Broken English

Andrew Sachs as Manuel
Andrew Sachs as Manuel, the Spanish waiter in BBC TV's Fawlty Towers. Keystone/Getty Images

Broken English is a pejorative term for the limited register of English used by a non-native speaker. Broken English may be fragmented, incomplete, and/or marked by faulty syntax and inappropriate diction because the speaker's knowledge of the vocabulary isn't as robust as a native speaker, and the grammar has to be calculated in the person's head rather than coming out naturally, almost without thought, like a native speaker's words would.

“Never make fun of someone who speaks broken English," says American author H. Jackson Brown Jr. "It means they know another language.”

Prejudice & Language

How linguistic prejudice manifests itself: A study published in the International Journal of Applied Linguistics in 2005 showed how prejudice against people of non-Western European countries played a role in whether a person classified a nonnative speaker's English as "broken." Neither does it take a scholar to look at the portrayal of Native Americans (as well as other nonwhite peoples) in movies and their stereotypical "broken English" to see the prejudice inherent there.

By extension, opponents of establishing a national language for the United States see introducing that type of legislation as promoting a form of institutional racism or nationalism against immigrants. 

In "American English: Dialects and Variation," W. Wolfram noted, "[A] resolution adopted unanimously by the Linguistic Society of America at its annual meeting in 1997 asserted that 'all human language systems—spoken, signed, and written—are fundamentally regular' and that characterizations of socially disfavored varieties as 'slang, mutant, defective, ungrammatical, or broken English are incorrect and demeaning.'"

For example, it is used as a comic device to poke fun or ridicule, such as this bit from TV's "Faulty Towers": 

"Manuel: It is surprise party.
Basil: Yes?
Manuel: She no here.
Basil: Yes?
Manuel: That is surprise!"
("The Anniversary," ​"Fawlty Towers," 1979)

Neutral Usage

H. Kasimir's take on it in "Haphazard Reality" contends that broken English is a universal language: "There exists today a universal language that is spoken and understood almost everywhere: it is Broken English.

I am not referring to Pidgin-English—a highly formalized and restricted branch of B.E.—but to the much more general language that is used by the waiters in Hawaii, prostitutes in Paris and ambassadors in Washington, by businessmen from Buenos Aires, by scientists at international meetings and by dirty-postcard pictures peddlers in Greece." (Harper, 1984)

And Thomas Heywood terms that English itself is broken because it's got so many pieces and parts from other languages: "Our English tongue, which hath ben the most harsh, uneven, and broken language of the world, part Dutch, part Irish, Saxon, Scotch, Welsh, and indeed a gallimaffry of many, but perfect in none, is now by this secondary means of playing, continually refined, every writer striving in himselfe to adde a new flourish unto it." (Apology for Actors, 1607)

Positive Usage

Pejorative though it may be, the term actually sounds nice when William Shakespeare uses it: "Come, your answer in broken music; for thy voice is music, and thy English  broken; therefore, queen of all, Katharine, break thy mind to me in broken English: wilt thou have me?" (The King addressing Katharine in William Shakespeare's King Henry V)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Broken English." ThoughtCo, Apr. 30, 2018, thoughtco.com/what-is-broken-english-1689184. Nordquist, Richard. (2018, April 30). Broken English. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-broken-english-1689184 Nordquist, Richard. "Broken English." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-broken-english-1689184 (accessed May 27, 2018).