The English Language

Jamestown Monument

The English Language

Here at Books Etc South Africa we are rather fond of the English language (in all its variations) and think that there are one or two kindred spirits around the world who share our love for the language that brought us Chaucer, Shakespeare, the KJV bible, TS Eliot – and ‘Yes Minister’!

If you’re visiting this page expecting a debate on Chomsky’s deep structures, or to establish how many colourless green ideas can fit on the head of a pin, alas, you’ve come to the wrong place.

The Guardian – Mind Your Language



While articles on English will continue to be added from time-to-time via the blog, English as a topic has been consolidated under the tab PLAIN ENGLISH.






English language blog articles can be found by typing ‘English’ into SEARCH BOOKS ETC  → → →


23 Jan

A language family tree – in pictures

language map


Acknowledgements: The Guardian

22 Jan

Yes, we are judged on our accents

Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady

Acknowledgements: The Guardian

15 Jan

Use of definite article shows ‘radical decline’ in last century,
research shows

State of the Union Addres


Stephen Grootes: Op-Ed: The politics of navigating the English language

In the difficult, distracted, discombobulating discussion that is our society, how you speak is sometimes overlooked. In an age where the media focuses on sound bite, on the headline grabbers rather than the speech itself, often it seems the idea is all that matters. If only that were so. As Kalim Rajab reminded us last week, how you say it matters too. Here, we have a variety of leaders, chasing different constituencies, that offer us a wide palette of speaking patterns to examine. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

As someone working in radio, spending much of my time listening to political speakers, and editing their sound, I have a certain appreciation for the way in which people speak. As Rajab points out, English is still the dominant form of communication in this country. Which means that for various reasons, most political speeches that matter are given in English.

Even the ANC, which would surely have good reason and a strong political motive to deliver its set-piece speeches in other languages, has had to give in, mainly because English is a language in which most of its members are proficient. It’s hard to think of a more potent symbol of the hegemony English has over our political thought than that.

Even more interestingly, despite this, it’s quite hard to find a leader of a political party whose mother tongue is actually English. Number One spoke Zulu first, Bantu Holomisa Xhosa, Julius Malema Pedi. And the DA’s intrepid leader? Ah, maybe English, but possibly German first.

Giving speeches in English is an area in which President Jacob Zuma is at a disadvantage. It is one of the reasons why his speeches are often so boring. It’s not just that they seem devoid of content (or claim, as he did again this weekend, to “fight corruption” while everyone laughs behind their hands), it’s that he delivers them badly. An ease of delivery in English is lacking. The longer and more complicated the speech, the more obvious this becomes.

A further issue lies in the actual speech-writing. Looking at Zuma’s second inauguration, just last year, there was a brief, clearly rehearsed exchange between him and Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, as he took the oath of office. It’s an oath that is well-written, and obeys the injunction of speech-writers everywhere to use small words. That oath flowed. His speeches do not.

This is because they are written badly, with a clumsy, stilted use of English. For example, no first-language English speaker I know freely uses the word “ascertain”. And yet this little word litters Zuma’s speeches – and comes out as “as-certain”. Furthermore, there seems to be a lack of know-how in making his speeches easier for him to read. For example, the incredibly embarrassing video of Zuma trying to read out a large number would have been avoided if, as everyone in radio does, the writer had written out the exact amount in words.

All of that said, when Zuma does speak off the cuff in English, it’s much better, although it still leaves something to be desired. It could be claimed here that this is one of the key reasons Zuma does not do well in urban environments. People there are rated widely by how they sound in English. It’s completely unfair, and yet most probably true.

However, there is a corollary to this: Zuma does deliver political speeches in other languages too. And everyone who hears him speak Zulu tells me he speaks a very high, very suiwer form of the language. Which would surely be a huge advantage on the campaign trail in Kwa-Zulu/Natal. Where, incidentally, the ANC has dramatically increased its majority since he took over. If Zuma were to, just once, deliver all of, or just a large portion of, his State of the Nation Speech in Zulu (and perhaps another part in Xhosa) the urban grumparati who like to rate his speeches would have to sit down. Which would probably do them some good. And would surely be to the benefit of Zuma himself, and would make his speech that much more powerful.

