Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. Juni 2004

6.1. Standardvariationen und Sprachauffassungen in verschiedenen Sprachkulturen | Standard Variations and Conceptions of Language in Various Language Cultures
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Rudolf Muhr (Universität Graz)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Of course it's English, it's in the dictionary!:
Global English, Standard English, and the challenge to the English historical lexicographer

Jennie Price (Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press)



This paper considers Global English in relation to Standard English - or the Standard Englishes - and the challenge that recording it presents to the historical lexicographer. It examines some definitions of Global English, and attitudes of 'native speakers' towards Global English, its users, and its effects on 'their' language, are discussed. The Oxford English Dictionary is often considered to be the definitive historical record of the English language. How far can it - or should it - hope to go in recording Global English? Changes in the style and content of the Dictionary which reflect the rise of Global English and the New Englishes are examined, with particular consideration given to the Online Edition.


It seems hardly more than a truism today to speak of English as the global lingua franca, the language of international communication. Much has been written over the past thirty years, especially in the last ten, about this phenomenon: its history, its political, cultural, and linguistic implications, and possible future developments(1). Yet what exactly do we mean, in this context, by 'English'? The British Council's website proudly announces that 'the English language is the UK's biggest export success story'(2). It does appear, from David Crystal's model at least, that a large part of the world's Englishes derive from British English. In 2000, David Blunkett, then British Education and Employment Secretary, told British business leaders to capitalize on their advantage as native English speakers.(3) But how far is this in fact an advantage? Can a British English speaker communicate more effectively with a speaker of one of the New Englishes as another ESL speaker can? Larry Smith (1983: v) goes so far as to say that 'native English speakers should study English as an international language if they plan to interact in English with non-native speakers or with other native speakers who use a different national variety'. This seems a little extreme, but the underlying point is that each of these Englishes is a distinct variety in its own right, and contains much that is not wholly or readily intelligible to a speaker of another variety.

The American Services in Asia organization addresses the issue from the point of view of an American company attempting to break into the Asian markets. It offers an example of American English:

'Users pick what they like from a wide variety of fun looks and music styles and Style Finder returns product suggestions based on individual preferences. Which is just the right feature for users who want what works.'(4)

and 'denationalizes' it, removing the idioms and colloquialisms which a non-native speaker might find difficult to understand:

'Users choose what they like from a wide variety of attractive clothing displays and music styles. The Style Finder then returns product suggestions based on their individual preferences. This convenient feature is exactly what online shoppers want.'

This, they announce, is Global English -- 'smoother sentence structure, fewer idioms, less jargon'. Perhaps it suffices simply to describe this as Standard English. Indeed, the earliest sense of world English, recorded in the OED from 1927, is just that: 'Standard English'. Dictionaries usually define Standard English as the most widely accepted 'correct' or 'educated' form of the language, which seems true of the example above. The colloquial vocabulary and grammatical structure employed in the American English example are certainly not Standard English. However, it is not quite enough to describe Global English, in this context, as a standard variety of English. Two further issues have to be taken into account: simplicity and denationalization.

