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English: Going nowhere and everywhere

Wednesday, 13 July, 2016

Andrew Linn is Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Dean of Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Westminster. He studied English and Modern Languages at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and he was Professor of the History of Linguistics and successively Head of English Language and Linguistics at the University of Sheffield. So, he should know what he’s talking about, then, when it comes to the future of the English.

Britain may be leaving the EU, but English is going nowhere” was the title of his article that appeared in The Conversation (motto: “Academic rigour, journalistic flair”) on 4 July. A week later, it was given a wider platform when it was published by Quartz, the global business news website of the Atlantic Media Company. This time, it had a different title: “English is and will be the lingua franca of Europe in spite of Brexit.”

Was the headline change prompted by the, er, Atlantic divide? Or because of literal and figurative incomprehension? Let’s look at the language and the meaning of go nowhere.

Confusion arises because the phrases “going nowhere” and “not going anywhere” have literal and figurative meanings. In the figurative sense, both can mean “not changing” or “not making progress.” Example: “His career in Brussels is going nowhere.” Meaning: He’s not climbing the greasy ladder at Eurocrat HQ. But here’s where it gets tricky: “not going anywhere” can have the same meaning as “going nowhere”. Example: “His career in Brussels is not going anywhere now, thanks to those chavs in Sunderland.”

But “not going anywhere” can also mean “constantly in existence.” Example: “Theresa, you know you can count on me here in Brussels. I’m not going anywhere.” Meaning: I’m in the Berlaymont building and I’m staying here to support you during this nasty Article 50 business, no matter how long it takes.

Keep Calm As regards the content of the dual-headlined piece, that will be the subject of another post, but one thing requires addressing right away. Andrew Linn writes: “The preponderance of English has nothing to do with the influence of Britain…” This is daft as it suggests modern British culture, from The Beatles to Monty Python to J.K. Rowling to Idris Elba, plays no role when English is being taught in Munich, Dakar or Lima. English is everywhere now and the the influence of Britain is key to understanding why this is so and why so many of its teachers draw upon certain models that affect how learners acquire the language and absorb the prestige that makes it so attractive. The influence of Britain, like the soft power of Miss Marple or James Bond, is global, linguistically, whatever about politically, diplomatically or militarily.


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