Someone who doesn’t have this problem is Cyril Ramaphosa. One of the reasons he’s a media darling is that he speaks so well. His sound bites don’t need editing, and help produce a good radio or television product. It also means that there is a certain power behind the words, because of his confidence with the language. To hear him answer a question in English compared to Zuma answering in English is to hear almost different worlds. This obviously works massively to his advantage in the English media.

However, he pales in comparison with perhaps the best, most powerful speaker of the language in our political sphere. Which – and you knew this already – is Julius Malema. What he has, which very few other people have, is the ability to short-circuit difficult, complicated issues, into a ten-second English sound bite. He is in a class of his own, and would rank up there with many people who have far more experience than him in the language in the UK or the US. It is, frankly, a gift.

The power with which he speaks helps to give him political power, he gives the impression that he sincerely and utterly believes what he is saying, and that there can be no argument against him. It is a mistake here to confuse volume with power. Malema does speak loudly, yes, but he also speaks with a resonance that most preachers would envy. It is a natural talent (unless you believe the conspiracy theory that he is controlled by Zuma and was sent for voice lessons at the Wits Drama Department), and when he speaks, all of his resonators work. It’s about lung capacity, the ability to make your voice use your entire body, and not just your throat.

In political speech terms, it is the difference between Pavarotti and Right Said Fred.

All of this adds up to give him a power in the media beyond that which he actually holds in political fact. This also explains why he is given so much airtime. It’s not just about the radical ideas, it’s also about the fact that he simply delivers a good product that people will listen to. And yes, that is a critique of the media from a member of the media, and from someone who has interviewed Malema many times, perhaps partly for this reason.

Speaking of preachers, Mmusi Maimane has a speaking style that Martin Luther King would enjoy: powerful, energetic, righteous indignation when necessary, and of course, the ability to speak in a way that resonates with urban constituencies. Sometimes I think the real power of Maimane is not that he speaks like the people in Meadowlands do (he doesn’t really); it’s that he sparks aspiration.

And then there’s Helen Zille, the leader of the DA and Western Cape Premier. It is common, and sexist, to immediately make comparisons to Margaret Thatcher. Certainly she has a relatively deep voice, with strong resonance. That helps make her sound more powerful. The sound bites flow easily, but give the impression of having been thought through, which is perhaps more powerful in her constituency.

As a matter of interest, possibly one of the reasons that Mamphela Ramphele got so much media attention before crumbling into a humiliated heap at the elections may well have been because of the way she sounds. The media latched on to her rather than, say, the African Independent Congress (which won more votes than she did) partly because of this. She had a clarity of speech that made her attractive to the people who make these editorial decisions.

It is absolutely true that how you speak English matters in our society. Indeed, Zuma may actually be the last president we have for generations who is not a hundred percent proficient in political speech-giving English. We should probably try to disregard this aspect of his make-up when judging him, as we do so often. And we should consider mourning the other political talent that is out there, that will never see the light of day, because of this one disadvantage. That said, English is likely to continue to dominate our communication channels for some time, and thus our political thought as well. It may not be fair, but it is as well that our politicians know how to navigate it. DM

Acknowledgements: The Daily Maverick

Athambile Matola: The politics of speaking English well

While reading Stephen Grootes’ article, “The politics of navigating the English Language”, I became increasingly annoyed. In a country with 11 official languages why are we overly concerned with how well people speak English?

Grootes’ article looks at prominent political leaders and how they fair when presenting themselves in English. The unintended consequence of writing such an article is that Grootes appears to be an elocution “Nazi” rather than a journalist concerned with the sound bites he struggles editing. Moreover, he comes across as a conservative English-speaker who has been appointed by the Queen of England to keep tabs on the natives when they use the borrowed language. The article seems to be making the argument that in political life, how one speaks English really matters. Also, if one is looking to capture the attention of voters in urban settings, they need to “speak well”.

