Weinreich Revisited

A language is a dialect with an army and navy.

Warsaw Will and John Cowan raised some interesting points about Standard English in response to my post of 30 June, and they deserve fuller treatment than would be possible in a further comment. The Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich, poor man, is remembered chiefly as the alleged source of the quotation that heads this post, and it is one to bear in mind in considering various views on the status of a standard language variety.

A number of definitions of Standard English are available, but this by Richard Hudson will serve as well as any. It is the kind of English which is:

1. written in published work,
2. spoken in situations where published writing is most influential, especially in education (and especially at University level),
3. spoken “natively” (at home) by people who are most influenced by published writing – the “professional class”.

Will pointed out that there is more than one Standard English. There is British Standard English and there is American Standard English, and there are many more besides. Pam Peters, in ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’, seems to support this view when she writes (my emphasis):

‘The expression British English is generally used to distinguish the standard form of English used in Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the varieties used in other parts of the world.’

John seemed to disagree with this view, suggesting that Standard English was a global phenomenon, ‘being spoken with one accent or another in every English-speaking country, and indeed in every other country as well.’

My own belief, subject, as always, to adjustment in the light of contrary evidence, is that English varies between, but is conterminous with, various English-speaking states. Americans walk on the sidewalk and Britons walk on the pavement. An American committee might recommend that an employee be dismissed, and a British committee might equally recommend that an employee is dismissed, or should be dismissed. Each will be using a different Standard English. This suggests to me that a standard dialect is one that is used nationally, that is, within a single political entity, or state. We speak of British Standard English and American Standard English, not of Yorkshire Standard English or Wisconsin Standard English.

Will pointed to the way in which Glasgow University recognises a Scottish Standard English, a ‘variety of language normally used in formal, non-fictional written texts in Scotland . . . It is very close to standard Englishes elsewhere in the UK, North America and Australasia, but has some distinctive features.’ It gives the following examples of the ways in which ‘the grammar of Scottish Standard English differs from its southern cousin in certain grammatical features and idioms.

Scottish Standard English English Standard English
Can I come too? May I come too?
I would, if I was you. I should, if I were you.
My hair needs washed. My hair needs/wants washing.
He’ll not do that. He won’t do that.
I have one of those already. I’ve got one of those already.
Do you have any? Have you got any?
Does anybody know? Does anyone know?
She’s a braw lass. She’s a pretty girl.
He’s hurt his pinkie. He’s hurt his little finger.
Where do you stay? Where do you live?

Anybody, braw lass, pinkies and stay are matters of vocabulary rather than grammar, and even then anybody is just as likely to be heard in England as in Scotland, and pinkie has broken out of its original Scottish confines. With one exception, there doesn’t seem to me be anything specifically Scottish about the grammatical constructions in the left-hand column. The only one perhaps found in Scotland alone is My hair needs washed. I considered this construction in a post in 2009, where I suggested that If you need anything sliced, just ask was just as possible in England as If you need anything slicing, just ask. If that is the only example available, it doesn’t suggest that there is a distinct Scottish English grammar. I would say that the English used by many Scots was distinguished by its accent and vocabulary, rather than by its grammar.

If there is one day an independent Scotland, it may make sense to speak of a Scottish Standard English, just as historical developments have changed the linguistic landscape elsewhere. As David Crystal writes in ‘The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language’,

As one crosses a well-established national boundary, the variety of speech will change its name . . . It is important to recognise that the reasons are political and historical, not linguistic. Arguments over language names often reduce to arguments of a political nature.

He later points to the situation in Scandinavia, where

using just the intelligibility criterion, there are really only two Scandinavian languages: Continental and Insular. Swedes, Danes and Norwegians can understand each other’s speech, to a greater or lesser extent. But as soon as non-linguistic criteria are taken into account . . . [t]o be Norwegian is to speak Norwegian, to be Danish is to speak Danish; and so on.

Similarly, the language spoken in large parts of the former Yugoslavia was Serbo-Croat. Now that Serbia and Croatia are separate sovereign states, there are two languages, Serbian and Croatian.

