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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Is Standard English superior to other dialects? NATASHA MASON considers the role of SE in schools.

To understand the debate surrounding Standard English, we need to explore what the term means. Many linguists struggle to define the term ‘Standard English’ and it is difficult to establish exactly what the rules of a standard language are. Hayley Davis defines Standard English as 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” (1999:70). Although this definition explains the context in which Standard English is used, it does not explore the forms of language that constitute a Standard English. Tony Crowley insists in differentiating between a spoken and written Standard English and attempts to define ‘Standard Spoken English’ through the suggestion of what it is not: “Standard spoken English’ […] can be defined in terms of difference, which is to say that we know what ‘Standard English’ is  because we know what it is not (it is not vulgar, provincial, uneducated, inarticulate, uncivilised, bad, evil or perverted English)” (2003: 207).

Here, Crowley essentially just uses the assumptions of others’ opinions to define Standard spoken English. Taking these definitions into consideration, it is evident that Standard English is void of an exact definition, which makes it difficult to reach a sound conclusion regarding whether a Standard English is the ‘correct’ English to teach in schools.

The Newbolt Report of 1921 conveys a very prescriptivist attitude towards Standard English. The report states that “[i]t is emphatically the business of the Elementary School to teach all its pupils who either speak a definite dialect or whose speech is disfigured by vulgarisms, to speak standard English, and to speak it clearly, and with expression’ (The Newbolt Report, 1926: 65). Overall this is a negative outlook on those who don’t speak the standard. The Bullock Report of 1975 portrays a more liberal and open-minded attitude towards English. The report states that “[t]he aim is not to alienate the child from a form of language with which he has grown up and which serves him efficiently in the speech community of his neighbourhood. It is to enlarge his repertoire so that he can use language effectively in other speech situations and use standard forms when they are needed (The Bullock Report, 1975: 143).

The contrasting attitudes in these reports highlight how attitudes towards language have changed over time.

John Honey was one (controversial) linguist who argued that he was more in favour of similar (old-fashioned) attitudes conveyed by The Newbolt Report. Honey believed that Standard English is superior to all other forms of English and to achieve equality all children should be taught Standard English and use it in every communicative situation (Honey: 1997). This clearly indicates Honey’s attitude towards other non-standard varieties of English. However, having a Standard English is useful. Ronald Carter suggests 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. Such forms constitute the basis for the teaching of English internationally” (Carter: 1999, 163).

Carter puts forth an interesting and valid argument, that yes, having a standard language is of course useful when taking into consideration that it has minimal variation and can therefore be used as a global language in order for people to communicate internationally. However, Honey suggests that “[t]he speakers of non-standard social and regional dialect forms suffer comparable forms of disadvantage” (1997: 21-22). Honey believed therefore that those who are not taught to speak and write in Standard English are not as intelligent as those who do speak and write in it. This is a problematic assumption to make, and many, like myself, disagree. Carter quotes Perera who claims that “[p]upils who speak non-standard English do so not because they are unintelligent or because they have not been well taught, but because it is the variety of English used all the time by their family and friends’ (1999: 164). If one can communicate successfully using a regional dialect then surely it is unproblematic to avoid using Standard English. Is it really necessary to enforce a use of Standard English at all times? Or should it depend on context, or situation?

NATASHA MASON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Carter, R. (1999) ‘Standard Grammars, spoken grammars: Some educational implications’ in Bex, T. and Watts, Richard J. (eds) (1999) Standard English: The Widening Debate London: Routledge.

Crowley, T. (2003) ‘Language against Modernity’ in Standard English and the Politics of Language. (2nd edn) Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.

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.

Honey, J. (1997)  Language is Power: The Story of Standard English and its Enemies. London, Faber and Faber.

The Newbolt Report (1921) <http://www.educationengland.org.uk/documents/newbolt/>

The Bullock Report (1975) <http://www.educationengland.org.uk/documents/bullock/>

Standard English and linguistic equality. MIA DERMAWAN discusses John Honey’s controversial views on Standard English (and its ‘enemies’)

John Honey’s opinion on the English Standard Debate is one that has caused much controversy amongst some of the most well-known of linguists. From reading his book, Language is Power: The Story of Standard English and it’s Enemies, it is evident that Honey believes that there is an English Standard that is a better form, which should be taught in schools, known and used across the world. He believes that it is a dialect that should be used to create linguistic equality that would enable everyone to communicate and understand each other universally. He also believes, and presents in his book that this dialect has many enemies, such as other linguists like Chomsky and Pinker – from whom it should be protected. Honey dedicates a whole chapter in his book to the exploration of these enemies and openly attacks their viewpoints by, from what I personally felt was forcefully and persuasively, presenting his own thoughts and ideas, as the ones that are correct. In a review written in response to Honey’s book, Peter Trudgill recognises himself as being one of the linguists that Honey is targeting and arguing against regarding this debate, along with other considered influential linguists, such as; Milroy, Crystal, Halliday, Labov and Aitchison. This is how much of an impact Honey’s view has had, and suggests that much controversy amongst linguists must have been caused with him targeting the work of these named linguists.

