WHAT IS STANDARD ENGLISH?

There is still considerable confusion over what is meant by the term “standard English” and, in particular, “standard oral English”. The breakdown of the “legitimate language archive” in Britain has created a situation in which it has become crucial to know exactly what is meant by these terms. And in defining “standard English”, it is crucial that every effort be made to ensure that it is not reinvested with the political and sociocultural baggage it has gathered over the last two centuries.

Crowley tries to define what he understands by “standard oral English” in the final chapter of the second edition of Standard English and the Politics of Language (2003: 266), but it is not altogether convincing. He discusses the issues of standard English in the wake of the National Curriculum wars, and he concludes that confusion still reigns in the ways in which the term is defined

and operationalised for the purposes of language teaching. On the final page of the book, he gives a fictional example to illustrate how he understands “spoken Standard English”. He sets up a fictional situation in which two people are attempting to communicate. The first speaker is a migrant to England who has been learning the language for a short period of time, and the second is a first-language speaker of English. Both have difficulty in understanding one another, but despite comprehension difficulties and with a high level of tolerance and a readiness to exploit whatever language resources they have, they manage to make sense to one another. Crowley calls this an instance of “spoken Standard English”, and his reasoning is as follows:

It is “standard” not in the sense of a level of excellence fixed in advance, but in the sense of making and having something in common. It is “standard” in the sense of being able to share sense and meaning through common effort and participation. And in case it be forgotten, “common” is the etymological root of both “communication” and “community”. Looked at in this way “standard spoken English” is what each of us creates every time we use any of the various spoken forms of English and make meaning with them. (266)

However much we might sympathise with it, the definition remains problematic. How can it be said that something is “standard” because the participants in the interaction can “share sense and meaning through common effort and participation”? The definition does not conform to any of the more conventional meanings that Crowley himself gives for the lexeme standard in an earlier chapter of the book. It certainly takes into consideration much of the argumentation in the present book that human language is reconstructed at the emergent moment of communicative social practice, although the lexeme standard has not been used to refer to such situations. The more usual reference to “standard English” is to a variety of English rather than to the use of language in communication. Trudgill (1999) uses it in this sense, and he insists that the only linguistic difference between standard English and other varieties of English is that it is neither a regional variety nor a social variety.[1]

Looked at from the perspective of varieties of English, standard English is not East Anglian English or Tristanian English. It is not Geordie, or Scouse, or Brummie, or Jamaican Creole. But it should also not be equated with such general terms as “American English”, “British English”, or “Australian English”. There is a wide range of varieties of each of these broad categories, as is also the case in Katie Wales’s term “Northern English” (2006) or even the term “East Anglian English” that was used above. The thrust of the “legitimate language discourse”, however, has historically aimed at constructing standard English as superior to, better, more polished and more refined than any other variety of English. It has accepted without question the conceptual metaphor A language is a human being, in evaluating language varieties as if they were individual human beings. The suggestion was even made by John Honey that standard English is “neutral”.

It is certainly true that, as a variety of English, it has a far larger lexicon than other varieties, but this is a result only of the fact that it has long been in use in a wide number of social registers and domains as the means for written communication. There are no other levels of linguistic description that would merit the kinds of evaluation proffered by those who still believe in the discourse archive created through the discourse of the legitimate language.

The broad term “English” refers to an extremely wide range of language varieties, some of which might be considered more prototypical, others less so. There is also no definitive boundary between what is classified as “English” and what is classified as another language. From a historical point of view we can ask whether Old English really is English and whether its obvious affinities with Old Norse do not take it out of the system of English. Or we can question whether Tok Pisin, which is so obviously derived from English, is not now something totally different.

Three caveats need to be made before we proceed:

  • 1. Varieties may shade into one another.
  • 2. Speakers may use elements of more than one variety when engaged in oral communication.
  • 3. Varieties can be distinguished from one another in terms of the linguistic constructions that go to make them up.

On the basis of caveat 3, varieties of English may be distinguished in terms of lexical, phrasal, syntactic, morphological, phonological and prosodic criteria, but from a purely linguistic perspective only syntactic and morphological criteria are central in distinguishing between varieties. This implies that different styles, registers and genres of whatever variety we focus on differ in terms of lexicon, phraseology, phonology and prosody, but not in terms of morphology and syntax.

