Standard English and linguistic equality. MIA DERMAWAN discusses John Honey’s controversial views on Standard English (and its ‘enemies’)

John Honey’s opinion on the English Standard Debate is one that has caused much controversy amongst some of the most well-known of linguists. From reading his book, Language is Power: The Story of Standard English and it’s Enemies, it is evident that Honey believes that there is an English Standard that is a better form, which should be taught in schools, known and used across the world. He believes that it is a dialect that should be used to create linguistic equality that would enable everyone to communicate and understand each other universally. He also believes, and presents in his book that this dialect has many enemies, such as other linguists like Chomsky and Pinker – from whom it should be protected. Honey dedicates a whole chapter in his book to the exploration of these enemies and openly attacks their viewpoints by, from what I personally felt was forcefully and persuasively, presenting his own thoughts and ideas, as the ones that are correct. In a review written in response to Honey’s book, Peter Trudgill recognises himself as being one of the linguists that Honey is targeting and arguing against regarding this debate, along with other considered influential linguists, such as; Milroy, Crystal, Halliday, Labov and Aitchison. This is how much of an impact Honey’s view has had, and suggests that much controversy amongst linguists must have been caused with him targeting the work of these named linguists.

So what is Honey’s view on the English Standard Debate? Well in his book, Honey talks about Standard English being a dialect that is spoken as well as written, but is best represented by the language that is written in books and newspapers and used all over the world. He also writes about there being subtle differences in terms of vocabulary, spelling and grammar in, for example, American Standard English and British Standard English (1997: 1). It is this dialect that should be taught in schools and protected from the ‘enemies’ Honey establishes in his book.

In his review published arguing against Honey’s opinion, Trudgill notes that Honey’s claim of other linguists being enemies of the English Standard based on the fact that they imply Standard English is not in any way superior, because they suggest that all dialects of English are structured, grammatical, rich and viable linguistic systems. Therefore they are discouraging people who are non-native speakers from learning it (p3). Trudgill argues his case by pointing out that Honey does not give a valid reason for his claim against the other linguists, as ‘Honey remains suspiciously silent’ (p3). Trudgill then goes further to describe how Honey is viewed to be more of a scholar, rather than a linguist, based on Honey’s knowledge and limited research in comparison with the other linguists. This suggests what the general opinions on Honey’s proposal is on the English Standard Debate. It is not one that is favoured amongst other, more well-known researchers in this field, and is not deemed as viable as theirs.

My own personal opinion on this matter? Well, I think that having an English standard is beneficial, for the same reason that Honey claims – to create linguistic equality and so that everyone around the world can understand and communicate universally. However, I disagree with Honey in saying that the English Standard is a ‘better form’. I don’t think that any dialect is better than another.

MIA DERMAWAN, English undergraduate, University of Chester (UK)

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Should we embrace Standard English and all other dialects equally depending on the context? ETHAN NEWTON explores the views of politicians and educationists

The term ‘Standard English’ (SE) couldn’t be any more subjective. What do these bickering linguists and politicians mean by it? Is it the written form? The spoken form? Or both? On top of this ambiguity politicians and academics have stated that the standard of English used by our children is falling. The consequence of this has been a number of education reforms.

Most cries of change came from employers, and politicians echoing employers in regards to the standards of literacy. Speaking In 1986, the minister for education Kenneth Baker stated: ‘frequently I hear employers complain that many school-leavers applying for jobs after 11 years of compulsory education cannot write simply, clearly and without obvious error’ (cited by Fairclough 2001:196).

The Kingman report in 1988 was the solution for the cries of the elites and was possibly the most publicised account into the standards of education. However, it was not well received by the right-wing conservatives who preferred a return to the traditional teaching of Latinate grammar.

Kingman on the other hand stated, ‘we are more concerned with the ability to write in SE than to speak it’ (cited by Crowley 2003:256). Surely this is how it should be though – a written and spoken form distinct from each other. I do not ever recall myself ever speaking in the standard written form, have you? Apart from maybe at a job interview, but even then the levels of prestige and eloquence varies on your understanding of English. Also you wouldn’t send a text to a friend in perfect grammatically correct standard written English (or Latinate grammar)…would you? But yet again it all comes down to a matter of context does it not?

