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3. What is English Studies? English as a university subject

Lecture summary

This lecture deals with the complexity of defining the term English in English Studies, illustrating this complexity with perspectives on the diversity of the language: geographical, historical, social, and media diversity. It deals with the term English from the point of view of studying English, as a language, as a culture and literature – to arrive at the point when English was created as an academic discipline.


Although it seems easy, defining the term “English” in the phrase English studies poses several challenges. Clearly, “English” cannot refer to England merely, which is part of the UK – the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland -- it rather refers to the language. But which English language? The diversity of the English language is multiple: historical, geographical, social or depending on the media. When defining the term “English” within English Studies, we have to take into consideration these diversities.

Regarding the geographical diversity of the language we distinguish between


1  national varieties of English; competing standards: e.g. British, American, Caribbean, Indian, Singaporean etc.

2  regional varieties, which may be accents (affecting pronunciation) and dialects (affecting vocabulary and grammar, not only pronunciation)

3  pidgins (secondary, supporting language, no native speakers) 

and creoles (developed all major features and functions of a language and have native speakers)


Regarding the historical diversity of the language we have to keep in mind that on the one hand several languages merged into English or influenced its present state, since Britain has been home to diverse cultures and languages, while on the other hand the language is still changing, it changes into other Englishes, since wherever English is spoken, it is influenced by the cultures and languages surrounding it.


1 The base of the language is Germanic, which was influenced by successive waves of Norse invaders

2 By the time the Anglo-Saxon tribes arrived, the Celts were there. The Celtic influence on the language also survived.

3 Elements of Latin survived as well (cf. Roman invasion of Britain between 50 BC -450 AD)

4 After 1066 with the Norman invasion English became partly French


These successive layers are all preserved in the language, and reveal a lot about the groups of people using it. The words borrowed from French reflect cultural status as well: the Anglo-Saxon words for pig, sheep, calf used to refer to the live or raw animals, while the Anglo-Norman counterparts refer to the dead, prepared or cooked meats: pork, mutton and veal.

This shows how social hierarchy became intrinsic to the language: the low status of the Anglo-Saxon of the colonized who tend the animals is distinct from the high status Anglo-Norman of the colonizers who eat the animals.


Anglo-Saxon, French and Latin provide the main multicultural foundation of the English Language. Anglo-Saxon words tend to be more basic and direct and are often monosyllabic, French-derived words tend to be a little more refined, polite and formal, while Latin-derived words are more learned and technical, and often polysyllabic. Their connotations and collocations are also different, and reflect contexts that occupy diverse positions within a hierarchy of social contexts.


Some examples of verbal traces of past empires, words coming from different moments of colonization: from Spanish and Portuguese: banana, cocoa, guitar, potato; Italian: balcony, opera, sonnet, violin; Dutch: cruise, landscape, yacht; Arabic, Persian and Turkish: caravan, coffee, harem, yoghurt; North American: Kansas (Sioux for “land of the south wind people”), toboggan, totem.


English varies according to groups and situations and media involved: different parts of language are used depending on topics or social groups involved, and depending on whether it is spoken or written, written in a text message or in a scholarly article etc. English has over a million words, but not more than 30.000 are used by a single person (70.000 with passive vocabulary), while the number of words required for a B2 language exam are only 3500-3900!


In summary about the changes of English as a language we can say that, similarly to other languages, English exists and shifts through the dialogic interplay of internal and external forces. Internal heteroglossia and external polyglossia are both its characteristic features as a language. Heteroglossia – since it is heterogenous; as we have seen, it bears diverse historical, geographical etc. influences of other languages. At the same time it also remains influenced by other languages surrounding it – thus influenced by the polyglossia of its context.


As students of English at a university in a non-English speaking country, and future teachers of the language, you have to be aware of the discussed diversities of English. Although your training involves elements that aim at perfecting your knowledge of the language, your main task is only partially learning English as a language course subject, its focus is rather on learning how to teach English as a language embedded in various contexts and cultures and to be able to analyze aspects of these cultures from various perspective -- so you also learn about English as an academic discipline.


