Numerous Varieties and Dialects of English Literature


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The labels Inner, Outer and Expanding circles, as first identified by Braj Kachru , represent the global spread of the English language, also the functional diversity of cultural contexts. Within the Inner circle there are countries, for example America, where English is spoken as a primary language. Inner circle English is multifunctional, transmitted through the family and maintained by governmental agencies e.g. media, school, etc., and is maintained as the language of the dominant culture. The outer circle contains countries (usually multilingual), e.g. Nigeria, that were colonised by English-speaking powers. English is typically not the language of the home, but transmitted through the school, and has become part of the country’s primary institutions.

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The outer circle is made up of what have now been identified as post-colonial countries in which English, though not the original native language, has for a significant period of time played an important role in education, government, and more recently popular culture. The use and spread of English from a cultural context that has been used within these post-colonial countries is taken from the vast body of written work or literature that when grouped together form what is commonly identified as a canon. A canon is used to denote a group of books, and, more widely, music and art, that has been influential in shaping Western culture. In this way, regardless of the exact definition of a literary canon, or the works of which it is comprised, the canon still implies an authority to works it includes.

The popularity of a literary work can be based not only on the quality, but the relevance of its subject matter to historical, social, and artistic context. A popular or respected literary work usually deals with what people are most interested in, and this interest gives credibility to whether or not the work is canonised. While the text of a literary work does not change over time, the meaning that can be taken from it by readers, and thus the attention paid to a literary work may change. As people’s thoughts and experiences alter, written material can move in and out of interest and discourse analysis. Over time, literary canons will reflect these changes, and works may be added or removed from the canon. From some of these changes other literary canons may also develop as a direct result to challenge the cultural view point of primarily western-led literature.

English literature is obviously written in the English language, however some of the writers that have contributed to the canon may not be essentially from England; as an example, Joseph Conrad was born in Poland and John Steinbeck was American. English literature can have numerous varieties and dialects as English is now commonly spoken round the world. The term typically labels departments and programmes practising English studies in secondary and tertiary instructional systems. Despite the variety of authors that contribute to the canon of English literature, the works of William Shakespeare still constantly remain authoritative to scholars throughout the English-speaking world.

The works of Shakespeare are considered some of the most expertly written and beautifully poetic in the history of literature. In addition to the quality of his work, Shakespeare is revered for his ability to portray themes of human experience in a timeless way that has continued relevancy long after his death . His influence on literature and the English language has been so significant that it is important to have an understanding of Shakespeare to be able to fully comprehend the modern world. Shakespeare’s ability to summarise the range of human emotions in simple yet profoundly eloquent verse is perhaps the greatest reason for his enduring popularity.

Shakespeare and his plays were seen as an exemplary part of English literature that typically characterised British culture. This seemingly innocent aspiration promoting a western sensibility led to British colonialism taking and using his vast array of work and utilising it to advocate a sense of superiority when promoting against the natural culture that was inherent within the country of origin being ‘Universalised’. Indian literature during the nineteenth century was led by a religious and cultural identity which was part of everyday life that in turn owed much to its Hindu heritage. While its religious legacy was characterised by its various languages this was seen by the British as a weakness due to the misunderstood complexity of its literary and linguistic diversity.

Cultural advancement by the promotion of the English language using its literary canon was seen as a passive way of development within its empirical colonies. However, from the domineering process of the ‘Hegemony of English’upon its imperialist subjects it also brought a direct threat to linguistic diversity that had a negative effect on the countries that it came into contact with. From this lack of diversity came a class system that was in total contrast to the unifying desirability of using the English canon to provide a robust educational and cultural enlightenment. The use of English became a tool in which the educated minority could attack the very system that sought to domicile their cultural practices.

Within Anglophile Africa the education of the more elite classes led to a stagnation of their own culture that in turn led to a counter culture that attacked the colonial ideas which sought to subdue native ideology. As the colonial drift across India and much of Africa halted during the mid twentieth century, this led to a reawakening by the oppressed peoples of their own literary processes that allowed them to re-examine themselves by utilising the English language to achieve two objectives. Firstly, by casting off the shroud of imperialism it allowed writers to gain a sense of place and provided a crucial step toward the cultural emancipation of Africa. These creative processes also allowed a greater body of work to flourish while exposing the subtle tensions created by the use of the English canon while promoting the start of their own literary canons that are only now recognised worldwide.

