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Review of  World Englishes

Reviewer: Emilia Kirilova Slavova
Book Title: World Englishes
Book Author: Mario Saraceni
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Anthropological Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 27.764

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


World Englishes: A Critical Analysis by Mario Saraceni is an illuminating, thought-provoking and very readable book on a topic that has become highly relevant in recent years in language studies and language teaching: the multitude of Englishes spoken around the world, the subversive nature of world Englishes as opposed to a monolithic, standard, ‘native’ version of English; and the implications for learners of English around the globe.

The book is organized into an Introduction and four parts, exploring World Englishes (WE) from four different perspectives: History, Language, Ideology, and Pedagogy. The four parts are further divided into short, well focused sections and subsections, and take the reader through a journey of exploration of a fascinating linguistic topic. The book does not rely on the analysis of a substantial linguistic corpus; instead, the four parts give an extensive summary and critical evaluation of research conducted in each area, with some illuminating examples from various sources to prove the author’s points and clearly articulated positions on each topic.


The Introduction presents the aims of the book and contextualizes the main theme within previous research on World Englishes, tracing the way the research paradigm has developed in recent decades to reflect how the understanding of language in general, and of the English language in particular, has changed. This calls for a different approach to language, which sees “boundaries – between languages, sexes, nationalities, rules” – as only existing in the mind and challenging to be trespassed (p. xi). The fluidity and hybridity of languages is further highlighted by the statement that “Languages don’t exist alongside each other, but merge, blend, mesh, coalesce into a symbiosis where traditional labels struggle to find a place.” (p. xi).

Starting as a revolutionary, anti-establishment, paradigm-shifting philosophy which developed in the 1980s to challenge traditional monolithic ideas about the English language, the research field of WE has been superseded by other theories and is in need of updating and revamping, Saraceni claims, in order to restore its initial subversiveness and vigor. Saraceni makes a somewhat (admittedly) simplified distinction between two major views of language: language-as-system (or langue, in Saussure’s langue/parole distinction) and language-as-social-practice, taken in its socio-cultural context (after Halliday, 1978). His approach to language, clearly pronounced and maintained throughout the volume, sides with the latter. It sees language as being in a state of perpetual flux, contextually negotiated, integrated within social action, and tied to individual situations rather than to a particular community with clearly delineated borders (p. 15).

PART ONE. HISTORY is divided into Old Englishes and New Englishes, each taking a historical approach to the English language in its many varieties and forms. After analysing popular metaphorical representations of the development of English (English as a moveable physical object; English as a living organism; English as part of a family tree, and so on), Mario Saraceni questions the ideological baggage of each of those metaphors. The linguonym ‘Old English’ is also put to the test (p. 25): on what grounds, the author asks, is the use of the name English justified regarding a language that has very little in common with 21st-century English? To what extent can we talk of a single language, ‘Old English’, in the absence of strong processes of linguistic standardization? A number of examples from ancient texts show substantial code-switching, language mixing and hybridity (p. 25). Instead of the mainstream narrative of the continuous development of English through time, Saraceni offers an alternative story and demonstrates how ‘Old English’ is ideologically constructed in order to suggest continuity and historicity at a particular period in British history, namely, the nineteenth century. This alternative narrative challenges the concept of Old English as a monolithic, homogeneous entity which gradually morphs into present-day English, and offers instead a story in which history and linguistics merge with ideology in the creation of ‘a language’.

