classroom and someone is likely to point out that Creolese is a low social status language while English is a high social status or prestige language. The assumption seems to be that high or low status is part of the “genetic makeup” of these languages. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The social status of a language is often tied to the social status of its speakers. When a group changes its social status, its language may follow suit.

At one time, Greek was the language of high status in Europe; later, the title passed on to Latin. For most of its 1500 years, English speakers regarded their language as having lower social status than Latin or Greek and then, a little later, lower than French. It was only in the last 150 years or so that English has become a language with high social status.

French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and Rumanian are now respectable languages but in their earliest period, each would have been identified as one the low status Latin dialects labelled Vulgar Latin. In a sense, Latin, that is Classical Latin (the high status dialect ), preferred death rather than acknowledge that these Vulgar Latin dialects were its legitimate siblings.

So the dialects called Vulgar Latin survived and they each got a name change and a change in status.  (NB: vulgar  meant ‘belonging to the common people’.)

 

How did the social status of English change from low to high?

British Imperialism and all that it entailed could be said to be the most important factor in the rise in status that the English language now enjoys. Imperialism contributed significantly to Britain becoming a wealthy nation and with that wealth, its political and military power increased as well. It was soon joined by its eldest daughter, the USA, and together their combined wealth and power (political and military) secured the continued high social status of the two largest populations of speakers of English. This increased the political and linguistic status of English speakers in Britain.

More importantly, British Imperialism laid the groundwork for the spread of English around the world. Through its policies and practices, it created English-speaking elites in all its colonies and these elites continued the same policies and practices to perpetuate new English-speaking elites in their countries.

BBC radio broadcasts and British Council programmes maintained the language in all these places long after the colonies gained (regained) their independence. The Voice of America joined in later. American programmes via cable television continued this process and later advances in various types of communication media found a ready-made audience in all these “English-speaking” countries. By this time, it was difficult to stop the myth that there is something special about the English language.

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There is nothing about the structure of English that gives it its social status. All languages are equally capable of expressing the thoughts, emotions, and aspirations of their speakers. Ironically, the British Council is now advocating for children to be educated in their home language.

 

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