The truth is, speaking well is not only about what happens in political circles and it not only matters for politicians, it matters for everybody. Unfortunately, thanks to the colonial backlash, our definition of what it means to speak well is limited by the obsession we have with English: that if one speaks English, you must speak it well. Surely, in a South African context, speaking well should be more about how multilingual one is rather than a focus on one language, English. Articles such as the one Grootes wrote perpetuate English hegemony.

Focusing on how English is spoken in a country like South Africa seems disingenuous. By now it should be common knowledge that most South Africans do not speak English as a first or even second language (which Grootes rightly points out). And that’s okay. Black people should not be policed about how well or when they speak English because they have an arsenal of other languages they can whip out at any point in their daily life. The obsession with English overshadows the real conversation that should make any kind of monolingualism abhorrent. What should matter is not how well you speak English but rather, how many languages you can speak (or at least understand).

As an English teacher, I have the awkward job of teaching English and often being the elocution Nazi in my classroom when learners present orals. But because I am able to speak and understand more than one language, I can afford to be a self-righteous English teacher because when I begin my lessons I tell my students am I first and foremost a language speaker rather than an English teacher. Therefore my classes are about teaching English while foregrounding the context of a multilingual context. So in teaching English I am able to use other languages in my teaching and use examples from other languages to enhance what is being taught in the classroom (and often ridicule how silly English rules are because there is always the exception to the rule).

I am not naïve about the power English has over the way we think and communicate in our daily lives. I know that many parents send their children to English-speaking schools and are often proud when their little ones come home one day to declare that they will no longer be speaking their mother-tongue because their teacher insists that they speak only English if they are to be proficient in the language. This is a very complex situation because much has been said about children’s ability to navigate many languages at a young age rather than obliterating their mother tongue in the name of English proficiency.

This obsession with speaking well is also about our warped sense of success and what Grootes cites as aspiration (in relation to Mmusi Maimane) in his article. English is more than just a language. It is seen as part of the package of success. People aspire for many things and on that list is the language of success, English. And unfortunately, in a globalising context, English has its limitations, but more importantly, monolingualism has its limitations. Many argue that English is the language of commerce, and no-one disputes that, but the example in China and countries with a market for learning English will show that “speaking well” isn’t necessarily at the top of the list. Speaking English is important, but the accent should not be the defining factor.

The obsession with “speaking well” smacks of snobbery, is potentially racist and an uncritical view of what language really means in our daily lives. It is also about pointing fingers at “brown people” who may have other languages or dialects and constantly reminding them that they are not meeting the standard of speaking well. The obsession also undermines the languages that other people speak. As I’ve already pointed out, why is it more important to speak English well, above speaking isiZulu well? And that’s not only for President Jacob Zuma but for everyone who speaks another language other than English. Grootes’ article is very disappointing. It highlights the media’s role in undermining African languages and being complicit in the English hegemony that takes place. Grootes points out that he works for radio, an English-dominated, or more appropriately an English-only radio station, that prides itself on covering important political stories. There are very few multilingual radio stations or radio stations with presenters who allow listeners to use other languages when calling into a show and more importantly, allow for serious political discussion to take place in a language that isn’t English. This is unacceptable.

If politics and political life is about people (at its most basic level) then there should be a demand (especially in the media) that speaking well means being multilingual rather than speaking English to meet some arbitrary standard of “speaking well”. Multilingualism is about people and recognising the truth about language and how we use it in our daily lives, whether one is a prominent political figure or not.


To read the comments on Matola’s article, click here.


Long-term vocabulary benefits from ‘reading for pleasure’ in childhood

06 November 2014

Reading for pleasure during childhood has a substantial influence on a person’s vocabulary 30 years later. Researchers at the Institute of Education (IOE) have reached this conclusion after studying the vocabulary test scores of more than 9,400 British people at the ages of 10, 16 and 42.

Their statistical analysis showed that those who had regularly read for pleasure at 10 scored 67 per cent in the age 42 vocabulary test, whereas infrequent childhood readers scored only 51 per cent.

