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In the entry for "Standard English" in The Oxford Companion to the English Language (1992), Tom McArthur observes that this "widely used term . . . resists easy definition but is used as if most educated people nonetheless know precisely what it refers to." For some of those people, Standard English (SE) is a synonym for good or correct English usage. Others use the term to refer to a specific geographical dialect of English or a dialect favored by the most powerful and prestigious social group. Some linguists argue that there really is no single standard of English. It may be revealing to examine some of the presumptions that lie behind these various interpretations. The following comments--from linguists, lexicographers, grammarians, and journalists--are offered in the spirit of fostering discussion rather than resolving all the many complex issues that surround the term "Standard English." What Is Standard English? A Highly Elastic and Variable Term [W]hat counts as Standard English will depend on both the locality and the particular varieties that Standard English is being contrasted with. A form that is considered standard in one region may be nonstandard in another, and a form that is standard by contrast with one variety (for example the language of inner-city African Americans) may be considered nonstandard by contrast with the usage of middle-class professionals. No matter how it is interpreted, however, Standard English in this sense shouldn't be regarded as being necessarily correct or unexceptionable, since it will include many kinds of language that could be faulted on various grounds, like the language of corporate memos and television advertisements or the conversations of middle-class high-school students. Thus while the term can serve a useful descriptive purpose providing the context makes its meaning clear, it shouldn't be construed as conferring any absolute positive evaluation. (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fourth edition, 2000) What Standard English Is Not . . . (i) It is not an arbitrary, a priori description of English, or of a form of English, devised by reference to standards of moral value, or literary merit, or supposed linguistic purity, or any other metaphysical yardstick--in short, 'Standard English' cannot be defined or described in terms such as 'the best English,' or 'literary English,' or 'Oxford English,' or 'BBC English.' (ii) It is not defined by reference to the usage of any particular group of English-users, and especially not by reference to a social class--'Standard English' is not 'upper class English' and it is encountered across the whole social spectrum, though not necessarily in equivalent use by all members of all classes. (iii) It is not statistically the most frequently occurring form of English, so that 'standard' here does not mean 'most often heard.' (iv) It is not imposed upon those who use it. True, its use by an individual may be largely the result of a long process of education; but Standard English is neither the product of linguistic planning or philosophy (for example as exists for French in the deliberations of the Academie Francaise, or policies devised in similar terms for Hebrew, Irish, Welsh, Bahasa Malaysia, etc); nor is it a closelydefined norm whose use and maintenance is monitored by some quasi-official body, with penalties imposed for non-use or mis-use. Standard English evolved: it was not produced by conscious design. (Peter Strevens, "What Is 'Standard English'?" RELC Journal, Singapore, 1981) Written English and Spoken English There are many grammar books, dictionaries and guides to English usage which describe and give advice on the standard English that appears in writing. . . . [T]hese books are widely used for guidance on what constitutes standard English. However, there is often also a tendency to apply these judgments, which are about written English, to spoken English. But the norms of spoken and written language are not the same; people don't talk like books even in the most formal of situations or contexts. If you can't refer to a written norm to describe spoken language, then, as we have seen, you base your judgments on the speech of the "best people," the "educated" or higher social classes. But basing your judgments on the usage of the educated is not without its difficulties. Speakers, even educated ones, use a variety of different forms. . . . (Linda Thomas, Ishtla Singh, Jean Stilwell Peccei, and Jason Jones, Language, Society and Power: An Introduction, Routledge, 2004)
that the language is becoming degraded. grammar books and guides to good speaking and writing. (Sidney Greenbaum. . It is taught in schools. but the passions evinced over such problematic points should not obscure the fact that for the vast majority of questions about what's allowed in Standard English. edited by Tony Bex and Richard J. do not necessarily belong to a speech community whose members learned English in infancy. Standard English is simply one variety of English among many. . solicitors. spelling. the majority of native speakers of English. vocabulary. . "Standard English: What It Isn·t. the answers are clear. It is the norm for dictionaries and grammars. users often think of themselves as guardians of something precious: they wince when they hear or read uses of English that they consider to be sub-standard. (Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. we can say that Standard English was selected (though of course. have had differential access depending on their social class background." in Standard English: The Widening Debate. and accountants. Of course. in their letters to newspapers. unlike many other languages.Standard English Is a Dialect "If Standard English is not therefore a language. We expect to find it in official typed communications. Rather than considering themselves owners of English. and punctuation. an accent. Pullum. We expect to hear it in national news broadcasts and documentary programmes on radio or television. 