The Three Circles of English edited by Edwin Thumboo

The Three Circles of English is a collection of conference papers published in Singapore on 2001.

The title refers to the varieties of English in the inner circle, outer circle and expanding circle of the “three circles” model invented by Braj Kachru.

I’m glad I read this book, though parts of it were eye-stabbingly inarticulate and other parts contained opinions that went all the way through defensive and out the other side…

I now have more sympathy for people who feel that although they have grown up speaking English, they can never really achieve a respectable level of English, simply because they weren’t born and educated in places where the local variety of English is automatically respected. I mean, how unfair is that? Especially since all our enshrined standards are nothing but historical accidents. I’m not saying that we don’t need standards, or even, necessarily, that they should change or multiply, just that it stinks if you’re on the receiving end of one, so to speak, through no fault of your own.

For a list of the papers and what I found interesting about them, keep reading. (TL;DR? Try this summary instead.)

Part 0

[containing the Foreword and Introduction]
This part of the book talks a lot about Braj Kachru, the guy in whose honor the conference was held.

Part I

  • Contrasting Hinglish (Hindi+English) and Singlish [English in Singapore]. Interesting and informative.
  • The effect of cultural background on ability to understand a text. It’s impossible for me to take this “study” seriously at all, because there were only two research subjects: the two authors of the paper.
  • Creativity and experimentation. Uncontroversial.
  • Examples of idioms in English that have been literally translated from the indigenous languages and thus betray, like palimpsests (reused manuscript pages), clear traces of their history.
  • Variation in the pronunciation of English. Matches and explains my own observations.
  • English online. Outdated and full of little annoyances.
  • The difference between ability to understand words, sentences and utterances in context (intelligibility, comprehensibility and interpretability). Entertaining. I liked the anecdotes given as examples.

Part II

  • Something about how entrenched English and its speakers purposely undermine new English and its speakers. I dislike both the politics and the syntax.
  • An explanation of how a Korean newspaper promotes biased opinions about its content. I learned that the word ‘plethora’, which I always just thought meant ‘a lot of something’, has an original, negative meaning tied to disease. (Here ‘plethora’ is given as an example of a word that is used specifically and obviously to disparage. Maybe the word sounds more obviously negative in Korean.)
  • Too much reliance on native speakers. Author believes Englishes may be compared structurally but not judged better or worse, and that speakers of ‘standard’ varieties thus aren’t needed to set the standards, which in any case any particular individual can hardly be expected to follow.
  • A call for attention to be paid to the specific sociolinguistics of bilingual women in India. Interestingly, the author highlights the fact that in the U.S., bilingualism is ‘associated with inequality and social disadvantage’ because the norm is to be monolingual. The fact that monolingualism is strange is, itself, strange to us oblivious Americans…
  • A description of the features of Maori Literature in English. Unsurprisingly, a variety of strategies are used to help English speakers understand the Maori words and cultural elements.

Part III

  • Specific examples of the ways in which English has had an impact on Korean.
  • The pattern English follows as it is increasingly used in advertising. Pretty interesting. Shockingly, English now appears on the packaging of beauty products in France!
  • Examples of English in advertising in Germany and France. In France, English is used in spite of laws stipulating fines for using it.
  • Some general information about the impact of English on Mandarin in Taiwan. I liked reading the examples that shed light on differences between English and Chinese. For example, Chinese does not traditionally have a special form for passive verbs (“this one can wear” means “this one can be worn“) but some speakers have given it one by analogy with English.
  • Another one about advertising (in Korea, this time). The use of the roman alphabet is on the rise. An abominable search-and-replace typo in this one.
  • Ways in which English is incorporated into other languages, depending on which circle you’re in. A footnote makes the perhaps unintentionally hilarious claim that “several Canadians are fairly fluent in both English and French”. An interesting example is described in which an educated man adapts his speech to the less-educated variety used by his taxi driver; in the US, would such an accommodation take place?
  • Regarding the challenges of translating Sanskrit religious texts into English. Is it possible for the translator to transcend the literal and culturally bound meaning of the original words to re-encode the meaning in the target language? In other words, is the underlying meaning of a text universal? (Walter Benjamin says it is, and calls the underlying universal text “pure language”; I’m not sure I buy it.)

Part IV

  • Shifting standards in the media. Supposedly, news used to be objective, but now it’s biased. Reminds me of The Cult of the Amateur.
  • What makes successful communication in English possible. It isn’t so much adhering to a standard as it is being aware of the variation that is possible at many levels of communication (phonetics to pragmatics).
  • Why Singapore English isn’t a recognized standard. It’s new, and there’s a vicious cycle that keeps it in a low-status position with respect to British English.

Part V

  • An agenda for evangelizing the World Englishes approach to English-language teaching.
  • Identifying “standards” or acceptable alternative patterns in “nonstandard” varieties of English. The use of uncountable nouns as countable nouns and the use of ‘would’ for ‘will’, for example, should not be taken to imply that a language learner is not proficient.
  • Whatever the historical reason for English dominance (pragmatism or imperialism), the author thinks the standard varieties have too much power now. Other varieties should hurry up and get their own equivalents of the King James Bible and Johnson’s Dictionary, which legitimized and universalized English.

Part VI

[containing the Afterword]

Ah, now I understand how all the papers came together in the first place. The Afterword, oddly, does a better job of setting the stage for Parts I to V than the Foreword and Introduction.

Professor Braj B. Kachru launched the field of World Englishes as a subfield of linguistic study; his championship of World Englishes is compared to William Labov in relation to Black English and H.L. Mencken and Noah Webster in relation to American English.

When and Why I Read It

I found the book (two copies of it, actually) languishing in the reading room of Kent Vale at NUS. I was excited to read some scholarship on the subject of the different varieties of English because Linguistics and English interest me very much.

Genre: nonfiction (linguistics)
Date started / date finished:  30-Mar-16 to 23-Apr-16
Length: 439 pages
ISBN: 9810425635 (paperback)
Originally published in: 2001
Amazon link: The Three Circles of English (not available)