Regular readers tended to come from more advantaged families and also had higher vocabulary scores at ages 10 and 16. But even after these factors were taken into account there was still a 9 percentage point gap in vocabulary scores at age 42 between those who were either frequent or infrequent readers in their youth. (See foot of this press release for examples of the type of vocabulary questions asked.)

“The long-term influence of reading for pleasure on vocabulary that we have identified may well be because the frequent childhood readers continued to read throughout their twenties and thirties,” say the researchers, Alice Sullivan and Matt Brown. “In other words, they developed ‘good’ reading habits in childhood and adolescence that they have subsequently benefited from.”

The IOE study also confirmed that what people chose to read as adults mattered as much as how often they read – in terms of the effect on vocabulary scores at 42.The greatest improvements between ages 16 and 42 were made by readers of ‘highbrow’ fiction.

The researchers found — again after taking into account social backgrounds and vocabulary scores in childhood — that those who read such novels scored 5 percentage points higher in the age 42 test than people who did not read literary fiction as adults. The vocabulary gains linked to reading factual books were smaller than those for fiction.

The researchers, who analysed data gathered by the 1970 British Cohort Study, also found that:
• Readers of quality newspapers (including online versions) made more progress in vocabulary than people who did not read newspapers, while readers of popular tabloids actually made slightly less progress than those who never read newspapers.
• Graduates of elite (Russell Group) universities appeared to have different reading preferences from graduates of other universities. For example, almost half (48%) of the Russell Group graduates surveyed said they liked to read ‘contemporary literary fiction’, compared to only 30 per cent of other graduates.
• Overall, reading was a popular pastime at age 42.Just over one in four people (26%) said they read books for pleasure every day, and a further 13 per cent said they did so several times a week.

“A number of these findings are intriguing,” said Professor Sullivan. “It was interesting, for example, to find that readers of tabloid newspapers did less well in the age 42 vocabulary tests than those who didn’t take a newspaper. This is, however, in line with our previous work which showed that the presence of tabloid newspapers in the home during childhood was linked to poor cognitive attainment at age 16.”

It is, however, the different reading preferences of graduates of elite universities and less highly-ranked higher education institutions that were perhaps most surprising. “The differences in their choice of books were striking,” Professor Sullivan commented. “Their newspaper choices were also dissimilar. Well over half (56%) of the Russell Group graduates read only broadsheets, compared to 34 per cent of other graduates.”

The vocabulary scores of the two groups of graduates were quite different too – at both 16 and 42. Russell Group graduates scored 70 per cent at age 16 and 81 per cent at age 42. The scores of graduates of other universities were lower at both ages (63% at 16 and 73% at 42).

“It seems that broad educational categories can mask important differences,” Professor Sullivan said. “Reading highbrow fiction could be an expression of social status for some people, but it is also likely that highly able and educated people prefer intellectually stimulating material.”

The new research builds on previous work that Sullivan and Brown have done which showed that reading for pleasure was linked to intellectual development up to age 16, especially in vocabulary but also for mathematics. “We have now shown – for the first time, we believe — that reading for pleasure, both in childhood and adulthood, has a positive impact on the vocabulary of people in their early forties,” Professor Sullivan said.

Vocabulary from adolescence to middle-age, by Alice Sullivan and Matt Brown, is the latest working paper to be published by the IOE’s Centre for Longitudinal Studies, which is an Economic and Social Research Council Resource Centre. It will be available from the CLS website from 9am on November 6). An article on this research will appear in Longitudinal and Life Course Studies at the beginning of next year.

Further information:

David Budge
0207 911 5349
07881 415362

Meghan Rainsberry
020 7612 6530

Notes for editors:

