Standard English. Superior? Or just another fish in the SEa? JAMES RODGER tries to get the measure of this complex concept.

The belief that Standard English (SE) is superior to other varieties is controversial to say the least. On a whole, this can be linked to a wider debate, regarding whether ‘good’ and ‘bad’ English exists in general. Alongside concepts like ‘prescriptivism’, SE supports the existence of ‘good’ English – the consensus here being that the presence of a standard form shows there is a better way to use English. Without delving too far into wider debate, I am primarily interested in SE alone.  Specifically, I question whether or not it can be justified as a superior variety. Before diving head first into discussion, we must note that the term ‘SE’ is extremely subjective.

Twenty years ago John Honey caused controversy with his book Language is Power: The Story of Standard English and its enemies, where he asserted that SE is superior to other varieties. His book is an interesting read, as throughout he constantly criticises the idea of linguistic equality which states that “all languages and all dialects of any language are equally as good” (1997, p.5). To his credit, Honey backs this criticism up, drawing upon several supporting issues. Firstly, Honey mentions our education system, claiming that SE is the variety spoken by teachers, as well as the variety present in textbooks (1997, p. 40). Here, he suggests that SE must hold some form of superiority if it is the variety chosen for future generations to learn from.

Furthermore, Honey lauds the versatility of SE. By versatility, he explicitly refers to how SE can be used in the most formal and informal of occasions (1997, p.40). A perfect example comes from Andersson and Trudgill (1990, p.6) who refer to the term ‘informal SE’, exemplifying this through “he’s bust his collar bone”. Collectively, Honey implies that non-standard forms cannot be used in formal situations. Without being too contentious, I do see where he’s coming from.  Admittedly, it is difficult to imagine a Member of Parliament, for example, standing and speaking with a broad scouse dialect, throwing ‘las’ around casually!

As insightful as Honey’s views are, opposing arguments are equally as thought provoking. Bringing the concept of ‘linguistic equality’ into play, many linguists see SE as simply another variety. Initially, these linguists question the supposed superiority of SE which often occurs through misinterpretation of its label. For instance, Perera (1994, p.81) claims that many misinterpret the meaning of the word ‘standard’. As she points out, the dictionary definition of ‘standard’ is “a level of excellence or quality” (1994, p.81). In her eyes, people wrongly assume that SE complies to this definition and encompasses a form of superiority that other non-standard varieties do not have. On a whole, she is quick to disregard the superiority of SE. Somehow, I’m not as convinced. Surely, we can’t just succumb to the idea of linguistic equality because a few people may have gotten muddled up in their definitions? I think we need to dig deeper.

To do so, we must consider measures of superiority. Milroy and Milroy claim that as the superiority of one language to another is not amenable to rigorous proof, we cannot prove that one language is better than another (1999, p.13). For how can linguists, like Honey, claim the superiority of SE, when they cannot provide any physical proof or measures?

Fortifying their support for linguistic equality, Milroy and Milroy also claim that all languages and varieties have gaps in their system (1999, p.12). For example, SE has no grammatical resource for differentiating between singular and plural in the second person pronoun ‘you’. Comparatively, the non-standard variety Northern Irish English, does (1999, p.13). Indeed, this may not seem too problematic. Even still, the fact that SE can be classed as inferior to a non-standard variety almost dents senses of legitimacy we derive from Honey’s views. For how can we see something inferior, as superior?

My opinion? I do agree with the notion of linguistic equality to an extent. Predominantly, I fail to see how we can deem one variety as superior to the rest, when we have no empirical evidence to back this up. On the other hand, I also recognise the opposing point of view, particularly regarding the presence of SE in our educational system. Overall, however, I do not feel as though we have enough evidence to decisively classify SE as superior. Therefore, I am intrigued enough to pose the following question: What would need to happen for us all to openly accept SE as a superior variety?

JAMES RODGER, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Anderrson, LG and Trudgill, P. (1990). Bad Language. London: Penguin.

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.

 

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