The Spread of English Around the World -- The Power of English

Annika Hohenthal, Department of English, University of Turku, Finland

Kachru has discussed the power of English in many of his writings (e.g. Kachru 1986c). Bolinger (cited in Kachru 1986c: 121) has used a metaphor the loaded weapon to characterize language. According to Kachru, questions about language and power go beyond linguistics into history, sociology, attitude studies, politics and economic considerations. The power of language is intimately connected with societal power. It can be manifested by using persuasion, regulation, inducement or force to add a code to a speech community or by the suppression of a particular language variety and the elevation of another.

There are two hypotheses concerning language power: the intrinsic-power hypothesis and the acquired-power hypothesis. The first one claims that English would intrinsically possess certain linguistic characteristics which would make it a preferred language for international purposes (e.g. Jespersen 1905, quoted in Kachru 1986c). This position can, according to Kachru, to some seem similar to claims of racial superiority. The second hypothesis emphasizes the ways in which a language acquires power, and thus it is also easier to understand.

A fact is that English has spread as a result of exploitation and colonisation. It s notable that, especially in many ex-colonies of Britain, English is still the language of an exclusive social elite. Cheshire, for instance, has discussed this (Cheshire 1991: 6).

Kachru (1986c: 128-129) has given various reasons for which languages are used in a society. They can be used to expand the speech community, as a vehicle of cultural or religious enlightenment to deculturize people from their own tradition (to the "civilizing process" also belonged distancing from native cultures: the colonizers wanted to introduce European literature to the natives, at the same time remaining ignorant of their indigenous literatures), to gain economic advantage, to control domains of knowledge and information, and for deception. The following statement by Charles Grant clearly demonstrates the attitudes of the British Raj in India (1831-1832; quoted in Kachru 1986c: 128):

The Hindoos err, because they are ignorant and their errors have never fairly been laid before them. The communication of our light and knowledge to them would prove the best remedy for their disorders.

The most important reason for the success of English is, according to Kachru (1986c:129-132), naturally the historical role of England as a colonial power. In India, for example, the political power naturally attributed a power to the language of the Raj (called the linguistic elitism strategy), and it also became a symbol of political power. English came to be the language of the legal system, higher education, pan-regional administrative network, science and technology, trade and commerce - either because the indigenous languages were not equipped for these roles and English provided for a convenient vocabulary, or because the use of English was considered prestigious and powerful. English became gradually a major tool for acquiring knowledge in the sciences and the humanities. It has come to represent modernization and development, and, as a link language, it has acquired intranational roles over the years.

Linguistic power can be manifested by using one of the following power strategies: persuasion, regulation, inducement and force. Kachru (1986c:123-127) has listed as examples of linguistic power suppression of a particular language (variety) and the elevation of another. Strategies can include crude linguistic power (e.g. the imposition of Japanese on the Koreans and the Malays during World War II), indirect psychological pressure (e.g. claims of "Other-World" power) and pragmatic power.

Kachru (1987:222) lists also some other reasons for the dominance of English around the world: its propensity for acquiring new identities, its power of assimilation, its adaptability to "decolonization" as a language, its manifestation in a range of lects, and its provision of a flexible medium for literary and other types of creativity across languages and cultures.

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