Is English a Language? A Brief History of a Pointless Dispute: Richard Hudson Argues That the Dominant Identification of 'English' with 'English Literature' Has Marginalised the Study of the English Language as a Valuable Subject in Its Own Right

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What is English?

What does the noun English mean? In ordinary usage there's no doubt that it's the name of a language: if I speak, understand or learn English, then what I am speaking, understanding or learning is a language. But put the word into an educational context, and uncertainty sets in. If you teach English, are you teaching a language or a body of literature or culture which happens to be written in English? And when the government describes English as a core subject, does it mean the study of the language or of its literature? It's not just English that faces these questions: exactly the same uncertainties afflict foreign language teaching, especially at university level. Where does the study of French--meaning of course the French language--fit into the programme of a French department? A BA programme in French or English need not have much to do with the language named in the title of the programme.

A matter of semantics? Yes, but not mere semantics the ambiguities in these language names really matter. The semantic shift away from the ordinary use of nouns like English and French is the only explanation for the very odd fact (which we all take for granted) that A-level English Language had to include the word language in its title in order to distinguish itself from what was then called simply 'English', which had very little to do with the English language. The same is true in universities, where departments have to add the word language to English in order to distinguish themselves from the so-called 'English' departments; so if you want to learn about English, you don't go to an English department but to one called 'English language'. Similar uncertainties exist in foreign languages, so ''Modern Foreign Languages' as a discipline has an identity which is vague and uncertain' (Worton 2009: 8).

The trouble with this semantic take-over is that it sets literature and language in quite unnecessary competition. If the subject called 'English' or 'French' is really about literature, then the language is at best a side-show; and vice versa. This competition serves no-one. Everyone agrees that the study of English literature is an important part of education, but as long as this study owns the title 'English' any increased focus on language threatens literature. The fact is that education needs the study of both language and literature to be strong, and to support each other rather than to be in competition. But putting the two together under a single subject name invites trouble, not least in terms of the expertise needed by an 'English' teacher.

Language and English: the early history

Uncertainty about the place of language seems to have been around for a long time, and may well have its origins in the universities rather than in the schools. Historically, the study of language in our universities was dominated by three dead languages--Latin, Greek and Hebrew--until the nineteenth century, when teaching was expanded to include not only English but also modern foreign languages. I'm proud to say that UCL led the way by including chairs of English, German, Italian, Spanish and even Hindustani among its very first chairs in 1828 (Harte and North 1991: 38). But UCL English was dominated in the nineteenth century by two names: Henry Morley (Professor of English from 1865-89), and W.P. Ker (1889-1922), both of whom specialised in literary history.

Oxbridge was slower off the mark. An important date for Oxford is 1885, when the Merton Chair of English Language and Literature was created. Even though the chair was ostensibly for both language and literature, there was considerable emphasis on Old and Middle English, so that students had to study large chunks of what was (and is) called 'philology' to get access to the literature; and the syllabus did not include either Modern English language or even modern literature (Hudson and Walmsley 2005). Literary enthusiasts naturally objected, and won the ensuing campaign against philology. …