You say CONtroversy, I say conTROversy. JANA STAMMBERGER explores pronunciation prescriptions and descriptions

We can learn fixed rules in the field of science, which, if applied in the way we are taught, necessarily lead us to the correct result. Can the same circumstances be said about language?

Here, we are already at the core of a major debate.  The dominant view in the field of linguistics says that language is not an absolute set of rules. The conventions of language use are man-made rather than laid down by the laws of nature, and therefore keep changing –  and always have done (Curzan, 2014, p. 1). This view is also the “basis for dictionaries, which record changes in vocabulary and usage” (Battistella, 2007, p. 5). The declared aim of the Oxford English Dictionary is “to provide a brief, scientific account of the history and usage of all the words of the English language, wherever and whenever they were spoken”, and is therefore a record of the English language rather than an instruction on how to use it (OED online, 2018). Judgements about ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ and ‘good’ as opposed to ‘bad’ language are usually frowned upon by descriptivists.

In contrast, in his book Strictly English, Simon Heffer claims that the question if English can be good “is not rhetorical” (Heffer, 2010, p. xv). Prescriptivists like him make attempts to pin down one point in time where the language was allegedly “pure”, that is, correct. This they regard as the ‘standard’ that they make efforts to maintain or to get back to. However, this is not merely their own opinion. Heffer claims that “whether the linguistics experts like it or not, there remains an idea of “standard English” as it is spoken in Britain […], set by an educated class” (Heffer, 2010, p. xv).

Who belongs to this educated class? Bernard Lamb may be one of those people. Educated he is – given his large range of achievements, including BSc, PhD, DSc, FSB, CBiol and FRSM. This alone, of course, does not imply that he is a potential prescriptivist. Nor does his age (he is now in his late 70s) – although a prescriptive tendency often increases proportionally to age. This might be accounted for by the – in some respects quite rapid – change of language use, which is seen as a process of decay or “fall in standards”, to use Lamb’s very own words. But for more than 10 years he has been President of the Queen’s English Society which was “formed in 1972 by a small group of people who loved the English language and were concerned at the widespread deterioration in standards” (Queen’s English Society). The Society is leading campaigns to spread the teaching and use of what they call ‘proper English’.

There are different levels on which people criticise language. While the Queen’s English Society explicitly focuses on “written and spoken English”, both have to be looked at separately (Queen’s English Society, 2018, Standards). The English spelling system, for instance, has been fairly fixed for a couple of centuries, since during the 18th century efforts were made to “enshrin[e] English spelling to prevent further corruption” (Horobin, 2013, p. 144). The focus was on orthography as “this is the aspect of the language that is most easily regulated” (Horobin, 2013, p. 144). Pronunciation is a different matter, as it is much harder to standardise, which does not mean, of course, that the attempt has not been made. Would you pronounce the term ‘controversy’ with emphasis on the first or on the second syllable?  According to the OED, ” early editions of D. Jones Eng. Pronouncing Dict. give only first-syllable stress; later editions of Jones give second-syllable stress as a variant from at least ed. 8 (1947). J. C. Wells Longman Pronunc. Dict. (1990) noted that while among RP speakers the first-syllable stress probably still predominated, a majority of British speakers now favoured second-syllable stress” (OED Online, 2018). Obviously, both options have co-existed for at least decades, and the dominant or preferred use has changed over time.

So who determines how we should pronounce words? We do, said the BBC shortly after their foundation in the 1920s. Arthur Lloyd James, then member of the BBC Advisory Committee of Spoken English, condemned “the slurring of sounds, the missing of sounds, the untidy articulation of sounds” (Mugglestone, 2008, p. 212). The BBC was promoting an RP accent as the standard pronunciation, which is why it is still commonly referred to as BBC English. Yet, there has been a shift within the BBC, away from prescriptivism. Daniel Jones, also member of the Advisory Committee, wrote in the preface to the 1956 edition of the English Pronouncing Dictionary that  “no attempt was made to decide how people ought to pronounce”, and RP meant “merely widely understood pronunciation” and he did “not hold it up as a standard which everyone [was] recommended to adopt” (Wotschke, 2008, p. 97). These days the BBC are much more liberal when it comes to varieties of English. On the radio and on television, regional dialects are no exception among presenters.

This has led to sharp criticism and complaints by readers and institutions about “falling standards” and a “drop in quality” (Creighton, 2014). Whether they actively support it or not, a strong idea of a standard set to be kept by authorities remains to be present in people’s minds.

JANA STAMMBERGER, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Battistella, E.L. (2005). Bad language. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford UP.

Creighton, S. (2014, October 30). BBC stars who can’t say ‘aitch’: Corporation accused of falling standards after viewers highlight way number of presenters say the letter ‘H’. Daily Mail.

Curzan, A. (2014). Fixing English: Prescriptivism and language history.  Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Heffer, S. (2010). Strictly English. The correct way to write and why it matters. London, United Kingdom: Windmill Books.

Horobin, S. (2013). Does spelling matter?. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Jones, D. (1967). The Pronunciation of English (4th ed.). Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge UP.

Mugglestone, L. (2008). Spoken English and the BBC: In the Beginning.  Arbeiten aus Anglistik und Amerikanistik 33(2), 197-215.

OED online. (2018).  The OED and innovation. 

Queen’s English Society. (2018). Standards. Policy Document.

Queen’s English Society. (2018). Campaign. 

Wotschke, I. (2008). How educated English speak English. Lewiston NY, United States: The Edwin Mellen Press.


One thought on “You say CONtroversy, I say conTROversy. JANA STAMMBERGER explores pronunciation prescriptions and descriptions

  1. Hi Jana,
    Thank you for this very well structured and well explained blog entry. You explain with clarity the debate of prescriptivists and descriptivists which is easy to understand, even for a non-specialist reader. You smoothly guide the reader from one point to the next whilst simultaneously building up the whole picture. I like that you have included information on the Queen’s English society and its background. You have pointed out that the English language goes through a “rapid change of language use”. Have you come across any studies examining the changing level or speed of the language? Is there a study that would be able to show the difference between the speed of present and past changes? There may be a connection between the speed of language changes and prescriptivism activity levels. You have also mentioned changes in spelling and pronunciation. Whilst spelling is easier to control, pronunciation is a different matter. Do you think that with more effort the changes in pronunciation could be controllable? Do you think that modern technology and the media are slowing down or speeding up these changes? I enjoyed reading you summary of the BBC’s approach to standard pronunciation and variations in their attitude towards this. Do you think that the increased liberalisation of the BBC in their choice in presenters has an influence on the language in any way? The BBC is not believed to set an example just in the UK, but rather all around the world. In English language courses for non-English speakers, teachers often suggest watching BBC programmes to practice their understanding of the language. Do you think that promoting more regional accents changes the world’s opinion of “BBC English” as the leading example or intensifies it?

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