If Scotland continues to be part of the United Kingdom, there will continue to be a single British Standard English used in the United Kingdom. Varieties of the language spoken, and occasionally written, in its various parts are dialects. There is no more a Scottish Standard English than there is there a Welsh Standard English, a Northern Irish Standard English, or even an English Standard English. That’s because it’s not so much that a language is a dialect with an army and navy as because the standard variety of a language, within a single state, is a dialect with an army and navy.


Filed under Dialects, English Language, Language, Standard English

30 responses to “Weinreich Revisited

  1. Outwith the orthography and some few points of vocabulary, you’d be hard put to it to find any difference between Canadian SE and American SE (though the Canadian accent is unique to Canada, of course). Canadians say “grade eight” whereas Americans say “the eighth grade”, but we always understand one another fine.

    I really think there is just one SE superdialect with a certain amount of regional vocabulary and a very, very few (and mostly optional) grammatical differences. True that Americans don’t care for notional subject agreement, but you can (I think) write perfectly good BrE without using it; ditto in reverse for the mandative subjunctive rather than should-constructions. There is nothing like the contrast between near-SE and AAVE on They ain’t like that, which means ‘They aren’t like that’ to American whites but ‘They don’t like that’ to American blacks (overgeneralizing, of course, in both cases).

    In any case the point of the SSE examples, if I understand them correctly, is that if a Scot says anyone rather than anybody, or He won’t do that, they are talking like an English person; not so much that if the English use these constructions they are talking like Scots.

    Needs washed, by the way, is an American regionalism found in areas of heavy Scotch-Irish (i.e. Ulster Scots) immigration, notably Western Pennsylvania and parts of the South.

    Finally, Max’s name is spelled “Weinreich”, and he definitely didn’t originate the saying, though he popularized it: see the Wikipedia article on the saying.


  2. This post commented on mutually intelligible languages in different countries and uses Scnadinavia as convenient evidence of a broader thesis.

    What does the blogger make of Chinese dialects, all spoken in China, that are not mutually intelligible but all considered “Chinese?”

    What about Hochdeutsch (Standard German), which is the officially correct form that no one speaks? It’s not even a dialect.

    And as far as writing goes, how about Chinese vs. Japanese? The spoken languages are not mutually intelligible but the written systems are identical. If you can read one language, you can read the other.


  3. Dialects are what people speak. Languages are abstract averages over mutually intelligible dialects. In my view, everyone speaks a dialect. Some have an army, but no matter. They’re all dialects. One speaks a specific dialect of a language.

    In a way, a dialect is the shadow thrown by a language onto the wall of Plato’s cave. A programmer might know it as an instantiation of a class.

    Anyhow …


  4. The way media is globalizing English, things become alternates instead of regional difference.


  5. John – Thanks for pointing out the misspelling. Now corrected.

    In ‘The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language’ , David Crystal acknowledges that some see evidence for the development of a World Standard English, but believes it is misleading to think in such terms claiming that ‘a totally uniform, regionally neutral, and unarguably prestigious variety does not yet exist worldwide’. One of his arguments is the political one: ‘Each country where English is a first language is aware of its linguistic identity, and is anxious to preserve it from the influence of others’. His other arguments are too long to reproduce in full, but they’re on page 111 if you can get hold of a copy.

    The differences between British and Australian English, at least, are sufficient for the Australian linguist Pam Peters to have published ‘The Cambridge Guide to Australian English Usage’ as well as the ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’.

    Bumblepuppies – I’m afraid I’m not competent to comment on Chinese dialects, but if they are mutually unintelligible, the fact seems to strengthen the case that the choice of a name for a language is at least as much a matter of politics as of language.

    All forms of verbal communication, including Hochdeutsch, are dialects. In Switzerland, which I know fairly well, there are many dialects among the German-speaking cantons, and those who speak them certainly prefer to use them. There is, however, a form of Standard German used in the press, news broadcasts, and on public occasions, but, as you suggest, it is not normally used in spontaneous conversation.

