Tag Archives: Dialect

Questioning the Standard

My post of 22 June, followed by my comments on 24 June, placed some Standard English variants alongside some nonstandard forms to show the difference, but the grammatical structures of Standard English are not generally all that difficult to recognise. There is, as the authors of ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’ write,

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.

Native speakers, for example, will instantly know that He’s a grandfather now, I was about 13 at the time and They did well are Standard English and that  He be a grandfather now, I were about 13 at the time and They done good are not.

In his paper on Standard English, Peter Trudgill writes ‘grammatical differences between Standard English and other dialects are in fact rather few in number’. He lists eight of what he calls the idiosyncrasies of Standard English, which include its failure to distinguish between the forms of the auxiliary forms of the verb do and its main verb forms, its lack of multiple negation and its irregular forms of the verb be. Nevertheless, there are some features of Standard English that are disputed. The ill-informed are eager to pounce on things like they referring to a singular antecedent, stranded prepositions and word placed between to + the infinitive, but these have existed in English for centuries, and have been part of Standard English for as long as the concept of a standard has existed. What may be less clear is the way in which Standard English can deploy different styles depending on the degree of formality required. Trudgill illustrates the point with these three sentences:

Father was exceedingly fatigued subsequent to his extensive peregrination.
Dad was very tired after his lengthy journey.
The old man was bloody knackered after his long trip.

All three employ the grammatical structures of Standard English, but different degrees of formality are indicated by the words used. Some might question the third, but Trudgill has no hesitation in saying that it ‘is clearly and unambiguously Standard English’, on the grounds that it allows swearing (in this case mild) and slang.

But it’s not only through the choice of words that Standard English can show degrees of formality. It can do so through different grammatical structures as well. Examples of grammar indicating an informal style are who in complement position or following a preposition, the indicative If I was you . . . rather than the subjunctive (or ‘irrealis’), If I were you . . . , There’s + [plural noun phrase] and the use of this in place of the indefinite article (There was this man at the bar, and he’d got this dog). Warsaw Will, the creator of the blog Random Idea English , has also commented on my post of 22 June that me in subject position and coordinated with a noun phrase (Me and the others are off to the pub if you fancy a pint), might also be an example of informal Standard English.

The fact that some of these features might also be found in nonstandard dialects should not prevent us from acknowledging their admissibility in the standard as well. But it does suggest that the dividing line between Standard English and nonstandard dialects might not be as sharply drawn as some might think. As the authors of ‘Linguistics: An Introduction’ have written,

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.

What all this suggests is that the varieties of English can be understood as a continuum. At one end there are the most formal written texts, found in areas such as academic writing, the law and public administration. These are incontestably written in the dialect of Standard English, although that does not guarantee that all native speakers will understand them. At the other end there are nonstandard dialects, mostly spoken, which, at their most extreme, are as impenetrable to outsiders as the most complex statute drafted in Standard English. In between there are varieties of the language which shade off imperceptibly one into the other. What really matters is not whether any piece of discourse is standard or nonstandard, but whether it meets the communicative purpose of the writer or speaker, taking account not only of the efficiency with which it conveys meaning, but also the extent to which it is received in the manner which the originator intends.

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Dialects and Varieties

I repeat here for a (slightly?) wider readership the following contribution, lightly edited, which I’ve made to a language discussion group about dialects.

If dialect is not a neutral word, it’s because of the linguistic prejudice still inherent in many schools, and elsewhere. That prejudice means that non-standard dialects come to be thought of as sub-standard dialects. The alternative term variety is a convenient word, and one which I use myself, but only with an awareness of how vague it is. As one linguist, Joan Swann, who also uses the term, has described it, variety is ‘a device for letting linguists off the hook by avoiding the need to specify whether they are talking about a language, a dialect, an accent, or indeed a register associated with a certain professional or technical field.’ (English Voices in ‘Changing English’ edited by Graddol and others)

For the sake of clarity it might be helpful to offer the following, very broad, definitions:

REGISTER: A variety of language distinguished by its context of use.

ACCENT: The distinguishing features of individual speech.

DIALECT: A variety of language that reflects regional or social background.