So what is Honey’s view on the English Standard Debate? Well in his book, Honey talks about Standard English being a dialect that is spoken as well as written, but is best represented by the language that is written in books and newspapers and used all over the world. He also writes about there being subtle differences in terms of vocabulary, spelling and grammar in, for example, American Standard English and British Standard English (1997: 1). It is this dialect that should be taught in schools and protected from the ‘enemies’ Honey establishes in his book.

In his review published arguing against Honey’s opinion, Trudgill notes that Honey’s claim of other linguists being enemies of the English Standard based on the fact that they imply Standard English is not in any way superior, because they suggest that all dialects of English are structured, grammatical, rich and viable linguistic systems. Therefore they are discouraging people who are non-native speakers from learning it (p3). Trudgill argues his case by pointing out that Honey does not give a valid reason for his claim against the other linguists, as ‘Honey remains suspiciously silent’ (p3). Trudgill then goes further to describe how Honey is viewed to be more of a scholar, rather than a linguist, based on Honey’s knowledge and limited research in comparison with the other linguists. This suggests what the general opinions on Honey’s proposal is on the English Standard Debate. It is not one that is favoured amongst other, more well-known researchers in this field, and is not deemed as viable as theirs.

My own personal opinion on this matter? Well, I think that having an English standard is beneficial, for the same reason that Honey claims – to create linguistic equality and so that everyone around the world can understand and communicate universally. However, I disagree with Honey in saying that the English Standard is a ‘better form’. I don’t think that any dialect is better than another.

MIA DERMAWAN, English undergraduate, University of Chester (UK)

Should we embrace Standard English and all other dialects equally depending on the context? ETHAN NEWTON explores the views of politicians and educationists

The term ‘Standard English’ (SE) couldn’t be any more subjective. What do these bickering linguists and politicians mean by it? Is it the written form? The spoken form? Or both? On top of this ambiguity politicians and academics have stated that the standard of English used by our children is falling. The consequence of this has been a number of education reforms.

Most cries of change came from employers, and politicians echoing employers in regards to the standards of literacy. Speaking In 1986, the minister for education Kenneth Baker stated: ‘frequently I hear employers complain that many school-leavers applying for jobs after 11 years of compulsory education cannot write simply, clearly and without obvious error’ (cited by Fairclough 2001:196).

The Kingman report in 1988 was the solution for the cries of the elites and was possibly the most publicised account into the standards of education. However, it was not well received by the right-wing conservatives who preferred a return to the traditional teaching of Latinate grammar.

Kingman on the other hand stated, ‘we are more concerned with the ability to write in SE than to speak it’ (cited by Crowley 2003:256). Surely this is how it should be though – a written and spoken form distinct from each other. I do not ever recall myself ever speaking in the standard written form, have you? Apart from maybe at a job interview, but even then the levels of prestige and eloquence varies on your understanding of English. Also you wouldn’t send a text to a friend in perfect grammatically correct standard written English (or Latinate grammar)…would you? But yet again it all comes down to a matter of context does it not?

Bullock believed it was more reasonable to talk and think in terms of ‘appropriateness’ than absolute correctness (cited by Crowley 2003:257). This posits the notion of applying a standard to contexts where it would be needed. This further stipulates the purpose of teaching a ‘standard’ English as an extension to our English language repertoire, rather than replacing our current one full of dialectal influences and variations.

Prescriptive attitudes from politicians to drill children towards how they ‘should’ speak was criticised by several reformists including Her Majesties Inspectorate. They believed a child should be able to modify their speech rather than replace it because not one form of English dialect is inherently superior. Otherwise the elites are just endorsing a hierarchy of dialects are they not? Additionally, Bullock (cited by Crowley 2003:237) added, ‘to criticise a person’s speech may be an attack on his self-esteem’. Obviously the elites in Whitehall only cared for their own dialect rather than the dialects of millions of others.

The result of the Kingman report was the implementation of the national curriculum. The intention of it was very clear: that grammatical ideas should be available to teachers and to pupils for use as tools (Hudson 1992:7). I for one advocate SE should be taught as an auxiliary dialect to be used in appropriate contexts as a tool, ‘written’ or ‘spoken’. Yet the question remains – what is the ‘Standard’? John Honey (cited by Crowley 2003:266) seemed to think it was the dialect of the ‘educated’, then again what is the dialectal criteria for the educated?

ETHAN NEWTON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester (UK)

References

Crowley, T. (2003). Standard English and the Politics of Language. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Fairclough, N. (1989). Language and Power. London: Longman.

