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Shalini Khan

“Broken” English

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Have you seen this meme?

There is no such thing as American English.
There is English and there are mistakes.

First appearing on Twitter in June 2014, the original tweet was tongue-in-cheek, in keeping with the account’s satirical leaning. The words have since taken on a life of their own, and the resulting memes are shared widely on other social media platforms. In some versions, an image of Queen Elizabeth II is in the background, in effect connecting ideas about “correct” English with the Queen’s English. In the context of a satirical Twitter account, the joke is palpable. Divorced from this context, however, the popularity of this meme (and its close association with narratives about “bad” or “broken” English) seems to confirm certain linguistic biases.

Post-colonial writers and scholars have long used the lowercase and plural form “englishes” to refer to the many variations of English that are historically connected to Britain’s colonial expansion. Yet the term “broken English” is still a pejorative label for non-standard variants of English. As a former English professor, for example, I have had to gently correct students who described Indigenous variants of English as “broken.” “Broken English” is a social valuation, not a linguistic description: any language that allows participants to communicate effectively using shared and replicable grammatical structures is fully functioning.

The uncritical (non-satirical) idea that the Queen’s English is the pinnacle of correctness ignores the value and function of international English variants and, by extension, the socio-historical circumstances that engendered these variants. Residential school survivor Rose Dorothy Charlie, for example, in a statement to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), reminds us of the role that English played in eroding native culture and communities: “They took my language. They took it right out of my mouth. I never spoke it again.” Instead, she, and others, were required to use English. Uncritically touting the superiority of one variant of English in relation to the englishes that emerged in the aftermath of colonial contact — the layered history of American englishes included — ignores the often traumatic history associated with the imposition of English on aboriginal peoples, its role during the slave era, and its continued evolution among various immigrant communities.

Writers such as Chinua Achebe (Nigeria) and the Nobel Laureate Sir Derek Walcott (Saint Lucia/Trinidad) have each shown different pathways for making peace with the seeming incongruity of using the coloniser’s language to come to terms with the traumas of the colonial past. Undoubtedly, the socio-cultural legacy of English is complex. As language specialists, we understand that languages are multi-textured, continuously evolving and abundantly burdened/enriched with layers of history. The innumerable variants of English are here to stay. And the new narratives that they have enabled allow us access to myriad perspectives. Here in Canada, English is one of the languages through which TRC initiatives have begun discussions with those such as Rose Dorothy Charlie. We still have a long way to go.

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The Editors’ Weekly is the official blog of Editors Canada. Contact us.


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4 Comments on ““Broken” English”

  • Any system that allows communication is certainly a fully functional language for the group of people who are communicating. So, I agree it’s incorrect to call it a «broken language,» but is it actually incorrect to call it «broken English»?

    I’m curious, how much does a language need to change before it’s no longer considered to be what it started as?

    The question is likely irrelevant in the specific instances to which the phrase «broken English» has been applied—because everybody has still recognized it as English (even if «not quite right» in a more universal sense).

    But what is the linguistic standard by which a language changes «enough» to finally be considered a different language? Technically, shouldn’t our 21st-century English be considered a different language from our 13th-century English? (Making a case for all of us, today, really using «broken English.»)

    I don’t think you could bring any two individuals from the two time periods together and have them be able to properly understand each other. (Discounting current scholars who have extensively studied our «origin language.»)

  • Brendan O'Brien

    says:

    Good post. My understanding of ‘broken English’ has always been that of rudimentary English spoken by someone with a different first language: a Spanish person, for example.

  • Anita I. Jenkins

    says:

    Bravo. Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, winner of the Man Booker prize, is great literature. It is written in an English dialect (Jamaican).

  • Stacey Aktinson

    says:

    A very thoughtful piece. I was most taken with the comment on how English colonized regions and peoples must now use that very same language to come to terms with past injustices.

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