a family of languages

Anthea Fraser Gupta A.F.Gupta at leeds.ac.uk
Wed Jun 29 11:35:58 UTC 2005

Aurolyn said, "But even if his English was native, that's no guarantee
that it was 90% intelligible with the English from another continent!
More and more I prefer to think of English as a family of languages."

Now that's interesting and a new topic -- one that interests me a lot.
Because I have come to reject the 'Englishes' model and am inclined to a
singular English.

Intelligibility is of limited use for determining shared languageness,
and is hard to measure. It's even harder to set a cut off point. But I
cannot see that differences only in pronunciation would lead to
differences in language. Such differences are educable: we can attune
ourselves to new accents (and dialects). I was once on an escalator in
Singapore with a visiting linguist. We got to the top of the escalator
and he turned to me and asked me what language the people on the
escalator behind me were speaking -- he hadn't been able to identify it,
much less recognise it. It was English, and intelligible, to me, but it
was his first exposure to Singlish, the contact variety of English in

Intelligibility is not symmetrical either, as Dixon illustrated in his
1980 book on THE LANGUAGES OF AUSTRALIA: sometimes Group A can
understand B but Group B can't understand A. This clearly happens in
English, where pretty well the whole world can understand 'General
American' but General American speakers can't necessarily understand the
rest of us too well -- this has EVERYTHING to do with power and exposure
(Hollywood has a lot to do with it).

When it comes to the writing of Standard English, the differences
diminish to almost nothing: in writing intelligibility problems are
likely to be caused by relative differences in the skill in
understanding complex sentences and 'hard' words, and in failure to
understand background cultural (including scientific) information. Here
is an extract from a text that I find pretty unintelligible:

"Topology enumerates the critical-proximity-bonded pairs of "points" as
constituting only one point and not as an almost tangent two.
Topological accounting is confined to only superficially visible
characteristics of systems."

Just because my ?maths is not up to understanding this doesn't mean it's
not standard or that it's not in English. Same with accents and


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

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