Last week I wrote about the traditional prestige of the RP accent, and how its privileged status reflects class consciousness. My focus was on pronunciation, but the distinction extends beyond the RP accent to vocabulary, grammar, and so on – to the standard English dialect.
Standard English is an important and useful variety of English, but its status comes from historical circumstance rather than inherent linguistic superiority. This point is sometimes missed by those who hold that there is an ideal form of English – which typically corresponds to the form they were taught or to which they aspire.
Standard English has been quite consistent for a long time, but it too changes, and at any one time it is not uniform. It differs from place to place, notably from country to country, for example on points of spelling, punctuation, and idiom.
The invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century signalled a shift towards standardisation in English, which previously had been marked by great flexibility and inconsistency in its orthography. Influential books such as bibles and grammars added to the weight of esteem in which the standard literary style of English was increasingly held.
In her book Language Change: Progress or Decay?, Jean Aitchison describes how a widespread feeling arose that “someone ought to adjudicate among the variant forms of English”, and how Samuel Johnson undertook that task in his monumental dictionary:
Johnson, like many people of fairly humble origin, had an illogical reverence for his social betters. When he attempted to codify the English language in his famous dictionary he selected middle- and upper-class usage. … in many instances [he] pronounced against the spoken language of the lower classes, and in favour of the spoken and written forms of groups with social prestige.
Johnson’s bias is not unusual today. Think of how ain’t is still widely considered incorrect, vulgar, even “barbaric”. (A more neutral description is “non-standard”, but many people infer this to mean “sub-standard”.) There are groups that set out to promote and protect their idea of standard English, lest its presumed purity be corrupted by “lesser” varieties of the language. But regional dialects are no less correct – it all depends on the context.
The debate also envelops geopolitics. Mario Saraceni, a linguist at the University of Portsmouth, recently called on native English speakers to “give up their claim to be the guardians of the purest form of the language”, and for the “myth of the idealised native speaker” to be abandoned. Macmillan Dictionary Blog contributor Dan Clayton examined Saraceni’s comments on his own language blog, and wisely noted that arguments over language
are rarely contained to the words, the sounds and the grammar of a language, but are much more often about our views of other people, their habits, their cultures and our own prejudices.
What do you think? Does this tally with your own experience of language discussions and debates?
For more on “class English”, see Macmillan Dictionary’s page of resources on the subject.Email this Post