Through the class ceiling

Posted by on November 15, 2011

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.

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Comments (4)
  • Stan:
    The whole dialect kerfuffle is really based on class. According to the Queen’s English Society, there is really only one form of English. That cuts out 98 percent of the people who claim to speak the tongue; you and I are not excepted. In the US, where everyone knows that no such thing as class exists, if you don’t speak Standard American English, well, get to the back of the line(queue).It also comes down to a simple matter of what sounds good to you. But that subjective evaluation really depends of your native dialect. If you speak Glaswegian, does RP sound better? If you speak Jamaican, does Standard American sound better? In the end, the preference is just a matter of preference.

    Posted by Marc Leavitt on 15th November, 2011
  • Thanks for your thoughts, Marc. I would say there’s more to dialect prejudice than class concerns. Some of it is social snobbery, for sure, but a lot of the time I think it springs from an old and generalised distrust of other tribes and cultures. And some of it is aesthetic: a particular sound we happen to dislike for no ulterior reason (similar, perhaps, to what you call “a simple matter of what sounds good to you”). There are presumably many more reasons. People have never been short of excuses to judge each other, and speech is a particularly public and convenient scapegoat.

    Posted by Stan on 15th November, 2011
  • As they say, a language is a dialect with a flag. So for a ‘standard’ dialect, we should expect it to have a dictionary too! (Codification)

    Posted by Tim Harrell on 16th November, 2011
  • a language is a dialect with a flag
    Tim: Yes, or an army! Many of the world’s languages are spoken but not written, so websites that document them, such as Ethnologue, are hugely valuable.

    Posted by Stan on 17th November, 2011
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