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)


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


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

  1. Dom D'Angelillo says:

    I think from the word go you have struck a cord with the problems Standard English creates. Rocket City Rednecks, set in the Deep South of America conjours yet another layer of this issue; is Standard ‘English’ English (so to speak) different from Standard American English? If so does this mean that every English speaking country should have a unique standard rather than the standard set by the English? A formula we could call Standard X English.
    You have also highlighted the web Honey (1997) has caught himself in, contradicting his own view that standard English ‘can be spoken in any accent’ yet never spoken in ‘in the broadest forms of regional accent’. Which is it Mr. Honey? Make up your mind before forcing it upon us.
    If there is no need for it, has it ever existed? Perhaps not, so why have the linguists you have discussed tried with all their might to find a meaning. Cheshire (1999:129) perhaps most honestly states ‘it is far from being understood’ and you may want to consider her approach to further disrupt the issue.
    The reality is Hannah, if these well known linguists cannot decipher its existence what chance do us undergraduate students have?

    Honey, J. (1997) Some enemies of standard English. In: J. Honey (ed.) Language is Power: The Story of Standard English and its Enemies. London: Faber pp44- 57.

    Cheshire, J. (1999) Spoken standard English. In: T. Bex & R. Watts (eds) Standard English: The Widening Debate. Oxon: Routledge pp 129-148.

  2. John Smith says:

    Of course standard English exists! Nice weather and healthy food – as well as unhealthy food – also exist. In one way everybody knows what standard English is, and in another way nobody does – just like health and nice – or bad – weather.
    That an entity is difficult to define exactly does not exclude that it exists. The link to John Honeys book Does Accent Matter? goes erroneously to his enemy’s publication; what a shame!

  3. Dear John
    Thanks for the reply, and especially for pointing out the erroneous link. This was not deliberate sabotage I can assure you! Hopefully the link is to the correct book now. By the way, I guess scientists believe dark matter and the Higgs Boson exist but they are still trying to find these mysterious entities. Perhaps we need to build a Large Hadron Collider for Standard English?!

  4. John Smith says:

    Dear Matt,

    I am not a physicist, but I have understood that dark matter probably exists. It is – as I have understood it – a highly hypothetical entity, whose existence can be deduced from observations with the help of advanced mathematics. But, it can by no means be detected or perceived with our five senses. If I am right about this, it renders your simile to be very inadequate. Standard English is nothing of the kind. We can hear any person speaking English to be close to a standard or far from it. Of course there are several regional standards as well. Any individual can assess quite well on a rough scale how far from the standard a specific vernacular is so to say located. Or to put it more precisely: Any English-speaking individual listening to spoken English can within a matter of seconds determine the proximity to the British standard, or to the American standard. John Honey describes these two standards very well and affords us with numerous examples. To call Honey’s accurate analysis on standard English “extreme” is, well, extreme. It is an act of collective wish to abolish the notion of a standard. This act seems to be based on obscure motives, on a wish to make us blind and deaf to an obvious aspect of reality, from ideological reasons. To which I will return to later.

    It is true that standard English is hard or impossible to define in mathematical terms. But so is almost everything in human life. There are standard rules for playing chess and for algebra, which are very precis, but there are less precise standards for the treatment of a common cold, for how to be a referee in fotball, for the destillation of whisky and for countless other things in human life. And there are for every one of these standards deviations and variations and radical deprications of the common standards. As soon as we become familiar with anything about human behaviour or performance, the pattern of some sort of standard emerges in our conciousness and becomes more and more detailed with time and exposure. We as humans are pattern seeking animals, something that is very specific for the human race.

    Every human activity can also be discussed with reference to a set standard, or a perceived standard, or a commonly accepted standard, or a fiercely disputed standard. But to deny that there isn’t such a thing as a standard in English, or for any language, is not true.

    There are various and individual perceptions of what is moral, what is beautiful, what is disgusting, what is funny, and so on. In some instances there is a law-maker or a governing instituition or something alike who claims to decide what is correct and what is good or beautiful etc. In the case of standard English language there is no such distinct body or institution that I know of, but for the French language, there is – l’Académie française.