Bullock believed it was more reasonable to talk and think in terms of ‘appropriateness’ than absolute correctness (cited by Crowley 2003:257). This posits the notion of applying a standard to contexts where it would be needed. This further stipulates the purpose of teaching a ‘standard’ English as an extension to our English language repertoire, rather than replacing our current one full of dialectal influences and variations.

Prescriptive attitudes from politicians to drill children towards how they ‘should’ speak was criticised by several reformists including Her Majesties Inspectorate. They believed a child should be able to modify their speech rather than replace it because not one form of English dialect is inherently superior. Otherwise the elites are just endorsing a hierarchy of dialects are they not? Additionally, Bullock (cited by Crowley 2003:237) added, ‘to criticise a person’s speech may be an attack on his self-esteem’. Obviously the elites in Whitehall only cared for their own dialect rather than the dialects of millions of others.

The result of the Kingman report was the implementation of the national curriculum. The intention of it was very clear: that grammatical ideas should be available to teachers and to pupils for use as tools (Hudson 1992:7). I for one advocate SE should be taught as an auxiliary dialect to be used in appropriate contexts as a tool, ‘written’ or ‘spoken’. Yet the question remains – what is the ‘Standard’? John Honey (cited by Crowley 2003:266) seemed to think it was the dialect of the ‘educated’, then again what is the dialectal criteria for the educated?

ETHAN NEWTON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester (UK)

References

Crowley, T. (2003). Standard English and the Politics of Language. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Fairclough, N. (1989). Language and Power. London: Longman.

Hudson, R. A. (1992). Teaching Grammar: A Guide for the National Curriculum. Cambridge, Mass.: B. Blackwell.

If we can’t define it, how can we impose it? HANNAH WAUDE explores the Standard English phenomenon

About a week ago, while watching television with my housemates, a programme called Rocket City Rednecks (IMDB, 2014) was advertised, explaining that the people involved were extremely intelligent rocket scientists with a strong southern accent, making them appear unintelligible and ‘idiotic’. As a house of girls, this then led to a heated discussion on which accents make people sound more ‘unintelligent’ than others. The victor for most intelligent was RP (Received Pronunciation), which when you consider the stereotypical characters of an RP speaker (the queen, newsreaders, teachers, upper-upper middle class background (Trudgill, 2011:118)), almost all of them supposedly use Standard English.

But what exactly is Standard English? Crowley (1999:271) states “Standard English is the medium of writing in the English Language, grammatically stable and codified.”, while Trudgill (1992, as cited by Trudgill, 2011:117) describes it “as consisting of the processes of language determination, codification and stabilisation.” In reality, nobody is actually able to define Standard English, only describe it through its characteristics. So why does everybody care about whether or not people or children use this way of writing/speaking that cannot be defined?

John Honey, a professor in education, was adamant that children should be using Standard English in schools for both spoken and written pieces (Honey, 1997). He also believes that accents do not affect people’s usage of Standard English, claiming ‘Standard English can be spoken in any accent of English, though in practise it is seldom (indeed perhaps never) spoke in the broadest forms of regional accent’ (Honey, as cited by Crowley 1999:271).

Because Honey was deemed such an extremist in regards to the Standard English debate, there are few people who can say they wholeheartedly agree with him. Trudgill (2011), for example agrees with Standard English being the dialect of writing in education while Cheshire (as cited by Crowley, 2003:263) disagrees with The National Curriculum’s lack of understanding about both written and spoken Standard English.

While it is clear Standard English is important for several linguists in one form or another, there are others who believe it is simply used for control by the ‘self-serving élite’ (Leith & Cameron as cited by Crowley, 2003) and there is not actually any need for Standard English. Crowley (2003:249) states that there has been a 1000 years of literature and only 100 years of literacy, proving that we do not need the language standardising or one dialect that is superior to all others. An alternative opinion is proposed by Kingman (as cited by Crowley, 2003) explaining that whilst Standard English is great for the education process, spoken speech should be natural.

The Standard English debate, like many other debates within the English Language, has multiple issues, factors and opinions connected with it, but one of the most important issues within this debate is the inability to define the issue. When asking our language debates class who thought Standard English was important, nobody raised a hand, and yet when asked if it had a place in our education system, everyone believed it did. How can people debate and believe something is so important within education, literature and a child’s development if technically the thing does not exist? If a definition existed would anything change? What is Standard English?

