On Standardisation

Roughly speaking, Standard 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”. (Richard Hudson in a lecture in Paris on 17 March 2000)

Standard English is highly codified for foreign learners by commercial publishers. But at present it is not at all codified for UK learners. At one time linguists might have argued that this doesn’t matter, because we don’t need a description of our own language; such descriptions are of purely scientific interest. But that argument was always a bad one because Standard English is not the native language of about 90% of the population in the UK (and I imagine the situation is similar in other English-speaking countries). (Richard Hudson, as above)

[Standard English is] language which is neutral in style . . . forming a broad band between colloquial and slang on the one hand and formal and technical language on the other’ . . .  [It] occupies the middle ground between illiterate expression and pedantic usage . . . Standard English is not the exclusive property of any social or regional group, but a resource to which English-speakers at large have access. (Pam Peters in ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’)

[Standard English is]  the kind of English that is widely accepted in the countries of the world where English is the language of government, education, broadcasting, news publishing, entertainment, and other public discourse . .  [There is] remarkably widespread agreement about how sentences should be constructed for such purposes as publication, political communication, or government broadcasting. This widespread agreement defines what we are calling Standard English. (Rodney Huddelston and Geoffrey Pullum in ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’)

It is clear, however, that Standard English is not “a language” in any meaningful sense of this term. Standard English, whatever it is, is less than a language, since it is only one variety of English among many. Standard English may be the most important variety of English, in all sorts of ways: it is the variety of English normally used in writing, especially printing; it is the variety associated with the education system in all the English-speaking countries of the world, and is therefore the variety spoken by those who are often referred to as “educated people”; and it is the variety taught to non-native learners. But most native speakers of English in the world are native speakers of some nonstandard variety of the language, and English, like other Ausbau languages (see Kloss, 1967), can be described (Chambers and Trudgill, 1997) as consisting of an autonomous standardised variety together with all the nonstandard varieties which are heteronomous with respect to it. Standard English is thus not the English language. (Peter Trudgill in ‘Standard English: What It Isn’t’)

So there is no contradiction in saying that every normal person can speak grammatically (in the sense of systematically) and ungrammatically (in the sense of nonprescriptively), just as there is no contradiction in saying that a taxi obeys the laws of physics but breaks the laws of Masssachusetts. (Steven Pinker in ‘The Language Instinct’)

German-speakers use their local variety when talking to others from their area and standard German when talking to everybody else: that is, German-speakers are bidialectical. Almost no one in Germany regards the numerous non-standard local varieties as ignorant or slovenly or illiterate: these varieties are merely seen as having a different function from the standard. (R L Trask in ‘Language: The Basics’)

. . . one may hear in  the corridors of the University of Berne, two philosophy professors discussing  the works of Kant using all the appropriate philosophical vocabulary while using the phonology and grammar of their local dialects. (Peter Trudgill, as above)

I take the view that all varieties of the language have an intrinsic value and interest, while recognising that one of these varieties – formal standard English – carries more social prestige and has more universal standing than any other. (David Crystal in ‘Rediscover Grammar’)

The views of lay people about language are often quite simplistic. One illustration of this concerns the relationship between the so-called standard languages and the non-standard dialects associated with those languages. Standard French and Standard English, for example, are varieties of French and English that have written grammar books, pronunciation and spelling conventions, are promoted by the media and other public institutions such as the education system and are considered by a majority of people to be the “correct” way to speak these two languages. Non-standard varieties (sometimes called “dialects”) are often considered to be lazy, ungrammatical forms which betray a lack of both educational training and discipline in learning. Linguists strongly disagree with this view. The study of language use has shown not only that non-standard varieties exhibit grammatical regularity and consistent pronunciation patterns in the same way that standard varieties do, but also that a majority of people will use non-standard features at least some of the time in their speech. Sociolinguistic research has demonstrated that the speech of most people is, at least in some respects, variable, combining, for example, both standard and non-standard sounds, words or grammatical structures.  (From ‘Linguistics: An Introduction’, by Andrew Radford and others)

Because the standard variety is the vehicle of almost all writing and official discourse, it is natural for us to conceive of it as “the real deal” and nonstandard varieties as “other” and generally lesser, even if pleasantly quaint or familiar. This state of affair also tends to foster the misconception that the standard dialect is developmentally primary as well: one can barely help operating on a background assumption that, at some time in the past, there was only the standard dialect but that, since then, nonstandard dialects have developed through the relaxation of the strictures of the standard. But in fact standard dialects were generally only chosen for this role because they happened to be spoken by those who came into power as the nation coalesced into an administratively centralised political entity. What this means is that there is no logical conception of “language” as “proper” speech as distinguished from “quaint, “broken” varieties best kept down on the farm or over on the other side of the tracks. (John McWhorter in ‘The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language’)


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