1. The 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70) is following the lives of more than 17,000 people born in England, Scotland and Wales in a single week of 1970. Over the course of cohort members’ lives, the BCS70 has collected information on health, physical, educational and social development, and economic circumstances, among other factors. Since the birth survey in 1970, there have been eight surveys at ages 5, 10, 16, 26, 30, 34, 38 and 42. Professor Alice Sullivan is the director of the study.
2. At age 16, vocabulary was assessed using a 75-item test where each item was a word followed by a list of five other words and the respondent was required to pick the one with the same meaning as the first word.  The measure included at age 42 is a shortened 20-item version of the test used at 16 (see example test questions below).
3. The paper self-completion questionnaire at age 42 asked the BCS70 respondents ‘How often do you read books in your spare time, not for work or study (including in electronic format)?’. They were then asked about the types of fiction – and factual books – they usually read. Each of these questions was followed by a list of genres taken from standard bookshop section classifications.
4. In total, 594 of the BCS70 members surveyed at age 42 had a Russell Group degree (6% of the sample) and 1,874 had a non-Russell Group degree (20% of the sample).
5. The Russell Group represents 24 leading UK universities which are committed to maintaining the very best research, an outstanding teaching and learning experience and unrivalled links with business and the public sector.
6. The research reported in this press release included the University of Bath and the University of St Andrews in the ‘elite’ category as they have been as highly selective as Russell Group Institutions.
7. The Institute of Education is a world-leading university specialising in education and the social sciences. Founded in 1902, the Institute currently has more than 7,000 students and 800 staff. In the 2014 QS World University Rankings, the Institute was ranked number one for education worldwide. It has been shortlisted in the ‘University of the Year’ category of the 2014 Times Higher Education (THE) awards. In January 2014, the Institute was recognised by Ofsted for its ‘outstanding’ initial teacher training across primary, secondary and further education. In the most recent Research Assessment Exercise two-thirds of the publications that the IOE submitted were judged to be internationally significant and over a third were judged to be ‘world leading’.
8. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funds research into the big social and economic questions facing us today. It also develops and trains the UK’s future social scientists. Its research informs public policies and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government.

This is the type of vocabulary test given to members of the 1970 British Cohort Study:

Pair the word in the left-hand column with one of the five other words on the same line that has a very similar meaning

typical          several           common           obvious          ancient          absurd

pellucid        clear               humane            shallow          credible         opposed

cerebral       vegetal           textured             fruitful            brainy             new

formidable   industrial       disillusioned      powerful        inequitable    complex

turbulent      frightening      stormy               steep             deep               trustworthy

ascertain    erase               hurt                    confess         conquer          discover

grotesque    gargantuan    monstrous        flowery           innocuous      dance

devout         chaste             crazy                 committed     impious          lather

languid         emotional      clever                carnal             relaxed           heretic

hirsute          cunning          erudite              manly             elegant            hairy



17 October 5 things you didn’t know about your accent



13 June Words known by men and women

3 June Nike or Nikey? 10 of the most popular mispronounced brands


30 April The Bad Grammar awards are prize stupidity

11 April Does grammar make you tense?

10 April Teacher corrects student’s grammar following expletive-ridden letter


31 March How changing its font to Garamond could save the US government $370m

26 March The Telegraph | Speak plainly : are we losing the war against jargon?

20 March Bad grammar spotted by readers

14 March Which English?  One that promotes understanding between countries and cultures

11 March 8 pronunciation errors that made the English language what it is today


Gimson’s Pronunciation of English, 8th edn


31 January 2014 No English word for that? Make up your own, like Shakespeare.  Or steal one.

27 January Would you employ someone with poor spelling or grammar?

24 January Campaigners wield marker pens in war against punctuation cull



31 December 2013 : It’s time to challenge the notion that there’s only one way to speak English

4 November 2013 Why H is the most contentious letter in the alphabet

7 Nov 2013

Rosen Alphabetical 1311

Michael Rosen | Alphabetical : How Every Letter Tells a Story | John Murray 9781848548862 | £8.99 |

From minding your Ps and Qs to wondering why X should mark the spot, Alphabetical is a book for everyone who loves words and language. Whether it’s how letters are arranged on keyboards or Viking runes, textspeak or zip codes, this book will change the way you think about letters for ever.  READ MORE

22 October 2013 An A – Z of modern office jargon

20 September 2013 Isn’t there a computer program for that?

13 August 2013 Have we literally broken the English language?

9 May 2013 Grammar rules everyone should follow

25 April 2013 10 of the worst examples of management-speak

20 April 2013 : Is it wrong for a person to change their accent?

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