 HANNAH WAUDE, English undergraduate, University of Chester (UK)

References

Crowley, T. (1999) Curiouser and Curiouser: Falling Standards in the Standard English Debate. In: Standard English: The Widening Debate, ed. by Bex, T & Watts, R.J., London.

Crowley, T. (2003) Standard English and the Politics of Language, 2nd edn, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.

Honey, J.(1997) Some enemies of standard English. In: Honey, J. Language is Power: The Story of Standard English and its Enemies. London: Faber pp 44-57.

IMDB, (2014). Rocket City Rednecks. [Online] [Accessed 9 April 2014] Available at: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2101137/

Trudgill, P. (2011) Revised version of Standard English: what it isn’t. [Online] [Accessed 26 March 2014] Available at: http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/dick/SEtrudgill2011.pdf

Honey claims that Standard English is better than the rest. Is it? Or is it just plain naff? JESS JOHNSTON investigates.

John Honey is one of very few linguists to openly adopt a strong prescriptive view on language. Upon reading his book Language is Power: The Story of Standard English and its Enemies (1997), it becomes immediately clear that he certainly doesn’t hold back when it comes to slating the work of famously descriptive linguists if they dare to undermine the significance of Standard English (we’ll call it SE). He believes that it needs to be protected from – as he puts it – “enemies”.

Honey champions the traditional virtues of ‘good English’ which he believes to be SE: the standard dialect (not accent!) of the English language which is taught across the globe. However, this is a controversial view amongst the majority of linguists as a popular motto in the study of language is that no language or dialect is more superior to another. Therefore, while he is arguing that SE is the superior dialect of English, there is a much greater proportion of linguists – Crystal, Trudgill, Bex, Milroy, Aitchison, Labov, Halliday, Pinker, Chomsky (just to name a few) – whose research and conclusions argue otherwise. While they do not forget that SE is to some extent an important aspect of the English language, they support much more the concept of “linguistic equality” – something that Honey sarcastically writes off as ridiculous (1997: 8-9).

After praising and declaring the unique essence of SE, Honey goes out of his way to name and shame what/who he deems as its ‘enemies’. There are four, with each having a chapter of their own, with the first two being Noam Chomsky and his theory of innateness in child language acquisition alongside his accomplice Pinker. The third and fourth ‘enemies’ are the opinions society hold about SE being a ‘class’ dialect and only for the elite. However, as you would expect, there have been many who have attacked and in some cases undermined Honey’s claims, and Trudgill and Bex are only two of them. For example, in a review of Honey’s book Trudgill portrays him as unsuitable to even have an opinion on the matter as he is merely a scholar – not a linguist – and even goes as far to say ‘that to assert that [SE] needs to be protected from [“enemies”], would be demented’ (1998: 1). Even Bex does not tame his opinions by stating that ‘[t]he main difficulty with the book involves sorting out the sense from the sheer silliness that Honey frequently displays’ (1998: 1). It is clear that they do not respect his arguments in any way.

While many would be quick to happily join the likes of Crystal, Chomsky, Bex and Trudgill in this debate (they are big names in the study of language, after all), it would interesting to consider how we actually react to different dialects as individual readers. For example, if a company were reading through a number of job applications, would you expect them to employ the individual who would be ‘chuffed to bits to get the job cause I ain’t had a job for yonks’ or the individual who ‘would be exceptionally thrilled to receive the job offer and to be thrown back into a work environment after an elongated period of time’? I’ll let you decide.

JESS JOHNSTON, English language undergraduate, University of Chester (UK)

References

Bex, T., ‘Review of John Honey: Language is Power: The Story of Standard English and its Enemies’. First published in Applied Linguistics, 19, 3, 407-10. [Accessed 30 March 2014] Available at: http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/estuary/bex-honey.htm

Honey, J. (1997) Language is Power: The Story of Standard English and its Enemies. London: Faber and Faber Limited.

Trudgill, P. (1998) ‘Review of Language is Power. The Story of Standard English and its Enemies. John Honey’. First published in Journal of Sociolinguistics 2,3, pp. 457-461. [Accessed 30 March 2014] Available at: http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/estuary/honeyrev.htm

No anxieties for ADAM WEBB as he explore the descriptive/prescriptive divide

The influential Swiss linguist Ferdinand De Saussure  (1915) once claimed that ‘no other subject has spawned more absurd ideas, more prejudices, more illusions or more myths’.

