Standard English: Elitist or Essential? JOSH COOPER accesses the views of pedants and progressives.

Is there such thing as a ‘correct’ way to use the language? The term ‘Standard English’ is most commonly regarded as “[t]he form of the English language widely accepted as the usual correct form” (English Living Oxford Dictionaries), so many people argue ‘yes.’ For instance, Honey (1997) states that “the use of Standard English confers intellectual advantages on those who speak and write it […]” (p. 21-22). However, others argue that as English is a global language with so many varieties both nationally and worldwide, “Standard English cannot be ‘correct’ or ‘superior’ because it is simply just one particular variety of the language” (Bex and Watts, 1999, p. 118).

But what exactly does Standard English mean? Perera (1994) highlights that on the one hand it is interpreted to mean ‘excellence,’ which implies a superior form. On the other hand, it is associated with ‘uniformity’ suggesting that the ‘standard’ is a practical form which attempts to reduce variability (p. 81). So, is ‘Standard English’ a high-achieving ‘elitist’ form whose usage marks out the privileged class with all its associated advantages, or is it simply facilitating an agreed usage – a matter of essential convenience for the ease of effective communication?

These differences in opinion are highlighted in the linguistic complaint tradition, which has existed since the Middle Ages. One of the most significant early complaints came from William Caxton (1490), who worried that there was too much variability in the English language when it came to the practicalities of early printing. Choosing to print in the dialect of those who lived in the East Midlands dialect area (which included London, Oxford and Cambridge) accidentally contributed to kick-starting the process of ‘standardisation’ whereby that dialect became a communication bridge for people from different regions so they could understand and effectively communicate with one another (Milroy and Milroy, 1999, p. 27). This choice was not based on grounds of linguistic superiority, but was a practical decision because this area “[…] was the most prominent politically, commercially and academically,” and this variety actually formed the basis of the standard we know today (Milroy and Milroy, 1999, p. 27).

In comparison, during the eighteenth century most complaints adopted a prescriptive, judgmental attitude to language. Prescriptivism is simply “the attitude or belief that one variety of a language is superior to others and should be promoted as such” (About Education), and therefore writers and complainers during this time mostly argued that there was indeed a correct and incorrect way to use the language.

Significant prescriptive thinkers during this time include Bishop Robert Lowth (1762) and Lindley Murray (1795) who wrote grammar textbooks outlining how they believed the language ought to be used, and these included rules that we are still familiar with today such as the ban on double negatives (Milroy and Milroy, 1999, p. 28). At this point, it is important to highlight that there was never any linguistic explanation as to why one variety and usage was favoured over another. So is ‘good’ English simply a matter of authoritarian opinion? If so, then surely anyone could argue that his or her variety is ‘correct’ and with the right power start influencing the way we speak and write?

Nevertheless, these prescriptive complaints still flourish in the language today. For example, in his book Simply English An A to Z of Avoidable Errors, Simon Heffer (2014) reports on what he believes is correct usage. He argues for instance, that the word ‘access’ is incorrect if used as a verb and should thus only be used as a noun as in ‘can I gain access?’ (Heffer, 2014, p. 8). Isn’t this attitude rather pedantic and traditionalist? After all, language meanings and usages are permanently changing. Surely as long as the respondent understands, that is all that matters?

Trudgill (2016) expresses his opinion on this when he argues that prescriptive attitudes to language are both pointless and a waste of time because all they succeed in achieving is making individuals feel insecure about their use of language (p. 25). He goes on to state that we should accept the fact that the language is variable and “see this for the fascinating fact that it is, and not keep trying to make judgements about ‘correctness’” (Trudgill, 2016, p. 26).

As noted in the introduction, Standard English is generally regarded as the ‘correct’ and therefore ‘good’ form by definition. By implication, this means that other forms will naturally be viewed as inferior and non-standard. But how can this be when the language is permanently changing through constant influxes from both other languages and technology? It is difficult to argue that one fossilized form is the gold standard.

JOSH COOPER, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

About Education. (2016). Prescriptivism.

Bex, T., & Watt, R. J. (1999). Standard English: The widening debate. London, United  Kingdom: Routledge.

English Living Oxford Dictionary (2016) Standard English.

Heffer, S. (2014). Simply English: An A to Z of avoidable errors. London, United Kingdom: Random House Books.  

Honey, J. (1997). Language is Power, The story of Standard English and its enemies. Faber and Faber. London, United Kingdom.

Milroy, J., & Milroy, L. (1999). Authority in language: Investigating standard English. London, United Kingdom: Routledge & Keegan Paul. 

Perera, K. (1994). Standard English the debate. In S. Brindley (Ed.) (1994), Teaching English (pp.79-88). Hove, United Kingdom: Psychology Press.

Trudgill, P. (2016). Dialect matters: Respecting vernacular language. Cambridge, United  Kingdom: Cambridge University Press. 

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One thought on “Standard English: Elitist or Essential? JOSH COOPER accesses the views of pedants and progressives.

  1. Genevieve Koutsoumanis says:

    I think you make some really good points here. As you rightly point out, the issue lies with the definition of the term ‘Standard English’ and whether the term means ‘a superior way of speaking’ or a ‘standard use of language’.

    Personally, I agree with Perera (1994) who highlights the issue of Standard English being associated with a superior form, but as you have stated, the issue lies with how people use the term Standard English. That being so, if they are arguing for uniformity rather than for ‘excellence’ then perhaps the criticisms could be more justified in my opinion. I particularly liked how you provided the historical context for the prescriptivism debate and there is a thorough examination of language shift.

    I particularly liked your reference of Trudgill (2016) and I agree that language is variable and by extension, we should allow various forms of language and not see them as ‘incorrect’ but instead as ‘non-standard’.

    Nonetheless, as you mentioned, some choices to limit the variability of language and to establish a more standard form have been based on practicality (i.e. Caxton printing) and therefore Standard English is not always used to enforce language superiority.

    Overall, this has been a well balance account of the debate surrounding Standard English. I think it is a largely contested debate that will continue for many years to come.

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