Nigerian author Chinua Achebe published his first novel to critique the distortion of Africa that is present in English canonical literature. In Things Fall Apart. Achebe introduced a character trait to the African people that previous texts did not cover. For that reason, Achebe’s text made a transformation in representing Africa and Africans with its publication. In addition, it was crucially important while uncovering and showing the world that there was already a rich and textured literary heritage. Achebe was ironically introduced to English canonical literature at University as part of his English Literature course. After reading canonical writers such as Shakespeare, including texts which were set in Africa, Achebe realised the distortion of African figures within these stories. Forming a simple perspective from reading these texts that Africans should not let other people tell their stories!

Season of Migration to the North by the Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih also shows another aspect of the realism of British colonialism seen through the experiences of its two central characters, and of his own educational experiences. They both represent two generations of the European-educated Sudanese elite through the period of pre-war domination by the British and into the early years of self-rule. The experiences of Salih himself who was an educated Sudanese from a humble rural background who went to England to study and then returned to Sudan as part of the new ruling class that Britain believed was the cultural way forward and a positive example of colonialism. He appeared to be the model Sudanese citizen, perhaps an embodiment of the ‘new Sudan’ the independent republic which was declared in 1956 in which he served as an official. However his own unnamed narrator indirectly alludes to his education as wasted as he ‘spent three years delving into the life of an obscure English poet’. As a result his education indicates that the use of the English language medium can actually foster the inequalities that it is designed to alleviate.

One of the most exciting features of English literature today is the explosion of postcolonial literature written in English based in former colonised societies. This has given rise to a range of theoretical ideas, concepts, problems and debates, such as the anti-colonial stance of author Ngugi wa Thiong’o and these have been addressed in a range of literary works in much the same way that was gathering pace across the African continent. Also, postcolonial studies in Indian literature now show a period that witnessed many changes in Indian society. The impact of Western education and industrial developments led to radical changes in society with greater emphasis put on the processes behind colonialisation with attempts made to record a strong resistance to the masters of the colonised societies while insisting on the contemporary realities of racial life.

In much the same way that Africa has a multitude of languages used over the huge area that the English canon was used to subdue, the Indian sub-continent also has a range of differing languages that are compounded by religious and social aspects. The one common denominator that bonds all of the countries contained in the outer circle together is a lack of a single unifying language. This is what colonial Britain saw as the greatest weakness that confronted any progress towards a higher level of civilisation that stood to be corrected through the use of the British literary canon. However what would be most beguiling to the British then is now being carried out by the Indian Bengali author Jhumpa Lahiri. She found ‘The more she mastered English, the further it took her from her ethnic origins’.

Postcolonial literature, in its most recent form, also attempts to critique the contemporary postcolonial discourse that has been shaped over recent times. Colonialism, seen as a historical pheno­menon, refers to a foreign domination. By Lahiri completely disregarding the English language in which to write her novel and learning Italian from scratch it is possible she signifying the final collapse of colonialism of any form on a world wide basis. Throughout one of her short story collections Unaccustomed Earth she actively considers the lives of Bengali American characters and how they deal with their mixed cultural environment while estranged from their Indian homeland. She shows through her characters a sense of migration not just from their cultural roots but how easy people can absently forget their language of heritage.

Possibly Lahiri is subconsciously alluding to the failure of colonisation by the negative usage of the English literacy canon that was solely utilised to promote a sense of civilisation amongst ‘other’ lesser countries. She seems to indicate a growing ‘genre’ of globalisation that is now actively taking place from within the multitude of Englishes that have now filled the literary world. The growing genres of African and Indian literature that are now available is a fashionable addition to the growing canon of English literature which tackles themes that effects all of us, the clash between past and present, tradition and modernity. But ultimately the similarities that exist between various foreign cultural heritages and humanity itself.

What is clearly evident from the colonial use of the English literary canon on countries that it influenced is the growing positive cultural identities from the satellite cultures that have been in contact with the English language during the last century and beyond. The Welsh poet RS Thomas wrote about the effect the English language had on the already established native Welsh language.

It was his belief that along with Scottish and Irish Gaelic, the Welsh language influenced and helped to enrich what he called ‘the ageing body of English literature’ through the involvement of their own regional writers. Think of James Joyce and Robert Burns who have now become firmly established in the canon of English literary writers but along with Thomas himself were not English and had to write in English just to receive acclaim.       

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