The next chapter looks at New Englishes. They are first contextualized within two types of colonization: settler colonization and exploitation colonization. As a result of the first, local languages (and people) are displaced, and we have several varieties of English considered native and used in (almost) all social domains in the countries in the Inner Circle, in Kachru’s terms (Kachru 1983). In the second type of colonization, local languages survive, but are often demoted to lower status compared to English. These are the Outer Circle countries, where English is often a (co-)official language with unequal distribution across the population. In addition, there are the Expanding Circle countries, where English is spoken mostly as a lingua franca – a shared means of communication between non-native speakers. In exploring the ‘prehistory’ of World Englishes, Saraceni observes that probably the first recorded appearance of the term in the plural dates back to 1910 with reference to American English. Concerns voiced today, about whether WE adulterate or enrich the English language, were expressed with reference to American English a century ago. The next section looks at postcolonial writers and their efforts to decolonize the English language, to claim ownership and change it in ways that reflect their own individuality and culture. “The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use,” world-famous Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe is quoted as saying (p. 65). The post-colonial writers’ perspective offers an enlightening enmeshing between literary writing and linguistics and outlines the intellectual background against which WE theory came into being.

PART TWO. LANGUAGE is divided into two chapters. The first one, Understanding World Englishes, gives a very useful overview of the development of the field of WE since the 1970s, while contextualizing it within earlier writing on the topic. The origin of the field is identified to be in 1976, with an article by Braj Kachru in the TESOL Quarterly (Kachru 1976). While similar ideas could be heard previously (e.g. Halliday et al. 1964), they were met with fierce criticism and described as ‘heresy’ (Prator 1968). Quirk (1985, 1990) is another influential voice in favour of keeping English as uniform as possible so as to facilitate international communication. This now ‘classic’ debate about world Englishes may be a debate about singularity and plurality on the surface, Saraceni claims, but essentially, it is a debate about (in-)equality (p. 77). Next Saraceni explores the difficulty in reconciling the idea of different Englishes with that of equal Englishes. How different is a variety allowed to be in order to be considered a variety of English and not another language altogether? When is a departure seen as ‘error’ and when is it a ‘feature’ of one of the many varieties of English? An example with Singaporean English further clarifies the question posed and point made. Challenging a concept such as ‘Singaporean English’, Mario Saraceni discusses the wide variety of Englishes within this broad term and explores some old and new models for accounting for those differences: the continuum, diglossia and poliglossia models (the old ones); and the cultural orientation and indexicality models (the new ones, accounting for more complex types of variation and assigning a greater role to individual choice, pp. 84-85). In questioning the treatment of varieties as departures from British or American English, Saraceni is critical of the procedure which he calls the ‘spot the difference’ approach, typical of much WE research which focuses on the differences between new Englishes and English as a native language (ENL) and proposes a new approach, dealt with in the following chapter.

The chapter, aptly called Untidying Englishes, is a bold attempt to disconnect WE from Standard English (SE) by “cutting the umbilical cord with the ancestral home” (p. 108), offering a radical switch from a view of language as a closed system with pre-fixed boundaries to a view of language as social practice, as drawing from a range of shared linguistic repertoires (p. 117). This shift in perspective makes popular sociolinguistic concepts such a code-switching and borrowing seem inadequate, and names of language varieties such as ‘Thai English’ even more so, as they presuppose homogeneity and boundedness. Exploring the notion of hybridity, Saraceni draws on Otsui and Pennycook (2013) to make a point that it is not that languages exist in isolation and become hybrid as they come in contact with each other, but rather the other way round: hybridity is the default state, while the separation and boundedness of languages is emergent and the result of human effort at categorization and uniformity (p. 123). Thus, the traditional view of the existence of distinct varieties of WE is seen as essentialist, assuming clearly defined national frames; it is consistent with the 18th and 19th century nation-state ideology which also inspired the new discipline of linguistics at the time (p. 127). So, Saraceni maintains, in order to make a radical reconceptualization of dated paradigms, a World Englishes philosophy needs to acknowledge the fact that “monolingualism and language purism are political products of European nationalism and are ideologically very close to concepts of racial purity,” while also taking into account “forms of hybridity, translanguaging, metrolingualism and truncated repertoires resulting from global cultural flows, mobility and super-diversity in the twenty-first century” (p. 129).

