The magic of ignorance - English a false prophet?

Anthea Fraser Gupta A.F.Gupta at
Wed Jan 26 20:07:18 UTC 2005

Hamo said, "> If I have properly understood the notions of baso-, meso-,
mesoacro-, and acro-lectal varieties of a second language, they refer to
their  level of comprehensibility across demographic boundaries. In all
honesty, I find these notions a little contrived and only very useful
in an abstract sense. This is because they have both a horizontal and
vertical dimension to them. The horizontal dimension exists, because
low-level competence in the English language becomes so mixed with
competence in the local language or dialect that what results is only
understandable -- not necessarily very useful -- to those speakers of
the local dialect. Thus, in a large country there can be many
basolectal varieties of the same second language. It is  vertical in the
sense that second language competence is used as a linguistic  filter to
rise through a nation's education system."

These terms should be used with care. They were developed (by Bickerton)
for the post-creole continuum, and refer to a setting in which the
acrolect is the highest prestige variety locally and the basilect (NB,
not 'basolect') is the least prestigious. There are significant
grammatical differences between acrolect and basilect and speakers move
along the scale depending on the social context (the more formal, the
more acrolectal) and their own repertoire, which is linked to social
class.  A speaker who operates largely at the basilectal end in (say)
Guyana is likely to be a monolingual native speaker of English, NOT
someone who has learnt English as a second language. 'Low-level
competence' is not the expression to use.

The terms were extended (by Platt) to Singapore and Malaysia, where a
local variety of English, grammatically very different from Standard
English, functions in a similar way, although embedded in a multilingual
situation. They should not be used in reference to a proficiency

Not all of us working on Singaporean and Malaysian English use these
terms. Others of us use the terms from diglossia (Ferguson) to talk
about focus on two sharply different varieties.

"I simply cannot imagine that baso- meso-, or even mesoacro-lectal
speakers of Malaysian English would prefer English software or
webmaterial over that provided in Bahasa Malaysian or Chinese, unless,
of course, the purpose of using it were to advance their competence in
the English language."

'Bahasa Malaysia' (not 'Bahasa Malaysian') is the official language of
Malaysia. The term refers to the specific standardised dialect of Malay
that is established as such by the Malaysian government. The same
language is called 'Bahasa Melayu' (in Malay) in Brunei and Singapore. I
suggest the term 'Malay' as the appropriate term to use in English: this
term covers non-standard spoken varieties as well as the standard
variety, and allows regional links to be made. Malay is one of the great
languages of the world, with extensive geographical spread, and widely
spoken by non-native speakers. It is in no way threatened by English.

Lots of Malaysians are happy to use English for communication among
themselves as well as with non-Malaysians. If you look at chatrooms and
blogs hosted in Malaysia you will see Malaysians doing what comes
naturally, mixing English and Malay, and just getting on with things,
for example:

This is what life is about! These Malaysians are using English to
communicate, not because they need to 'improve their English'.  English
is a Malaysian language. Outside UK and Ireland it is rare for Europeans
to use English internally for social activities of this sort.

Hamo said (as he has before) "With regard to the English language in the
Far East in particular, they have arisen because national governments
have made
them compulsory, and provided a large number of phony arguments to make
them easier to swallow. The question to answer is not whether people
want to learn them, but whether the reasons they give for wanting to
learn them are valid, and what would happen to their desire to learn
them, if they only knew the truth."

I do not use the term 'Far East' -- does H refer here to the WHOLE of SE
Asia and E Asia??  There are many different relationships with English
here.  But national governments are not leading their citizens astray.

H said "> So, why are the Brits in favor of the whole world learning
> English, if
> not imperial vanity -- what a bane for humanity."

Is this another dig at me for being British? The whole world is not
learning English because of the current importance (ha ha) of the UK.
British expansionism spread English but English now has its own
momentum. This means that English has strong bases in countries all over
the world, which use English internally. It is also an international
lingua franca. It also gives access to the cultural products of the
current major world power and currently most agressive colonizer (USA).

Hamo has to stop thinking of English as belonging to the UK (or the US,
or anywhere else). English is a language of Europe, of Africa, of Asia,
of Australasia, and of the Americas (and of Antarctica, I suppose!). And
of lots of the little islands in between the continents. It can't be
damaged. Dialectal variation is fine. There aren't any trade barriers to
its spread.


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Anthea Fraser Gupta (Dr)
School of English, University of Leeds, LS2 9JT
NB: Reply to a.f.gupta at
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