This quote is an excellent description of the whole debate between prescriptive and descriptive views towards language. Trask’s (2007:69) definition of being a descriptivist is ‘[t]he policy of describing languages as they are found to exist [,,,] we try to describe the facts of linguistic behaviour exactly as we find them, and we refrain from making value judgements about the speech of native speakers’.

Although the next quote by Crystal (2006: 231) is a definition for prescriptive grammar, it does describe prescriptivism accurately: “[a] prescriptive grammar is essentially a manual that focuses on constructions where usage is divided, and lays down rules governing the socially correct use of language.”

Prescriptivism attitudes towards language have existed for centuries and is something that almost everyone in the world will have come across in a certain way at some point in their lives. Some of the earliest examples come from the sixteenth century with people like Thomas Wilson (1553) who insisted that good writers should avoid ‘inkhorn’ terms to make the English language more elaborate and George Puttenham (1589) who said that the only English worth listening to is within a sixty mile radius of London.

Back in 1996, Jean Aitchison presented five instalments of the BBC Radio 4 Reith Lectures with the first one focusing on anxieties about language. She highlighted three common prescriptive approaches to language and then questioned those arguments with a descriptive point of view. One of those types of prescriptive attitudes she labelled ‘The Damp Spoon Syndrome’ whereby the belief exists that general sloppiness and laziness is causing language change. Examples include the use of glottal stops, e.g. ‘cha’er’ replaces ‘chatter’, and omission of tense endings in speech, e.g. ‘Johnny jumped back’ being pronounced as ‘Johnny jump back’.

Aitchison counters the argument by claiming that ‘[i]n British English, the pronunciation of bu’er with a glottal stop in place of older butter is often heard. But Be’y ‘ad  a bi’ of bi’er bu’er for older ‘Betty had a bit of bitter butter’ requires considerable muscular tension, and cannot be regarded as a lazy development’ (1997: 10), adding that that only drunken speech is lazy speech.

From experience, in particular during second year of college, and throughout my three years at university, whenever you came across something that could be described as being ‘incorrect’ in modern usage of English, you would be told to describe it as ‘non-standard’ to conform with the descriptivist point of view, especially when analysing texts from older periods of English.

With language constantly changing, prescriptivists will want language to stay in a pure state with no change at all. However we need language to continue to evolve as we will forever be still learning about the environment and the world in which we live. We will find new ways to describe things that we have yet to discover. Although I believe we do need some rules in which we can understand language, the creativeness of our language is what makes it so unique. But is it possible to completely be a descriptivist? I don’t think so.

ADAM WEBB, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Aitchison, J. (1997) The Language Web: The Power and Problem of Words. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Crystal, D. (2006) How Language Works.  London: Penguin.

Saussure, F. de (1915) Cours de linguistique générale. Paris: Payot. (English translation by W. Baskin, Course in general linguistics. New York: The Philosophical Library, 1959. London: Fontana, 1974.)

Trask, R.L. (ed.) (2007). Language and Linguistics: The Key Concepts London : Routledge.

AMANDA COTTAM investigates the descriptive/prescriptive divide

As prescriptivism in language is a long running debate, it comes, like most debates, with a sister side. The term descriptivism is commonly used to describe those who are not against language change and the use of non-standard grammar among others. It is a way of describing grammar and language change over a period of time. David Crystal is one such linguist who can represent the descriptivist side of the debate. As a descriptivist himself, he actively describes and disputes the issues people have with language. But he also understands that a prescriptive approach to grammar can be acceptable, that those who understand prescriptive grammar and were brought up on it are not that bad.

As grammarians raised their ugly (if slightly boring and tedious) heads in the late 1500s but were not recognised until the eighteenth century, many people clearly have accepted the concept of ‘perfect grammar’ since early on in language. So why only now are we adding fuel to the fire of the debate?

Crystal (2005: 400) provides an interesting view on the way he thinks about prescriptivists and their grammar dictates, claiming that ‘it hardly needs to be pointed out that all the ‘incorrect’ options are used within the English-speaking community; indeed, the rejected options may actually be far more commonly used than the favoured one’.

