Who owns English?

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Scott Gardner

You’ve heard of the Inner Circle, haven’t you? It’s a snobby term used to describe those who speak English as their first or native language. You’d be surprised how few people actually speak Inner Circle English. It’s a very exclusive club whose members are sworn to secrecy, reinforcing their oaths through sadistic rituals that involve stacking copies of the Oxford English Dictionary on a devotee’s chest, one volume at a time. The exact number of Inner Circle Adherents is in dispute, mainly due to controversy over the legitimacy of the Scottish Rites.
Who are the true Inner Circlers, then? My high school English teachers made sure I knew who at least some of them were. I remember two teachers in particular. Mr. Ginsberg had a weekly exercise of showing us strange modernist poetry that sounded like childish twaddle. A student in back would say, “I could write this stuff!” and he would reply, “Yeah, but you didn’t!” Apparently, once somebody like e. e. cummings composed an all-lower-case, grammarless phrase like “traffic hell on san bernardino this a.m.,” he owned that particular parcel of English, and could market it profitably as he saw fit. e. e. cummings probably owned shares in Twitter.
Mrs. Hawthorne was more dedicated to the traditional English literary canon, but she seemed to think that literature wasn’t worth reading unless you could turn it into a biblical allegory. I remember the tears on her face one emotional day as she led us unwillingly to the conclusion that Willy Loman (Death of a Salesman) died for our sins. We got so caught up in symbolsearching that at breakfast I used to scan cereal boxes for signs of the Apocalypse.
Despite my problems with the English Avengers of high school, I chose to study English Lit in college, and there I was duly pummeled with alternative, ungraspable interpretations of literature and language that high school never prepared me for. One professor, Dr. Vonnegut, even challenged us to find the meaning of literary works “in the margins.” By that I thought he meant the handwritten margin notes in the cheap secondhand textbooks I always bought. Some of those notes made a lot more sense than the printed stuff.
But it turned out this wasn’t what he meant. He was talking metaphorically about “reading” beyond the words on the page—what the text didn’t say, or who the author wasn’t talking to. I never really figured out what Dr. Vonnegut was on about, but I got an “A” in his class anyway because I wrote my final 5-page paper entirely in the margins, leaving a big empty white space in the middle of each page. He even gave me a smirk when I handed it in. I may or may not be an Inner Circler, but at least for one semester I had the Outer Margins down.
Now I am an English teacher in Japan—a “native speaker”—and I am of course regarded by 95% of my students as a licensed proprietor of the English language. (The other 5% have done homestays in Australia, where teachers and host families alike insist that Americans like me don’t speak English.) But as we “native speakers” should know, we’re not so much owners of a language as we are curators of a quaint little museum of linguistic history. A little empire building here, a Viking attack or Norman Conquest there, and a swag bag full of vocabulary words plundered from around the world. The English language was never clean and shiny, so there’s no sense holding up any portion of it in a snow globe and saying “This is it!” The purest English I ever spoke was probably the first word that came out of my mouth as a baby. I think it was “vernacular,” although my mother contends that it was closer to “gurk.”