    Uptil the 1950s no one questioned the existence of a Standard English, even though it was of course an object of ongoing debate about details. But during the last fifty years something has happened. The notion of a standard language was scrapped, and the discussion about whether a standard existed or not, was forbidden. It was, and still is, a dogma that has put a wet blanket over any discussion or critique of the received wisdom. John Honey describes this development very well in one chapter in his book Language Is Power. I recommend everyone with interest in these matters to read it. After publishing his first book Does Accent Matter? which was doomed to be a herecy against the received wisdom, he was completely excluded, ostracized from the linguistic society. His colleagues and former debate partnerssuddenly ignored him when meeting him at congresses or in the street, treated him like thin air. Very much in the same manner as Jehova’s Witnesses treat apostates: Their family, friends and other members of the congregation treat those who have left the faith as they were dead or had never existed. Anything he published following this silent collective excommunication or fatwa against him, was – if commented at all – written off as extreme, exaggerated, right wing, mad, ignorant, low quality, imbecil, any abuse you could think of. There was absolutely no serious debate about the points of issue he addressed, never.

    The funny thing is, that this intolerant treatment of the standard English issue has continued into the 21st century.

    Please notice that there is nothing extreme in claiming there is a standard English, or two standards, or several regional standards etc. Everyone knows there is, its denial is indeed extreme and ludicrous, and at the same time very serious.

    Of course there is a standard! Of course recognizing this fact does not infer that people who speak the standard are superior, should look down on everybody else etc. It is this phobia that is the problem which needs to be discussed openly, and not only in linguistic forums.

    It is not embarrassing to acknowledge that there is a standard. It is nothing mysterious about it. Comparing it to dark matter is an obfuscation of this fact. Read John Honey’s comments to all these allegations about right-wing, reactionary etc. (Honey himself is a Labour voter.) He is right on almost everything.


  5. Andrew Roach says:

    Hi John,

    How can there be more than one standard English?

    • John Smith says:


      Apologies for my late reply!
      How can there be more than one standard English?
      Well, I think my lengthy argumentation a year ago tried to address that question too, but perhaps I must express myself more precisely.
      I shall try.

      Let us consider another aspect on language, just for comparison.
      The fact that specific languages EXIST, like English, French, Dutch etc. in people’s minds and thus in reality, is by no means contested by the likewise obvious fact that sharp limits or borders between different languages cannot be drawn or exactly identified. The blurred boundaries between languages are not a proof that it is futile or incorrect to talk about separate languages. Likewise with standard language.

      Any human activity pursued more than sporadically and observed by more than a few or isolated persons on rare occasions, will in time be perceived as an entity, which sooner or later emerge in people’s minds with specific properties. PATTERN is one property of the entity, perhaps the most important property of all, as it constitutes the basis for the existence of the entity, i.e. is equal to – or at least close to – the definition of the said entity.

      The aptitude or propensity for pattern-seeking in the human race is a huge benefit for our understanding of the world. It has helped us to develop logical thinking and science. But it also has drawbacks. One example of these drawbacks is that it may open the door to superstition and delusions. If a pattern is incomplete, it will easily be filled out by our creative imagination. Regardless thereof, a pattern of “standard” evolves in our minds regarding many many things around us, where language is only one of them. To deny the existence of standards is…. ludicrous.

      It is a misconception to believe that if there are several standards, or alternative standards, the concept of standard is faulty. (Exact standards, as for physical or mathematical units, like weight or resistance, is very different.) Likewise, the fact that there is food that is considered good for your health, and that there is food that is less healthy for you, is obvious and indisputable. But N.B.: From that does not follow that healthy food must be identified as a single entity, or that the borderline between healthy and unhealthy food must always be possible to identify, or that every item of food must be possible to classify as good or bad. There can be several peaks in the healthy food landscape, of various height.

      So even if the concept in itself is not crystal clear, examples of overtly unhealthy food – such as poison -, or healthy – such as fresh fruit, can always be identified. Same with standard forms in language.

      The common contemporary absurd denial of the existance of standard languages is in itself interesting. To me, it is an obvious deliberate denial of reality, based on wishful thinking, in turn based on a clandestine belief that our standard language – English as one example – is so immensely superior to the non-standard varieties, so we had better hide this fact for the less educated, as this fact must be deeply embarrassing for non-standard speakers, contrary to any concern.
      This supremacist view, very common among white middle-class metropolitan bohemians, has no ground, and holding it – secretly or openly – is the only thing that should be embarrassing.
      To be able to speak a standard language does not put any extra value to your importance or your human value, and listening to a standard-language speaker does not cause any more embarrassment at all for a normal individual. I can’t sing, but can enjoy listening to a talented singer. I am a lousy football player, but I can highly enjoy seeing a really good football match, without being embarrassed at all. Listening to a talented and sophisticated standard English speaker (e.g. Douglas Murray) is a sheer delight, and the false and tiresome repeated lie that there is nothing like a standard language can’t take away that pleasure.


  6. John Smith says:

    I lost a few words above. Should be:

    …the less educated, as this fact must be deeply embarrassing for non-standard speakers. It is not so, contrary to any concern….

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