September 10, 2013, by michaelgroves
What is “Proper” English? Part Two
In the previous post, I asked the question “What is proper English”? The English spoken around the world differs in many ways- Americans write “color” and pronounce the final “r”- the English write “Colour” and the “r” is silent. There are also plenty of examples of similar differences between Malaysian English and British English- grammatical and lexical. There are also differences between different types of Malaysian English, just as there are differences in the UK between, say Cockney and Scouse. The Queen doesn’t speak the same English as me (and I often wonder if she uses less and fewer correctly on every occasion).
What then is “Proper English”? In a British University in a Malaysian context, should everybody be speaking British English, as standard? That seems a hopelessly colonial and outdated in attitude, and I think my North American and Australasian colleagues may take exception. Should we all speak Malaysian English at UNMC, no matter where we come from? I know that when I try to speak a little Malaysian English, my Malaysian friends wince in embarrassment
For me, the answer lies in the idea of the “Discourse Community”. A discourse community is a group of people who communicate and who share a set of unspoken standards and meanings. We all belong to many discourse communities- for example we probably speak slightly differently with our parents than how we do with our friends from school. Staff and students from Nottingham Malaysia form a discourse community of sorts- who else would understand the sentence He’s not in the TCR, he’s in the SA”?
The question then of “proper” English becomes moot. The question is not “How should I speak?” It’s “How do the people I am speaking to expect me to speak?” The editors of an international academic journal have a set of linguistic expectations, grammatical and stylistic, and aspiring authors need to adhere to these, just as they do to the referencing and formatting requirements. On the other hand, a company based in a city like KL, and only doing business with other local businesses might have a very different set of unspoken linguistic expectations.
The final piece of the puzzle is the level of self awareness we have of how we speak. We need to know if the words we use are only understood by a certain discourse community- and be aware of whether the people we are communicating understand them. We need to be aware of whether the grammatical systems we employ are in line with the expectations of those we are talking to, and if not, we need to decide if we want to change them.
We project out identity by the English that we speak and write, and, sadly, people judge us on the grounds of the discourse communities we appear to belong to. This is why we need to be aware of the expectations of those we are speaking to- in order to make ourselves understood, as well as projecting the identity we want to. If we want to project ourselves as part of an international community of scholars, we need to align ourselves to the grammatical, stylistic and political norms of that community. If, on the other hand, people want to project a proud strongly local identity, also can.