    113yearslater – Yes, as John McWhorter writes in ‘The Power of Babel’, ‘dialects is all there is’. R L Trask says much the same thing in ‘Language and Linguistics: The Key Concepts’ when he writes ‘In fact, you might say that dialects exist but language is merely an abstract term for a collection of dialects’.

    bdh63– Some people do think that a global English has developed alongside the many regional varieties that continue to exist, but see my reply to John.


    • Well, just as the boundaries between languages can be vague, so can the boundaries between dialects. I certainly don’t deny that Standard English varies regionally; I just don’t think the regional differences are large enough to constitute dialect differences. Other people can reasonably disagree with me.

      In China, the use of dialect in English is something of a hallowed mistranslation. The Chinese word fāngyán really means ‘regional speech’, with no regard for mutual intelligibility at all. The Mandarin of Sichuan (which we’d call a dialect, and is mutually intelligible with the standard) is a fāngyán, but so is Cantonese, which is related but not mutually intelligible, and likewise Korean, which is neither related nor mutually intelligible. The Sinologist Victor Mair uses the word topolect instead of dialect to translate fāngyán, and while this takes some getting used to, it is fundamentally more accurate. In Tok Pisin, the creole national language of New Guinea, there is an exact equivalent of fāngyán, namely tok ples < English talk place, the name used for any of the thousand-odd native languages of the island.


      • Thank you, John. Helpful to have that wider perspective. Even in the UK, not all regional dialects are mutually intelligible. Well, I exaggerate a little, but the dialect of Belfast, for example, can be pretty impenetrable sometimes.


        • Alon

          Barry: Ulster English may be phonologically quite distinct from other British dialects, but that’s where it stops; grammatical differences are minimal.

          On the other hand, the difference between, say, Mandarin and Cantonese is of the scale of the difference between English and Danish (Mair 1991:3), or Romanian and Portuguese.


  6. I think this article is amazing!


  7. I saw what you spoke of when my Father-in-Law was alive. He spoke Spanish and traveled Central and South America for nine months out of the year selling exports and doing business. There was even a gold mine in Ecuador. He studied Spanish at Colombia University with a scholarship to the University in Santiago, Chile. He could even think in Spanish. One day I picked him up in the airport and he explained to me that Spanish was different in many of the countries he went to. Even in the same country an idiom might mean one thing and over the mountain take on a different meaning. I always thought Spanish was Spanish but as time went on I realized how this concept needed a lot of refining.


    • The English spoken in the United Kingdom varies considerably. The differences are principally differences in pronunciation, but words are grammar vary too. There are also differences between different social groups.


  8. Haha this was a nice read.. I really like Scottish to standard English part. That was really funny.



    • Thank you, Kamal. Actually, some Scottish speakers of English can be quite difficult to understand, but that’s mostly because of the accent rather than the grammar or vocabulary.


  9. You won’t be surprised if I don’t agree with you, and I would also suggest that this is a very Anglo-centric way of looking at things. You quote David Crystal as saying “Each country where English is a first language is aware of its linguistic identity, and is anxious to preserve it from the influence of others” – exactly, for whether independent or not, Scotland is undoubtedly a country.

    A country, what’s more, with a separate legal system, educational system, media and its own parliament. If this does not constitute “a political dimension”, I don’t know what does. And even in the unlikely event that next year’s referendum results in a yes vote, this would make very little difference to the language spoken in Scotland; we’ve had hundreds years of both separation and union to do that already.

    There appears to be a tendency in England to see Britain as a monolithic state, perhaps divided into regions. In Scotland we see matters rather more subtly. I’ve long suspected, for example, that the average Englishman checking into a foreign hotel will sign himself in as “British”, whereas his Scottish counterpart would write “Scottish” (and this is nothing to do with being a political nationalist or not), and this was confirmed a survey in a British national newspaper a couple of years ago.

    Just as I see no contradiction in seeing myself as both Scottish (first, of course) and British, I see no problem in talking both of a Standard British English and a Scottish Standard English; they’re not mutually exclusive. In a section entitled “Studying Varieties of English, “The University of Duisberg-Essen refers to SSE as ” a locally flavoured version of mainland British English (derived ultimately from Received Pronunciation)”. As an RP-speaking Scot myself, I use certain aspects of SSE, such as certain words – “pinkie” (which is apparently not standard enough to get itself into the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, and which Chambers refers to as Scots and North American), “outwith”, which is almost exclusively used in “educated” Scots, not in regional dialects. And there are also some pronunciation features: I aspirate the H in wh-words for example, and pronounce “poor” as /pʊə(r)/ rather than the standard RP /pɔː(r)/. But I don’t have a trace of a “Scottish” accent.