The idea of creating a simple, easily learnable variety of English is of course nothing new. Perhaps the most notable attempt is that of Charles Ogden, who proposed his 'Basic English', with a core vocabulary of 850 words, in 1929. It has continued to have its supporters, although has never achieved the widespread success that was originally predicted. Today's advocates of his system are updating the vocabulary to include words from the new technologies and media of the 21st century.(5) The creation of an English such as this is usually based on a national, native-speaker standard. Which standard should be used, however, is a matter for debate. As we have seen, it would appear that the majority of the New Englishes can trace their development directly back to the British variety. However, it takes only a brief look at the vocabulary of the new technologies -- the spelling of computer program and floppy disk for example, to show us that in many ways the American standard is more influential than the British. This unlikely to cause much of a problem in communication, but it does introduce an element of choice in teaching and learning -- in pronunciation, in spelling, and in certain semantic pairs such as pavement and sidewalk -- which, it might be argued, counteracts the desire for simplicity. In any case, of course, by and large languages are not created, but evolve, to meet the needs of a particular speech community. It is possible that Global English, as it evolves, will contain elements of both the major standards, as well as a simplified lexicogrammatical structure which may appear alien to a native speaker; and as such, be easier for a non-native speaker to use than a native one. Speakers of newer Englishes are likely to be more adept at adapting their speech to a simple, neutralized form of English tailor-made for international communication than native speakers are. Wu Jing-Yu (quoted in Pennycook (1994: 176)) notes that native speakers are prone to 'labeling expressions that are unfamiliar to them as 'not English'. This unwillingness to accept a deviation from one's own standard is another reason why a native speaker is often at a disadvantage in using English as a tool of international communication.

These issues are important when we are considering English as a commodity and an economic tool; as a language that is taught and learned and as a standard global lingua franca that is created from the vast pool of available English. This pure, condensed, 'Global English' is the language which is also known as English as an International Language, English as Lingua Franca, and World Standard English, among other terms. I'd like to mention very briefly another English which is commonly available, which we might call 'mass-market' English. This is the English as used in Internet chatrooms, popular music, television, and film. This English is not sanitized, simplified, and denationalized, but it is available to a global audience via a shared global culture and must necessarily have an effect on the choices made in speaking and using English in certain registers. Much of this language of course derives from colloquial American English and is another reason why the American standard is likely to prevail. (Much of this language is of course taken up into other varieties so comprehensively as to be considered only originally American in nature.) This mass-market English can perhaps be considered as global colloquial English, standing beside the standard, to be used as an alternative to native language or regional variety colloquialisms when desired.

Crystal (1988:10) notes that 'while all mother-tongue speakers inevitably feel a modicum of pride and relief that it is their language which is succeeding, there is also an element of concern, as they see what happens to the language as it spreads around the world'. This attitude of concern may derive partly from the influence of mass-market English. It is, however, debatable whether in fact such concern still exists outside a certain educated British elite. Certainly, the acceptable standard vocabulary is expanding: in revising OED entries for the Third Edition, editors often find themselves 'downgrading' a slang label to a colloquial one, or removing a colloquial one altogether. On the whole, we seem to be embracing the influence of other varieties of English on our language. Another common use of the term use of the term Global English, or World English, is in referring to English as spoken in any or all of the outer or expanding circle varieties. 'World English' words are one of the first things the media look for in the publication of a new dictionary, and there is a great deal of interest in such vocabulary from the general public, to the extent that dictionary editors must beware of including such terms for the sake of novelty alone. How far this public interest represents a change in the attitude noted by Wu above is open to question, but it would seem to be encouraging.

The response of a historical dictionary of English to this phenomenon can only be, as ever, to describe it as comprehensively and as accurately as resources allow. However, it is neither necessary nor possible for such a dictionary to contain every word from every variety of English: much of such vocabulary belongs in a regional dictionary. Most of the major varieties of English are well served by excellent historical dictionaries of their own, such as the Australian National Dictionary and the Dictionary of South African English on Historical Principles. The challenge is to select only those World English words and phrases which are the most common, or important, in their varieties, and especially those which are found to have spread further. This is not as simple as it may sound, as it requires lexicographers firstly to gather the appropriate evidence. As well as consulting regional historical dictionaries such as those mentioned above, editors can draw on a database compiled from the OED's Reading Programme, which includes literature written in or by speakers of many of the new Englishes, as well as newspapers and magazines from around the English-speaking world.(6) It is often frustrating, however, to find that (for example) the South China Post, or the Hindu Times, is written in impeccable Standard English, and contains little of the local vocabulary that is sought.