1991) The Grammar of Standard English The grammar of Standard English is much more stable and uniform than its pronunciation or word stock: there is remarkably little dispute about what is grammatical (in compliance with the rules of grammar) and what isn't. who have a sense of ownership of the English language and who can make pronouncements about what is or is not acceptable. especially in earlier centuries. the small number of controversial points that there are--trouble spots like who versus whom--get all the public discussion in language columns and letters to the editor. An Introduction to English Grammar. . as well as those to whom these attributes are accorded by others. Historically. a style or a register. wealth and prestige. as at least most British sociolinguists are agreed. Routledge. Native speakers of nonstandard varieties of English. Watts. 1999) The Official Dialect In countries where the majority speak English as their first language one dialect is used nationally for official purposes. Longman. Standard English is the national dialect that generally appears in print. 2006) The Guardians of Standard English The so-called native speakers of standard Englishes are those people who have somehow espoused a particular set of conventions that loosely have to do with the way English has been codified and prescribed in dictionaries. simply be those who have learned thoroughly how to use a standard English to enjoy the sense of empowerment that comes with it. Those who do feel they have rights and privileges. have never had any real authority over Standard English and have never "owned" it. in other words. that Standard English is a dialect. . The actual proprietors may. A Student's Introduction to English Grammar. This group of people includes a large number of those who. . . Cambridge University Press. so it may seem as if there is much turmoil. Within each national variety the standard dialect is relatively homogeneous in grammar. after all. not by any overt or conscious decision) as the variety to become the standard variety precisely because it was the variety associated with the social group with the highest degree of power. and they worry. (Peter Trudgill. nevertheless do not consider themselves to be excellent users of those conventions. having espoused the conventions. . and students are expected to use it in their essays. Subsequent developments have reinforced its social character: the fact that it has been employed as the dialect of an education to which pupils. then of course we are obliged to say what it actually is. For many of these so-called native speakers the English language is a unique entity that exists outside or beyond its users. such as letters from government officials. It is called Standard English. . The answer is. It is a sub-variety of English. .
have elevated themselves. valuable though that writing is. vocabulary. . . . The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. o SE is the variety of English which carries most prestige within a country. we may define the Standard English of an English-speaking country as a minority variety (identified chiefly by its vocabulary. . actually use it when they talk. but not necessarily to a close friend). 1999) . . (David Crystal. Whether or not their pronouncements will continue to be accepted is another matter. Nor does the answer reside in "rules" for speech laid down by either the "educated" of any official body held to be able to guarantee spoken "correctness." o The prestige attached to SE is recognized by adult members of the community. More than anywhere else. The answer does not lie in some simple-minded recourse to the practice of the "best authors" or the "admired literature" of the past.So those who make authoritative pronouncements about a standard English are simply those who. we may extract five essential characteristics. . "Set Us Free From Standard English. Routledge. and this motivates them to recommend SE as a desirable educational target. edited by Tony Bex and Richard J. and orthography (spelling and punctuation). o The linguistic features of SE are chiefly matters of grammar. January 24. Watts. . irrespective of accidents of birth. . (Tony Crowley. o Although SE is widely understood. to positions of authority in academe or publishing or in other public areas. Cambridge University Press. SE is "the English used by the powerful. when they write-itself a minority activity--the consistent use of SE is required only in certain tasks (such as a letter to a newspaper. Similarly. It is important to note that SE is not a matter of pronunciation. . it is not widely produced. 2003) The Ongoing Debate It is in fact a great pity that the standard English debate is marred by the sort of conceptual confusions and political posturings (no matter how poorly expressed) . Only a minority of people within a country . . SE is to be found in print. and orthography) which carries most prestige and is most widely understood. 2002) Towards a Definition of SE From the dozens of definitions [of Standard English] available in the literature on English." The answers to the real questions will be found to be much more complex. grammar. or been elevated. On this basis. (Paul Roberts. . . . For these reasons they might be more successful. . There is a great deal to be done in this respect and proper arguments to be made. . . In the words of one US linguist." in Standard English: The Widening Debate. ." The Guardian. difficult and challenging than those currently on offer. o SE is a variety of English--a distinctive combination of linguistic features with a particular role to play.. . "Curiouser and Curiouser: Falling Standards in the Standard English Debate. . For I think there are genuine questions to be asked about what we might mean by "standards" in relation to speech and writing. but one thing is clear for sure.
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