Hudson, R. A. (1992). Teaching Grammar: A Guide for the National Curriculum. Cambridge, Mass.: B. Blackwell.

Honey claims that Standard English is better than the rest. Is it? Or is it just plain naff? JESS JOHNSTON investigates.

John Honey is one of very few linguists to openly adopt a strong prescriptive view on language. Upon reading his book Language is Power: The Story of Standard English and its Enemies (1997), it becomes immediately clear that he certainly doesn’t hold back when it comes to slating the work of famously descriptive linguists if they dare to undermine the significance of Standard English (we’ll call it SE). He believes that it needs to be protected from – as he puts it – “enemies”.

Honey champions the traditional virtues of ‘good English’ which he believes to be SE: the standard dialect (not accent!) of the English language which is taught across the globe. However, this is a controversial view amongst the majority of linguists as a popular motto in the study of language is that no language or dialect is more superior to another. Therefore, while he is arguing that SE is the superior dialect of English, there is a much greater proportion of linguists – Crystal, Trudgill, Bex, Milroy, Aitchison, Labov, Halliday, Pinker, Chomsky (just to name a few) – whose research and conclusions argue otherwise. While they do not forget that SE is to some extent an important aspect of the English language, they support much more the concept of “linguistic equality” – something that Honey sarcastically writes off as ridiculous (1997: 8-9).

After praising and declaring the unique essence of SE, Honey goes out of his way to name and shame what/who he deems as its ‘enemies’. There are four, with each having a chapter of their own, with the first two being Noam Chomsky and his theory of innateness in child language acquisition alongside his accomplice Pinker. The third and fourth ‘enemies’ are the opinions society hold about SE being a ‘class’ dialect and only for the elite. However, as you would expect, there have been many who have attacked and in some cases undermined Honey’s claims, and Trudgill and Bex are only two of them. For example, in a review of Honey’s book Trudgill portrays him as unsuitable to even have an opinion on the matter as he is merely a scholar – not a linguist – and even goes as far to say ‘that to assert that [SE] needs to be protected from [“enemies”], would be demented’ (1998: 1). Even Bex does not tame his opinions by stating that ‘[t]he main difficulty with the book involves sorting out the sense from the sheer silliness that Honey frequently displays’ (1998: 1). It is clear that they do not respect his arguments in any way.

While many would be quick to happily join the likes of Crystal, Chomsky, Bex and Trudgill in this debate (they are big names in the study of language, after all), it would interesting to consider how we actually react to different dialects as individual readers. For example, if a company were reading through a number of job applications, would you expect them to employ the individual who would be ‘chuffed to bits to get the job cause I ain’t had a job for yonks’ or the individual who ‘would be exceptionally thrilled to receive the job offer and to be thrown back into a work environment after an elongated period of time’? I’ll let you decide.

JESS JOHNSTON, English language undergraduate, University of Chester (UK)

References

Bex, T., ‘Review of John Honey: Language is Power: The Story of Standard English and its Enemies’. First published in Applied Linguistics, 19, 3, 407-10. [Accessed 30 March 2014] Available at: http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/estuary/bex-honey.htm

Honey, J. (1997) Language is Power: The Story of Standard English and its Enemies. London: Faber and Faber Limited.

Trudgill, P. (1998) ‘Review of Language is Power. The Story of Standard English and its Enemies. John Honey’. First published in Journal of Sociolinguistics 2,3, pp. 457-461. [Accessed 30 March 2014] Available at: http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/estuary/honeyrev.htm

JESSICA HOLMES discusses the pros and cons of using Standard English in education

The debate over the use of Standard English is a continual topic amongst linguists and the general public One of the central issues is the use of Standard English in education and whether it is entirely necessary.

So what is Standard English? Standard English is defined by Swann et al. as a ‘relatively uniform variety of a language which does not show regional variation’ (in Culpepper et al, 2009: 224). Kerswill (in Culpeper et al, 2009) describes Standard English as being ‘subject to how the observer views the matter’ making it a ‘social judgement’ (2009: 238).  When defining Standard English, Crowley (in Bex and Watts 1999: 271) states it is a phrase which ‘shifts in its meaning between ‘uniformity’ and ‘level of excellence’ ’.  Trudgill refers to Standard English as ‘purely a social dialect’ and states it is ‘no longer a geographical dialect’ (2002: 164). From these quotations, it is clear to see the differing opinions portrayed simply through their attempts at defining the term Standard English.

The Elementary Education Act was introduced in 1870 which led to basic education being provided for children up to the age of ten. This movement led to the English language being taught to children within school environments at a very basic level. However, at the turn of the twentieth century, English became established fully within schools meaning its scope was broadened.  Honey states, ‘in 1988 the Conservative Government  imposed a national curriculum, for the first time in British history, making English one of three core subjects for all pupils ages 5-16’ (1997: 174). Monaghan highlights, ‘this widening of the English curriculum has led to intense debate about the relative importance of the various components’ (2007: 152).