    The language of the vast majority of educated Scots and of their institutions, differs enough from Standard British English, in my opinion, to warrant its own identity. An opinion apparently shared at Wikipedia, by the British Library, as well as academics at Aberdeen University and Cambridge Scholars Publishing and here, and on the website Omniglot.

    Finally this is from a Bachelor’s diploma thesis –
    “Mc Arthur (1979) adds a definition of Standard Scottish English; he sees it as ‘a more or less homogeneous range of nationally acceptable norms of spelling, grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation, which is in turn one variety of World Standard English’ (p. 50) (while World Standard English is defined analogically as a more or less homogeneous range of internationally acceptable norms).”

    The key sources, which several of these refer to, seem to be Abercrombie, D. “The accents of Standard English in Scotland”, in A. J. Aitken & T. McArthur (eds.) “Languages of Scotland” (1979) Edinburgh: Chambers; and Aitken A.J. ‘Scottish Accents and Dialects’, in ‘Language in the British Isles’ , (1984). Trudgill, P. (ed) . Funny how often Trudgill’s name seem to pop up in these pages.


    • Warsaw Will:

      Tolkien put it this way in his 1955 lecture “English and Welsh”:

      In modern England the usage [of “English” and “British”] has become disastrously confused by the maleficent interference of the Government with the usual object of governments: uniformity. The misuse of British begins after the union of the crowns of England and Scotland, when in a quite unnecessary desire for a common name the English were officially deprived of their Englishry and the Welsh of their claim to be the chief inheritors of the title British.


      The modern Englishman finds this very confusing. He has long read of British prowess in battle, and especially of British stubbornness in defeat in many imperial wars; so when he hears of Britons stubbornly (as is to be expected) opposing the landing of Julius Caesar or of Aulus Plautius, he is apt to suppose that the English (who meekly put themselves down as British in hotel-registers) were already there, facing the first of their long series of glorious defeats.

      But of course they were not: the British in those days were the Welsh. I like “meekly put themselves down as British in hotel-registers”, which in his day presumably meant in France or elsewhere outside the U.K., since such registers were unknown then.


      • I do not feel at all that being a citizen of the United Kingdom deprives me of my Englishry, as Tolkien suggests I should, and it is with no feeling of meekness that I describe myself as being British. It is simply a matter of political fact. Tolkien should have known better than to have fallen prey to the etymological fallacy over the meaning of British. If anyone, it’s the Northern Irish who have a right to feel aggrieved over the use of the term.


        • Officially deprived. As a nation-state, England no longer existed after the Union of the Crowns. Tolkien was notoriously not in favor of the U.K. or the British Empire: he was a Little Englander with a vengeance, though in the original political sense, not in the more recent sense of ‘xenophobe’: he very much approved of other languages and cultures, beginning with Welsh. I think he would have wanted you to write English rather than British in such a context.


    • It may in part, Will, turn on what we understand by ‘country’. Scotland, Wales and England can be legitimately termed countries, but a problem arises when the term is also used to describe a sovereign state, like France or Venezuela. I am English, but the sovereign state of which I am a citizen is the United Kingdom. That makes me British as well as English. I recognize Standard British English as conforming to Richard Hudson’s description because I am politically British, not because I am ethnically English. It is also perhaps unfortunate that the term ‘dialect’ has a certain pejorative flavour for some people. But just as we all speak with an accent, so do we all speak in one dialect or another. Standard English, of whatever kind, is as much a dialect as those of the West Country or East Anglia or Northern Ireland. All have equal linguistic validity.

      Pronunciation is a different matter. Standard English can be spoken with any accent, as can be heard in the speech of that excellent Scottish presenter of the BBC’s ‘Today’ programme, James Naughtie.