A concrete example would be the use of the distinction between past tense “was” and “were” for singular and plural subjects. 1 3 Assume that the two speakers hold to this distinction consistently but use different lexical and phonological constructions in doing so:

  • 1. Can they be said to speak a standard form of English but each with a different accent? or
  • 2. Can they be said to speak two different varieties of English? [2]

If we now assume that one of the speakers upholds the distinction consistently, but the other uses either “was” or “were” consistently with both singular and plural subjects, as in “they was here”, can the former be said to speak a standard form of English, whereas the latter speaks a nonstandard variety? I suggest that in this second case we would indeed be more likely to say that speaker 2 speaks a nonstandard variety of English than in the first, regardless of his accent. But the term “nonstandard” has by now come to refer to such evaluative yardsticks as “better than”, “superior to”, “more refined than”, and to make the distinction between “standard” and “nonstandard” is to evaluate on social grounds.

Now let us return to the first situation once again and assume not only that the sole distinguishing feature between the two is accent, but that one of the speakers also uses an RP accent. Would this increase the likelihood of suggesting that this speaker is the standard English speaker and the other is not? In the Britain of the 1950s this would in all probability have been the judgment. In the Britain of the early third millennium, this is far less likely to occur. And if those making the judgment are not from Britain, the likelihood would be even smaller.

All types of linguistic construction can be used in identifying different varieties, but there is a cline along which the degree of distinguishing features is salient, as follows:

phonology/prosody < lexicon/phraseology < syntax/morphology (where < indicates that the constructions to the right are more salient than those to the left)

Phonology and prosody are important, particularly as a first approximation to the geographical and social provenance of the speaker. The choice of set phrases and lexical items used is the next most salient feature, and syntax and morphology are the most salient. In a word, “standard English” is simply a variety of English, once the phonological/prosodic level is suppressed, and when the phonological/prosodic level is faded in again, it serves as a marker of geographical and possibly also social provenance.

So, rather than agree with Crowley that “‘standard spoken English’ is what each of us creates every time we use any of the various spoken forms of English and make meaning with them”, I suggest that varieties of language in all oral language contact situations are by their very nature nonstandard precisely because they are always variable and heterogeneous. In emergent social practice in the oral medium both below the level of consciousness and also below the level at which codification and functional expansion are in operation (although not necessarily at lower levels of social structure), we are faced with processes of nonstandardisation.

Ultimately, the problem is the word “standard” itself. If we take a standard to be something that is conventionally agreed upon in a community as being the measure to which all instantiations (e.g. of length, weight, volume, temperature) must conform, and if we apply this to language, then our

understanding of language is governed by the myths of homogeneity, immutability and perfection and we have no means of accounting for innovations, spontaneity, creativity and flexibility of speech. Like all varieties of English, standard English is absolutely open to innovation, change, creativity and development. This is even the case in the written medium.[3] If we take a standard to be a rallying point (a banner around which those fighting for a cause gather), and if we apply it to language, then our understanding of language is governed by the myths of legitimacy and greatness. If we force legitimacy on others, we constrain them to use only one form of language or to exclude them from participation in the state. And if we take a standard to be an agreed-upon level of achievement that must be reached, and if we apply this to language, then our understanding of language is governed by the myths of perfection and purity. No language variety ever achieved perfection since languages do not achieve anything, and no speaker can ever command a language perfectly since all language varieties, when they are used by their speakers, are constantly open to innovation and change.

Standardisation processes strive for a unitariness and homogeneity which it is impossible to achieve in oral social interactions, a striving for some form of purity, a set of top-down, imposed standards which must be met in language, a conformity with educatedness (whatever that means today) or with politeness (whatever that meant in the eighteenth century). Non-standardisation processes aim at attaining mutual understanding, a tolerance of the Other, the will to negotiate meanings, the acceptance, sometimes even encouragement of creativity and innovation, the readiness for what was not expected and the simple enjoyment of face-to-face communication. Non-standardisation is not simply the opposite of standardisation. The benchmarks for successful communication in one situation are so totally different from those in the next that perhaps any notion of a standard is inappropriate. Socially, however, speakers will continue to construct differences between standard and nonstandard varieties, on the basis of language myths, and sociolinguists should be aware of the need to deconstruct those myths.

  • [1] He makes the valid point that it can be used in any register or style and that lexical variation is simplyan indication of a change in style or register but not an indication of a shift in the variety of English. He listsa small set of syntactic or morphological criteria by which standard English can be distinguished from othervarieties.
  • [2] I am simplifying matters here quite considerably, since if two varieties differed according to these criteria,they would be sure to differ in other ways as well. For the moment, however, I will let the simplification stand.
  • [3] I have noted a recent tendency in first-language speakers towards English writing ([led])instead of on analogy with ([aed]). It has long been the custom to use the backformation “orientate” from “orientation” rather than “orient”. There are many other examples that I could adduce here, butall of them point to the simple fact that the written language is also subject to variation and change.
 
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