PART THREE. IDEOLOGY consists of a single chapter, dealing with the influential theory of linguistic imperialism (Phillipson 1992), which highlights the direct link between the spread of the English language and British imperialism, recently replaced by American imperialism and its global spread through international trade, popular culture and technology. Saraceni remains skeptical about the stronger claims of the theory and provides an overview of the most popular responses to it: the ‘agency’ response; the ‘linguistic determinism’ response; and the ‘appropriation’ response. Posing the question “Who owns English?” Saraceni challenges another metaphor of language, that of ‘language is property.’ The ownership and appropriation of English, he contends, and the right to subvert its rules, are in the hands of speakers of English, rather than professional linguists. He then comes up with the notion of ‘open-source English’ in which, similar to the development of software, a language can be treated as property of the developer, but it can also be developed collaboratively and made publicly available, encouraging people to freely modify the code. And the place where this open-source concept can be fostered, the location where the English language can finally be uncoupled from England in the minds of the learners is, undoubtedly, education. This is the topic of the next, final part of the book.

PART FOUR. PEDAGOGY discusses the teaching of World Englishes, and also serves as a conclusion to the whole book by outlining the applications of the study of World Englishes in the area of English language teaching. The part seeks to answer the following questions, taking into consideration the new ideas developed about WE in recent decades and the pluralization of English into Englishes:
Which models of English should be taught?
Who should be teaching English?
What is the role of culture in English language teaching and how can we avoid the dangers of cultural and linguistic imperialism?

After discussing two particular sociolinguistic and pedagogical landscapes, of Singapore and Malaysia, Saraceni demonstrates that in spite of decades of research into WE and sociolinguistic interest in local varieties, educational authorities are still interested in promoting a variety based on the Anglo-American standard. This leads to a preference for ‘native’ speakers to the disadvantage of local teachers and is seen as detrimental to the ELT profession. Moreover, ‘nativeness’ often correlates with ‘whiteness.’ In a section on (non)native speakers, Saraceni sums up a number of questions challenging the myth of the linguistic superiority of the ‘native’ speaker – a myth which creates very real discrimination in the ELT job market. To counter these negative effects, Mario Saraceni draws on Kachru’s (1992) suggestions: providing students with a sociolingistic awareness about the world context of English, its major varieties and its users and uses in monolingual and multilingual societies; exposure to the repertoire of major varieties of English; focusing on the teaching of one specific variety but developing attitudinal neutrality and awareness of the functional validity of other varieties; exploring the functional appropriateness of varieties within a single variety of English; exploring the pragmatic conventions, discoursal and stylistic innovations and multidimensionality of functions in various linguistic contexts. In other words, as Saraceni sums it up, there should be less emphasis on ‘models’ of English and the need to codify them, and more focus on attitude and awareness.


World Englishes: a Critical Analysis is an intelligent, provocative and original approach to a topic that has been widely explored in recent decades. As clearly stated in the Introduction, Mario Saraceni sets out to update an anti-establishment, revolutionary philosophy that has gone slightly out of date and has been superseded by more recent theories; his ambition to offer a fresh approach to World Englishes, taking into account the new sociolinguistic realities that English has found itself in, is clearly observed throughout the text. The book presents an overview of major writing in the area of WE and related linguistic fields, delving into the interplay between history, ideology, linguistic theory and foreign language pedagogy.

One of the definite advantages of the book is its clear language, its lively and engaging style of writing and the variety of illuminating examples which illustrate the arguments of the author. While there is no robust and homogeneous linguistic corpus on which the theoretical discussion rests, there are multiple references to other studies and examples from contemporary online communication, Old English texts and runic inscriptions, historical documents, literary texts, graphic representations of word frequency change through time and computer-generated word concordances. Some of the examples are extremely recent, such as the 2014 Russian – Ukrainian conflict, or the March 2014 decision of Gambia to stop using ‘colonial relic’ English.