Dictionaries must be careful that what they include is truly part of the English language, of course, and it is sometimes difficult to be sure where code-switching ends and borrowing begins, or where a following gloss is provided because the term is not considered English, or because it is not considered Standard English. There should be a distinction between a word borrowed from another language into (Standard) English, such as the Indian spice mix masala, and a word from another language which forms a true part of another variety of English, such as the Indian English figurative use of masala in the sense 'pep, vigour', which has not (as yet) been recorded in other varieties.

It is equally as important, of course, for a historical dictionary of English to 'denationalize' its editorial text as far as is reasonably possible. The Third Edition of the OED records both British and American standard pronunciations, and includes a standard American spelling alongside the British ne where they differ. Neutrality in definition is also sought: a term is no longer simply described as Law when Brit. Law is the appropriate label. Difference in vocabulary is dealt with, as can be seen by the definition for melongene: 'In the Caribbean, the aubergine or eggplant..'.

The English language is developing in two directions. The number of new Englishes is expanding, and, as local speech communities adapt this international tool to their own needs, each is becoming in itself more standardized. At the same time, Global English (International English, World Standard English, English as Lingua Franca, or whatever we may choose to call it) is becoming more codified, taking the most useful characteristics from its parent Englishes and forming them into a new variety with which a non-native English speaker may sometimes be more at ease than a native one. How this variety is best recorded and labelled (and by whom) is a matter for debate and research(7). We can no longer assume, as speakers of British or American English, ownership of a language which belongs to the world. To historical lexicographers of English, the challenge is to record an accurate picture of the language as it is developing overseas, in all the circles of English, adapting inclusion policy and focussing research to ensure as full a coverage as is possible. In doing this, and in neutralizing the editorial text to take account of both major standards, the needs of users of all varieties of English can be addressed, and users of inner circle English be made more aware that there are many more varieties, many more standards even, than their own.

© Jennie Price (Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press)


(1) It would be impossible even to summarize the literature in a paper of this length. Readers are directed especially toward Crystal (1997) and McArthur (2002) for background material.

(2) British Council (2003).

(3) Reported in The Observer, 29 October 2000, quoted in Seidlhofer & Jenkins (2003:140).

(4) American Services in Asia (2003).

(5) A useful introduction to the history and content of Basic English is available at

(6) For a fuller, historical description of the OED's coverage of the varieties of English, see Price, Jennie 'The Recording of Vocabulary from the Major Varieties of English in the Oxford English Dictionary' in Mair, ed. The Politics of English as a World Language (2003: 119-38)

(7) The work of Barbara Seidlhofer and Jennifer Jenkins is particularly interesting in this context.


American Services in Asia (2003): 'Global English' in Universal Web: Assistance for American Companies < web-usa.htm> 15 October 2003

British Council (2003): English Language < index.htm> 15 October 2003

Crystal, David (1997): English as a Global Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

McArthur, Tom (1998): The English Languages, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

McArthur, Tom (2002): Oxford Guide to World English. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Oxford English Dictionary (2000): 3rd ed.. John A. Simpson (Ed.): OED Online. Draft Mar.2000-Sept. 2003. Oxford University Press <>

Pennycook, Alastair (1994): The Cultural Politics of English as an International Language. London: Longman

Pennycook, Alastair (2003): Beyond Homogeny and Heterogeny. In: Mair, Christian The Politics of English as a World Language, Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi: 3-17

Seidlhofer, Barbara & Jenkins, Jennifer (2003): English as a Lingua Franca and the Politics of Property. In: Mair, Christian: The Politics of English as a World Language. Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi: 139-154

Smith, Larry E., (1983) (ed.): Readings in English as an International Language. London: Prentice Hall

6.1. Standardvariationen und Sprachauffassungen in verschiedenen Sprachkulturen | Standard Variations and Conceptions of Language in Various Language Cultures

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For quotation purposes:
Jennie Price (Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press): Of course it's English, it's in the dictionary!: Global English, Standard English, and the challenge to the English historical lexicographer. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

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