The following abbreviations relate to English as a language course subject:


o ELT – English Language Teaching

o ESL (English as a Second Language); EFL (English as a Foreign Language),

o ESP (English for Special/Specific Purposes – e.g. business)

o EAP (English for Academic Purposes)


Although nowadays learning the English language is generally appealing, the situation has not always been then same throughout history. In the British Empire teaching English at the colonies was a colonizing tool. Teaching a language involves a complex process of teaching another culture, perhaps even another way of thinking. This does not always happen voluntarily. We may find an example if we have a look at the argument of a Member of Parliament in the Victorian era, Lord Macaulay, and his explanation about why there is a need to educate English for Indians at the colonies: “…to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, a class of persons, Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.”


What does the quotation suggest about Macaulay’s implicit values? Who does he identify with? Which are the other two groups that are referred to? What could have been their respective perspectives of this opinion?


For Lord Macaulay teaching English for Indians meant not merely teaching the language, but rather a culture, a whole way of living, through teaching taste, morals and intellect. This meaning of studying English was actually formed in his age, in the 19th century, when learning English meant learning about literature, and through literature acquiring cultural refinedness. The same meaning was preserved when the academic study of English was formed, at the turn of the 20th century.


Matthew Arnold, an inspector, poet and cultural critic who lived in the 19th century, contributed significantly to the understanding of studying English as studying culture through literature. In his collection of essays entitled Culture and Anarchy (1869) he talks about culture as the “study of perfection", as "the best which has been thought and said".


The influence of Matthew Arnold on later scholarship is significant, through his influence on F.R. Leavis in the UK and many New Critics in the USA he contributed greatly to the seriousness of English as a modern university subject. Although universities have a history that is roughly a millennium long, English studied as a university subject is not even 200 years old.


In Britain the first chair of English Literature was created at University College, London, 1828, while the first chair of English Literature at Oxford was appointed as late as 1904. The first English Department in Hungary was created in Budapest (1886), merely a decade later than at Harvard in 1876.


The way English as a university subject was formed was characterized partially by a sense of seriousness that was added to the study of literature, as well as by the fact that subjects that were already established (such as Classics or Rhetoric) merged into English. Today the opposite is happening: English as a subject understood as the study of the English language and literature is being transformed into or challenged by new subjects, such as cultural studies, communications studies or media studies. Although not in the strict Kuhnian sense, these changes may still be called shifts within the paradigm.

Task / groupwork

1. Watch a movie Educating Rita (dir. Lewis Gilbert, 1983). Write a short essay answering the following questions: What is the dominant paradigm of teaching English in this film? Which are the elements of this paradigm that have survived, in your opinion, and which are the ones that have not? Are these changes positive or negative? Why?

2. Watch the animation on the half serious history of English language in ten minutes

The transcript is available here:

How are the historical layers mentioned above present in the movie – what additional information do you get? What are the periods that have not been mentioned in the above lecture? What does the movie tell us about the present state of the language? How does that compare to the situation of your mother tongue?


3. Watch the video raising the question about varieties of English and about which English to teach to students. Think about which English you will teach as a future teacher and why.

Review questions

  1. Why do we say that the English language is characterized by diversity? What are the factors that make it diverse?
  2. When was English formed as an academic discipline? What did the study of English mean then? How is that related to the study of the language?
  3. What changes are characteristic to English today as a language? And as an academic discipline?

Recommended further readings

1. Have a look at a collocations dictionary e.g. Oxford Collocations dictionary for students of English.

Collect collocations for the following groups of synonymous terms, and decide which is the Anglo-Saxon term and which are the ones coming from French and Latin respectively: interrogate-ask-question; rise-ascend-mount.

2. Read the preface of Matthew Arnold’s famous collection of essays entitled Culture and Anarchy. What is the relationship between literature and culture in Arnold’s opinion? How does this idea compare to the opinions presented in movie mentioned above, Educating Rita?