"Reforming" the College English Curriculum

Article excerpt

IT IS IRONIC that our would-be "reformers" of the college English curriculum believe it to be deficient in "multiculturalism" and "diversity." I have previously written on the "multiculturalism" of Western Literature, commonly taught in English departments. (1) In this I consider the "diversity" of English language and of English and American literature, which are the main part of the curricula of English departments.

The "diversity" of English began with the three tribes of Low German-speakers that took over what became England when the Romanized Britons were abandoned by the Roman troops. The Angles must have been the predominant tribe since the country became "Angleland," later England. They appear to have settled chiefly in the north and center of the main island. But there were many Saxons in the south as indicated by such names as Essex, Sussex, Middlesex, and Wessex, and a smaller number of Jutes in the southeast corner. At first the three tribes were divided into ten tiny kingdoms, reduced gradually to three, and they did not become firmly a single kingdom until the Norman Conquest in the eleventh century.

The Normans were also "northmen" conquerors, but of the Normandy to which they gave their name in northern France, and they had become French-speaking in their own Norman French dialect, which they imposed on their new conquest for a sufficiently long time so that Anglo-Saxon lost many of its learned words from disuse by the subjected, mostly peasant, population. Thus, as the Normans became English-speaking they apparently found it easier to adopt Norman-French substitutes for disused Anglo-Saxon words. Thus English became a "medley" language, with a large proportion of Norman French words.

This "medley" language seems to have got the habit of adopting words from the many languages the English met as they spread overmuch of the world, often with the spellings of other colonial powers. For instance, in colonial America they adopted many American Indian words, often in the Spanish and French spellings, to the great inconvenience of those trying to master English spelling ever since.

The same practice was followed in other British colonies in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa as the English settled there. As they became amercantile people and eventually an imperial one, they borrowed freely from the numerous languages of India, Indonesia, China, and Japan, so that English is an international and intercultural tongue in its very constitution.

As English literature developed, it became as diverse as the language. AngloSaxon literature was written before the Norman Conquest, and it was preserved in monastic libraries, to be rediscovered later; a considerable literature was written in Norman French for the Norman conquerors; and even the literature of the still earlier Celtic Britons was preserved in the form of the King Arthur stories popular all over Western Europe in the Middle Ages. Chaucer, the first great author of English, borrowed freely from French and Italian, as did the internationally-recognized William Shakespeare, who borrowed from these as well as from Greek and Latin sources, as later English authors did from many other languages and literatures.

English is international as well as insular in origin, and it continues to be more international all the time. For one of many examples, it has become the world-wide language of air travel, so that there is at least one unfortunate example of a bad accident from an international pilot failing to understand an American English term used by a controller at an American airport.

Most scientists of all lands find it essential to know English because it is the language of most scientific research and publication; but English is equally important in the practical arts. The consequence is that English is the most wide-spread second language in the world, widespread in such huge populations as those of Russia, India, Japan, and China. …