Crystal (2004:100) claims that, ‘[i]n a ‘healthy’ language, with millions of speakers, purist attitudes cause no harm, because they are swallowed up in the myriad opinions which comprise the speech community.’ Here Crystal accepts prescriptivism, but in healthy amounts, as they are usually dismissed by others who are seemingly more interested in communication rather than preservation. The importance of having both sides of the argument has kept language the same. We only spend our time correcting each other when we’re writing for important reasons. So why not let prescriptivism slide a little?

However, Crystal (2004:402) also says, ‘What is fallacious about the prescriptive approach is its attempts to restrict notions such as clarity and precision to the choice of one alternative when choosing between other alternatives which would convey the same idea just as well.’ What is interesting here, is clear representation that although grammar is ideally fixed, the prescriptive approach is too restrictive, trying to fix grammar to a point where there will never be change. There would be no change and no possibility of us linguistically moving forward, which is what language and grammar is constantly doing.

In short, yes, we can be descriptive. However, without the presence of prescriptivism there would be no rules to allow us to use language properly and effectively in the context we need to. It is clear that communicating effectively with someone can mean you achieve a lot. Nevertheless, if we can’t figure any rules to restrict us in a way that means we can communicate properly, will we ever have a language that is effective? Or will we ever be content with the way we speak?

 AMANDA COTTAM, University of Chester, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Crystal, D. (2004) The Language Revolution. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Crystal, D. (2005) The Stories of English. London: Penguin.

LOL! OLIVER NORMAN avoids being bromantic about descriptive approaches to language, innit

Ahh, to be a linguistic descriptivist, to frolic through the flowery meadows of untamed  language, gazing in awe at the marvels of ‘LOL’, ‘innit’ and ‘bromance’, not giving a second thought as to whether such words are the product of laziness or mal-education. ‘It’s all beautiful man!’ Sadly enough though, while many people would love to maintain this idealised approach to language in their everyday realities, it is simply an impossible task.

Why? Well, to be a descriptivist is to open heartedly embrace language change, irrespective of how it may occur. As Trask puts it: ‘we try to describe the facts of linguistic behaviour exactly as we find them, and we refrain from making value judgements about the speech of native speakers’ (2007: 69).

The opposite side of the coin however is prescriptivism, an approach that centres itself around the opinions and values of its followers. As opposed to descriptivism’s observational standpoint, prescriptivists feel that language change should be engaged with and questioned, with new utterances only being granted access into the wider vocabulary upon meeting specific conditions laid out to ensure the prevention of language degradation. This view is described by Crystal as being ‘…essentially a manual that focuses on constructions where usage is divided, and lays down rules governing the socially correct use of language,’ (2006: 231). The latter approach does tend to appear the most extreme, helped in no small part by the innumerable anxious, ‘man on the street’ types who spare no time in mounting their soapboxes and ranting off into the sunset about how society is imploding, after they received a spelling error in a letter from the council or see the word ‘LOL’ used on Countdown. However, while the latter can indeed be thought of as less scientific and certainly biased in its approach to language change, it is still impossible, no matter how tempting the bright lights of linguistic liberality, to solely embody a descriptivist standpoint and cast off the proverbial shackles.

This does not mean however, that one can abide by the regimented practices of a prescriptivist exclusively either. It is only human to want to stand behind anything that embodies the way we think and feel, or at least the way we would like to appear to think and feel, so the taking of such strictly opposed sides is hardly surprising. However, when trying to truly assess which side of the fence you will fall linguistically – descriptivist or prescriptivist – the only answer should be to employ both. Language has changed for as long as we’ve been around to hear it and it isn’t stopping any time soon. Human nature is progression, and as we change and develop so too must our language, if for no other reason than to denote the changes and developments achieved. But for any utterance, old or new to be applied in description of the world around us, we have no choice but to apply it in conjunction with the rules and structures that have been established as the norm in our society at that time. Not doing so would render the language unintelligible as there would be no reference point indicating what would be right or wrong.

Therefore, the only approach that is truly accurate is a combination of both prescriptivism and descriptivism, as one cannot attempt to describe language without the other. That however, is only my opinion and I openly encourage anyone to find out where they stand for themselves, as I’ve only scratched the surface here, and in the case of this debate, it’s a big itch.

OLIVER NORMAN, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Crystal, D. (2006) How Language Works. London: Penguin.

 Trask, R.L. (ed.) (2007). Language and Linguistics: The Key Concepts. London: Routledge.