Many people have negative opinions towards the idea of teaching Standard English in education. This may be due to the uniqueness of an individual’s regional variety being reduced in speech.  Through speaking Standard English, often people believe their individuality may become lost or reduced, whilst Bex and Watts claim, learning Standard English can lead to ‘devaluation of other dialects’ (1999: 14).

Along with the negatives, there is also a wide range of advantageous aspects to be made for the inclusion of Standard English on the National Curriculum amongst schools. Standard English is described by Kerswill and Culpepper as the ‘gold standard’ and by this they are referring to what other types of English may be measured against (2009: 224). Honey clarifies how Standard English ‘reinforces cultural, economic and social privileges’ (1997: 37), whilst Kerswill and Culpeper say it allows people of ‘different walks of life to communicate more easily than if only regional dialects were available’ (2009: 224).

Through my own experience of entering the education system in the 1990s, Standard English and its grammatical rules and regulations were of imperative importance in my education. I do not recall being corrected for my spoken form of English, however, there was much emphasis placed upon the written form. It is very difficult to have an opinion on the subject as there is so much more to be said for both viewpoints. However, I believe my personal education was fairly strict when concerned with the Standard English rules taught, and I do not feel my regional variety has been lost or reduced in any way.

JESSICA HOLMES, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK.

References

Bex,T. Watts, R. (1999) Standard English: The Widening Debate. London: Routledge.

Culpepper, J. et al (2009) English Language: Description, Variation and Context. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Honey, J. (1997) Language is Power: The Story of Standard English and its Enemies. London: Faber and Faber.

 

 

 

LAURA BUCKLEY asks: ‘Why should Standard English be the language of education? And what about speakers of local dialects?’

Standard English is the variety employed by the education system in every English-speaking country in the world (Trudgill 2002: 160). Despite Standard English being taught in schools, there is still some controversy on whether or not it is advantageous to teach the standard form.

According to (Carter, 1997: 8) one view of Standard English is that it is ‘correct English and must be uniformly enforced in all context of use and that children not drilled in the rules of standard grammar are both deviant and disempowered.’ This shows that children are at a higher advantage in some aspects of their lives (perhaps academically or socially) if they are taught in Standard English. Since the standard language is perceived as the variety of highest prestige, status and power and the ‘property of the privileged’ (Honey 1997: 53), it is thought that using Standard English provides ‘connotations of perfection’ (Bex and Watts 1999:). This suggests that a Standard English speaker may be perceived as well-spoken and well-educated. Holborow (1999) describes the usage of Standard English as a ‘social ladder’ and an ‘indispensable tool’, suggesting that if a speaker uses the standard form they are able to climb the social scale and support the individual towards a higher status. Speaking and writing in Standard English can also reinforce cultural, economic and social privileges (Honey 1997: 52) and therefore, as Carter (1997: 8) implies, another view is that working class children can gain linguistic power by learning Standard English. It is also claimed by some that if standard grammar is not taught, then communication may break down. So could this mean that speakers are put in a more privileged position of status and power? And if we have no standard form to teach to children and foreign speakers then will communication collapse?

On the other hand, there are many controversial arguments against the standard being the language taught in education. Bex and Watts (1999: 14) believe that there is stigma attached to using the ‘incorrect’ forms and this can cause social discrimination (usually between social classes). Therefore, individuals who may not speak in the standard form are perhaps perceived as lower in status or power. It is also believed that other social dialects of English may be devalued when Standard English is taught (Bex and Watts 1999: 15) and as a result of this, dialects which can represent culture and society may be seen as unworthy in comparison to the Standard English. If speakers are brought up with the standard form as their variety, some believe that they have an unfair advantage to speakers who speak with a local dialect. This makes me concerned that if speakers use their local dialect, then are they discriminated against and perceived as non-educated?

Taking all these arguments and questions into consideration, personally I believe that there will always be one standard form, which is perceived as the most privileged and therefore used in education. However, the usage of different local dialects should also be viewed as a privilege, which can represent culture and diversity. I am interested to see what the effects of a dialect taught in a school instead of the standard variety would be and if we could ever see a dialect /dialects used as a medium of education?

LAURA BUCKLEY, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

 

References

Bex, T. & Watts, R. (1999) Standard English: The Widening Debate. London:  Routledge.

Carter, R. (1997) Investigating English Discourse: Language, Literacy and Literature. London: Routledge.

Honey, J. (1997) Language is Power: The Story of Standard English and its enemies. London: Faber and Faber.

Holborow, M. (1999) The Politics of English. London: Sage Publications.

Trudgill, P. (2002) Sociolinguistic Variation and Change. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.