Why Don’t You Practise What You Preach?

Those of us who maintain that all varieties of English have equal linguistic merit sometimes hear the argument that in that case we should all be prepared to use features of nonstandard dialects in our own speech and writing.

In considering such an argument, it’s first necessary to remember that, in Peter Trudgill’s words, ‘most native speakers of English in the world are native speakers of some nonstandard variety of the language’. These varieties have different features. For example, a sentence such as Gan canny or we’ll dunsh summick (Be careful or we will crash into something) might be heard in the Geordie dialect found in the north-east of England. As the British Library points out, what many of us call a bread roll is known by other names in parts of the country. They include cob, batch, bread cake, barm cake and scuffler. Again, the British Library reminds us that a construction such as she were wearing a mask, might be heard in northern England and the Midlands, where many speakers indicate the past tense of be with I were, he were, she were and it were, as well as you were, we were and they were. Some speakers in the South East of England, by contrast, will use was for all persons singular and plural as the past tense of be.

The dialect known as Standard English is used in most writing, and it happens to be adopted by many educated people. ‘Educated’ might deserve some elaboration,  but the important thing is that Standard English is not linguistically superior by virtue of its being used by the educated. The motivation for its use is social, not linguistic. Standard English has none of the features of the regional English dialects I have mentioned, but such features most certainly do not need to be adopted by speakers of Standard English to give them legitimacy. It’s no more reasonable to ask speakers of one English dialect to adopt features of another than it is to expect English speakers to use the French chaise for ‘chair’, or to speak, as Arabic does, of house my instead of ‘my house’.

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2 responses to “Why Don’t You Practise What You Preach?

  1. Trudgill says that about 15% of anglophones in the U.K. are Standard English speakers. I wonder what the comparable figure is in North America. This is partly a matter of definition, of course: if we do not admit regional variations within Standard English, then we must say that (almost) nobody in North America speaks Standard English, because we must treat e.g. fall ‘autumn’ as a non-standard feature. In England it is certainly non-standard, like backend ‘id.’, but to call it non-standard in the United States seems to me to reduce the notion of Standard English to an absurdity.

    Absent that, then, what is the figure? My guess is that it is far, far higher than in the U.K., given the rarity of traditional dialects (as opposed to accents) in 21st-century North America. When we get past Newfoundlander, Tidewater Virginian, backwoods Appalachian, and of course AAVE, what remains is a huge number of speakers of something that is either Standard English or intergrades with it so smoothly (a low rate of non-standard features is associated with low SES, informality, etc.; a high rate of such features with higher SES, formality, etc.) as to hardly make it worthwhile to draw lines.

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    • I think that might well be the case, and in my limited experience speakers of American English seem to be more anxious than speakers of British English about conforming to the standard, even when it is not necessary to do so. I agree that ‘fall’ forms part of the American Standard English lexicon, as do various grammatical features such as the apparent preference in some contexts for the past tense over the present perfect construction.

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