      It was, incidentally, McArthur’s notion of a World Standard English that David Crystal challenged when he wrote that ‘a totally uniform, regionally neutral, and unarguably prestigious variety does not yet exist worldwide’.


      • I have no difficulty, John, in regarding myself as English, British and European. A former (and distinguished) colleague has suggested that the way out of our constitutional confusion is for us to become fully federal, with separate and equal parliaments in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, each responsible for pretty much everything except defence and foreign affairs. The Swiss Confederation, with its sovereign cantons, might provide a model.


  10. which according to you is the most spoken language of all times…(apart from english)


    • Mandarin Chinese is the numerically largest language that has ever existed, no ifs, ands, or buts. It’s not as widely spoken as English, it’s true, but it is not only the most common first language, but also is taught as a second language to more people even than English (though most of them are in China, and the teaching is not usually formal, more a matter of sink-or-swim).


      • Thank you for answering, John. I would have said the same. If, however, the question is which language has been spoken by most people ever since humans started using language, then that question is probably impossible to answer.


        • Well, yes, because it raises the question of when a language becomes a different language by mere passage of time, which is unanswerable. But speaking of specific moments in time, a definite answer can be given. There are (conservatively) 1 billion speakers of Mandarin today. Before 1804, there were less than 1 billion people altogether, and at all times since 1804 there have not been as many as 1 billion speakers of any other language. So as I said, Mandarin is the largest language that has ever existed at any one time. If we add up all the people who have ever spoken Greek, we might conceivably have more than that, but the Greek spoken 3000 years ago was nothing like mutually intelligible with the Greek spoken today.


      • It is probable, John, that most of us have access to similar multiple identities.


  11. I agree I went a bit off topic with the pronunciation bit, but I would just like to make three points:

    1) I quite understand that English people have not given up their Englishness, but as they make up something like 80% of the population of the UK, it’s not surprising if they use the terms English and British almost synonymously (as of course do many foreign languages). But Scots and Welsh see it from a slightly different perspective. And Britain must be almost unique in this case where one state contains four recognised nations. It certainly confuses foreign football fans.

    2) The concept of the existence of SSE seems to be quite widely accepted in language departments, especially of course in Scotland. Accepting it does not mean a denial of the existence of Standard British English, but seeing it as a variant of SBE, just as SBE and American Standard English are variants of a more international Standard English.

    3) As I see these more as being to do with culture and linguistic history than politics, I don’t really understand why any of them have to be limited by international borders or current political situations. After all, most of the world’s 6,000 languages don’t in fact “have an army and navy”, but that doesn’t mean we deny them a similar language status to “sovereign-state” languages. Perhaps a nation-state has more than one main language, as with Mandarin Chinese. Perhaps a standard straddles borders, as seems to be the case (to my ear) with the French used by French and Swiss broadcasters, possibly Kurdish, and to a certain extent Spanish in Latin America . Perhaps the language has no state (but a culturally and historically defined area), like Catalan and Breton. Perhaps the political situation has changed – did the Tibetan language change linguistically when Tibet lost its independence? I doubt it. I don’t see that it should be any different when describing standard language forms.


    • Do you have a LinkedIn account, Will? If so, you may like to know that, to elicit more views, I’ve started a thread on this topic in the group Grammar Geeks, where you would be most welcome.

      Very briefly, and unstructured, my comments on some of the points you raise.

      I am careful in my use of British and English, but I accept that other English people are not.

      Does any other part of the UK except Scotland claim its own standard variety? At what point are we to say that a regional nonstandard dialect becomes a regional standard dialect?

      It’s certainly possible for a state such as China to have more than one language. Switzerland, with its four languages, is another example. The majority speak various forms of German, but, even though the Swiss cantons have a high level of autonomy, they recognise a standard variety as used in national broadcasting and journalism and in public administration.


    • Any such claims, John, certainly depend on carefully defined terms. In ‘The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language’ (1987), David Crystal gives 1 billion as the total number of Chinese mother-tongue speakers, but he doesn’t break that figure down into the different languages spoken in China. He gives 1.4 billion as the number of speakers of English in countries where English has official status.


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