Broken English

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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 a 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.

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

Examples and Observations

  • "[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.'"
    (W. Wolfram, American English: Dialects and Variation. Wiley, 2006)
  • Manuel: It is surprise party.
    Basil: Yes?
    Manuel: She no here.
    Basil: Yes?
    Manuel: That is surprise!
    ("The Anniversary," Fawlty Towers, 1979)
  • "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)
  • "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."
    (Thomas Heywood, Apology for Actors, 1607)

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."(H. Kasimir, Haphazard Reality. Harper, 1984)