This ‘recentness’ has its downsides, however: a number of minor typos occurring throughout the text reveal that there was not much time left for final editing and polishing. This may also (perhaps) be the reason for the lack of a proper conclusion, which could have summed up and brought together the ideas from the four parts. As it is, the book ends somewhat abruptly and unexpectedly. However, the clear structure, the separate introductions and conclusions to each of the four parts, as well as the keywords and Key Reading section make it particularly well organized and easy to follow, and definitely appropriate for students of linguistics and sociolinguistics. The ideas explored would also be of interest to, and will hopefully reach, not only researchers, but also language teachers, teacher trainers and policy makers.

In terms of the linguistic claims made, I find some of them to be slightly stronger than I would be happy to embrace myself, but this provocative approach is necessary in order to achieve the objectives set, namely, to offer a subversive account of English and a critical analysis of linguistic theories. In particular, I would argue with the strong form of the view that language is a social practice and not a system; it can be both, and it largely depends on whether we agree that ‘language’ is what people use in the street to communicate, or what linguists have described in normative reference sources. For years, linguists have focused on ‘langue’ and dismissed ‘parole’, but there is no reason why we should reverse the fallacy and dismiss the systematic aspect of language (which, although an abstraction, does have material existence in the prescriptive, linguistic and language teaching literature).

Regarding the intention to disconnect World Englishes from Standard English, it is evident from this critical analysis that it would be extremely difficult to agree on an alternative variety to be shared by all speakers, native and non-native. So this could also answer the question posed by ELF researchers looking for shared features and trying to codify them into a single stable variety. It is virtually impossible to agree on a single variety to suit all. What we could do instead is keep using (some form of) Standard English as a shared point of reference, while expanding our awareness about language and its countless variations, its hybrid and unbounded nature, its resistance to systematization and homogenization, and the fact that it is shared by all and possessed by none.

In conclusion, I would strongly recommend the book to anyone interested in the English language and the wider context in which it functions--in modern language teaching approaches, in critical pedagogy and in developing not only knowledge and skills, but also an enlightened attitude towards the fascinating and very complex phenomenon that we have agreed to call English.


Blommaert, J. 2010. A sociolinguistics of globalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Halliday, M. A. K. 1978. Language as social semiotic: The social interpretation of language and meaning. London: Edward Arnold.

Halliday, M. A. K. et al. 1964. The linguistic sciences and language teaching. London: Longmans.

Kachru, B. B. 1976. “Models of English for the third world: White man’s linguistic burden or language pragmatics? TESOL Quarterly, 10(2), 221-239.

Kachru, B. B. 1983. Models of new Englishes. In J. Cobbarubias & J. A. Fishman (Eds), Progress in language planning: International perspectives, 145-170. Berlin: Mouton

Kachru, B. B. 1992. Teaching World Englishes. In B. B. Kachru (Ed.): The other tongue: English across cultures (Second edn.,pp. 355-365). Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Otsui, E. and Pennycook, A. 2013. Unremarkable hybridities and metrolingual practices. In R. Rubdy and A. Alsagoff (Eds), The global-local interface and hybridity. (pp. 83-99). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Phillipson, R. 1992. Linguistic imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Prator, C. H. 1968. The British heresy in TESL. In J. Fishman, C. Fergusson and J. Das Gupta (Eds), Language problems of developing nations. (pp. 459-476). London: Wiley.

Quirk, R. 1985. The English language in a global context. In R. Quirk and H. G. Widdowson (Eds), English in the world: Teaching and learning the language and literatures. (pp. 1-6). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Quirk, R. 1990. Language varieties and standard language. English Today 6(1), 3-10.
Dr. Emilia Slavova is a Senior Assistant Professor at the Department of English and American Studies at the University of Sofia, Bulgaria. Her doctoral dissertation is on politeness across cultures, with a specific focus on English and Bulgarian. Research interests and courses taught include English language and culture, sociolinguistics, politeness theories, politeness in a cross-cultural and in a historical perspective, communication skills, intercultural communication, critical discourse analysis, language and cultural diversity, varieties of English, English as a lingua franca, Multicultural London English.

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