What is ‘Standard English’? Many linguists have different ideas as to what they perceive Standard English to be, but is there actually a universal definition for this term? Some believe it is the correct way to speak English, others believe that it is just a way of separating the intelligent from the unintelligent. So many different definitions, where do we begin?
Tony Crowley (1999, p.271) believes that “Standard English is the medium of writing in the English language, grammatically stable and codified”. Based on this, Crowley is saying that Standard English is applied to just writing, and not so much speech, and is essentially the ‘correct’ way to write using the English Language. While this is definitely a good attempt at trying to define what Standard English is, it doesn’t cover spoken English and therefore needs to be addressed. Ronald Carter (1999, p.163) states that “Standard English consists of a set of forms which are used with only minimal variation in written English and in a range of formal spoken contexts in use around the world.” With this definition, Carter acknowledges that Standard English is not just limited to writing, but also applies to speech as well. With this interpretation, we are at least getting a broader idea of what Standard English is, in the sense that it is not just limited to written or spoken English, but is rather a mix between the two instead. However Crowley (2003, p.266) also acknowledges that there is standard spoken English as well. It is ‘standard’ not 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.” This encourages the belief that as long as you and the person you are talking to are able to understand each other successfully, then it is classed as Spoken Standard English.
Hayley Davis (1999, p.70) goes on to say that Standard English is a “variety of English which is usually used in print, and which is normally taught in schools and to non-native speakers learning the language.” Davis here is saying that Standard English is the preferred variety to be taught in schools and to non-native speakers. Whilst I firmly believe and agree that having Standard English as the set way to teach English in schools, it is definitely a skewed concept because of the fact there is no exact definition of what Standard English actually is. Yes there are many different ways of interpreting what Standard English is, and while we seem to have managed this long without coming to a conclusive idea as to what it is, it certainly makes the idea of teaching it in schools questionable.
John Honey (1997, 21-22) believes that “[t]he speakers of non-standard social and regional dialect forms suffer comparable forms of disadvantage.” This is because Honey believes those who are not able to speak or write Standard English are dubbed as unintelligent. However, Honey’s idea of what Standard English means seems rather skewed as well, claiming “[b]y standard English I mean the language in which this book is written, which is essentially the same form of English used in books and newspapers all over the world.” (Honey, 1997, p.1). Again, just like the definitions shown earlier on, none of these interpretations can seem to agree on what Standard English is, and each seem to offer a different perspective of what it could actually mean.
After exploring the different interpretations of what other linguists believe Standard English to be, it is clear that this particular term is void of an exact definition. I believe that if you are able to understand each other, and are able to communicate successfully between one another when using different varieties of English, then the need for Standard English is surely exaggerated. However, it is blatantly clear that nobody can actually define what Standard English is, and therefore it has to remain described only by its characteristics.
JAMIE GLASSON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK
Davis, H. (1999). ‘Typography, lexicography, and the development of the idea of ‘standard English’’ in Bex, T. and Watts, Richard J. (eds) (1999) Standard English: The Widening Debate. London: Routledge.