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.