The English/language Debate: Richard Hudson V. John Dixon on the Relationship between English and English Language

English Drama Media, February 2011 | Go to article overview

The English/language Debate: Richard Hudson V. John Dixon on the Relationship between English and English Language


In the June 2010 issue of EDM, Richard Hudson argued that that the dominant identification of 'English' with 'English Literature' has marginalised the study of the English language as a subject

John Dixon responds to Hudson's argument, and Hudson responds to Dixon's reply.

John Dixon writes:

Oh dear, Richard Hudson has got himself into a muddle--about Language and about English. He knows very well that a single word taken out of context is multiply ambiguous, and here are two fine specimens. True, England begets English, but English what?--people, countryside ... football, cricket ... schools and universities ... language ... The last may indeed represent Richard's ordinary usage when nominalised (33), as he says, but there are lots of people who will be thinking of other things too. Like English theatre and English television programmes, say, or English literature. But already, as you see, there's a hitch in our usage: admittedly, in my student days at Oxford it was restricted to literature produced in England, but isn't it extended nowadays to literature, television and drama in English, so we have to include our daily viewing of France Vingt-Quatre and Al-Jazeera, say, and forget about the boundaries of our little enclave in Britain.

Ambiguity is just one of the things I learned to study as a teacher of English. You can't avoid it, whether producing or making sense of literature, in the broadest sense, or of the new communication media. Think of figurative language in poetry, for a start, or the artful cloak of ambiguities in political statements. And within our field of studies, I've learned to realise that two words are unusually slippery in their ambiguities: language and meaning. I don't need to deal with meaning here, because Richards and Ogden wrote a book about its ambiguities. But language is another gem. Try contexts like these: teaching a language the study of the language if you want to learn about English ... you go to [a department] called 'English Language any increased focus on language threatens literature ... all on page 33 of Richard's article, to go no further. Talking about a language is clear enough; it's English or German, or Arabic ... And in this context teaching it normally means teaching students to use a new language that's foreign to them. (But teaching English to a competent or native speaker must inevitably mean something different.) In the next quotation, 'The study of the language they are using' carries two hidden assumptions, in that word THE: the first one indicates this may well be the one and only way of studying it, and the second ambiguously refers to any study of language they are using (like the one I'm engaged in right now), or alternatively to the complex analytic schema abstracted from a given language by linguistics.

I maintain that linguistics by no means offers the one and only way of studying the language we are using, and that studying literature, media and drama in English calls for quite a different version of language study (and more). This, I hope, is already obvious enough. Here we have been discussing ambiguity--an inevitable part of studying texts of all kinds. Ambiguities, obscurities, false logic, hidden assumptions, signs of attitude, intent and motivating desires ... : features like these are an essential part of my kind of English studies. And I must confess, Richard, in my younger days I learned about them from philosophers like Susan Stebbing, critics like Ivor Richards, psychologists like Robert Thouless, or journalistic commentators like Stuart Chase, not from linguistics (much as I have since enjoyed reading the evolving discipline you contributed to). If I've missed out, I stand to be corrected.

Our first language is not the same as a foreign language, because it is something you do your thinking in, your imagining, your conversation, discussion and argument; the way you make contact with others and build a social being in doing so. …

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