“Broken” English

“Broken” English

A version of this blog post may also be found in the Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of the Editors’ Association of Canada.

 Have you seen these memes?

"There is no such thing as 'American English'. 

There is English. And there are mistakes."


First appearing on Twitter in June 2014, the original tweet was tongue-in-cheek, in keeping with the account’s satirical leaning. The words have since taken on a life of their own, and the resulting memes are shared widely on other social media platforms. In some versions, an image of Queen Elizabeth II is in the background, in effect connecting ideas about ‘correct’ English with the Queen’s English. In the context of a satirical Twitter account, the joke is palpable. Divorced from this context, however, the popularity of this meme (and its close association with narratives about ‘bad’ or ‘broken’ English) seem to confirm certain linguistic biases.

Post/colonial writers and scholars have long used the lowercase and plural form ‘englishes’ to refer to the many variations of English that are historically connected to Britain’s colonial expansion. Yet, the term ‘broken English’ is still a pejorative label for non-standard variants of English. As a former English professor, for example, I have had to gently correct students who described Indigenous variants of English as broken. Broken English is a social valuation not a linguistic description: any language that allows participants to communicate effectively using shared and replicable grammatical structures is fully functioning.

The uncritical (non-satirical) idea that the Queen’s English is the pinnacle of correctness ignores the value and function of international English variants and, by extension, the socio-historical circumstances that engendered these variants. Residential School survivor, Rose Dorothy Charlie, for example, in a statement to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, reminds us of the role that English played in eroding native culture and communities: “They took my language. They took it right out of my mouth. I never spoke it again.” Instead, she, and others, were required to use English. Uncritically touting the superiority of one variant of English in relation to the englishes that emerged in the aftermath of colonial contact — the layered history of American englishes included — ignores the often traumatic history associated with the imposition of English on aboriginal peoples, its role during the slave era, and its continued evolution among various immigrant communities.

Writers such as Chinua Achebe (Nigeria) and the Nobel Laureate, Derek Walcott (St. Lucia/Trinidad) have each shown different pathways for making peace with the seeming incongruity of using the coloniser’s language to come to terms with the traumas of the colonial past. Undoubtedly, the socio-cultural legacy of English is complex: language(s) is(are) multi-textured, continuously evolving, and abundantly burdened/enriched with layers of history. The innumerable variants of English are here to stay. And the new narratives that they have enabled have allowed us access to myriad perspectives. Here in Canada, English, is one of the languages through which TRC initiatives have begun discussions with those such as Rose Dorothy Charlie. We still have a long way to go. 


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