LANGUAGE: A group of dialects sharing certain common features.

STANDARD ENGLISH: The English dialect used in most published writing, and, in both spoken and written forms, in education, courts of law, public service broadcasting and government.

Few native speakers have Standard English as their mother tongue, and ‘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’ (Radford and others, ‘Linguistics: An Introduction’). Any who doubt that Standard English is but one English dialect among many might like to consider what John McWhorter has written in ‘The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language’:

‘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.’

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Teach Them What They Know

The teaching of English has recently been in the news in the UK following the proposal for a test of English grammar, punctuation and spelling for children between the ages of 7 and 11. David Crystal was consulted on the test, and has set out some of his objections to in this post on his blog. The numerous comments support his view. The basic problem seems to be summed up in those words that drew so much attention a couple of weeks ago in the letter written to the Education Secretary by 100 academics: ‘too much, too young’.

Children don’t need to be taught the grammar of their own dialect. They learn that by the time they go to school, without instruction and without effort. What they need to be taught is the Standard English dialect. How that is done and when it is done is a matter for professional educationalists. Because Standard English is the dialect of the printed and written word its use requires instruction in the conventions of punctuation and spelling by teachers who are themselves properly trained, and who understand that punctuation and spelling are not grammar.

Grammar is, in very simple terms, a description of how a language works, and a prior understanding of it will help in learning Standard English, just as it will help in learning other languages, provided the distinction between learning grammar and learning about grammar is maintained. How and when it is introduced is again a matter for professional educationalists. But here’s an off-the-wall proposal to get the harrumphers going. Why shouldn’t schools teach grammar in terms of the predominant regional dialect? This would give young children something they could relate to, it would remove the shame that it is sometimes associated with regional dialects and it would give children a sound basis on which to build when they came to learn  Standard English, as they most certainly must.

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Filed under Dialects, Education, English Language, Standard English

Six Conservative Propositions

I thought it might be of some interest if I posted here a contribution I have made to a discussion elsewhere. It consists of the six following propositions, which I believe to represent, more or less, current linguistic orthodoxy.

1. A language is a set of dialects having certain common features.

2. Grammar describes the way in which a dialect allows units of meaning to be put together to make words (morphology), and the way it allows words to be put together to make sentences (syntax).

3. The only admissible evidence for determining a dialect’s morphology and syntax is that obtained from NANS (normal adult native speakers).

4. A construction that a NANS would never use is by that fact alone ungrammatical, but the opposite is not necessarily the case.

5. The standard variety of a language is one dialect among many. It may be of great political, economic and social importance, but it is not linguistically superior to any other. The grammar of nonstandard dialects, like the grammar of the standard, is internally consistent.

6. The grammatical features of a standard dialect, like the grammatical features of all dialects, are matters of objective fact. Personal opinions and tastes are irrelevant.

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It’s About Time

The Swiss watchmakers Swatch have published their annual report in the Swiss German dialect, rather than as is usually the case for company reports, in Standard German. Here’s the first paragraph:

Sie wondere sech vilicht, dass de Gschaftsbricht 2012 sehr vill mit em driessigschte Geburtstag vo Swatch z’tue het. Alli Aktionarinne und Aktionare, fascht alli Schwiizer wie au veli Monschei andere Lander wossed, dass Swatch 1983 gebore worde isch. Und sie hand racht: D’Marktiifuherig vo de Swatch e de Schwiiz, d’Wedergebort vo de Schwiizer Uhreinduschtrie und de Beginn vo de Erfolgsgschicht vo eusem Undernahme, das alles isch of e Marz 1983 gfalle. Harzliche Gluckwunsch zum Geburtstag, Swatch!

It’s as if, let us say, a firm of Scotch whisky distillers published their annual report in the Lallans dialect, which looks like this:

The Scots Leid Associe wis foondit in 1972 an aye ettles tae pit forrit a feckfu case for the Scots language in formal, informal and ilka day uiss. Scots wis aince the state language o Scotland an is aye a grace til oor national leiterature. It lies at the hert o Scotland’s heirskep as ane o wir three indigenous leids alang wi Gaelic an Scottish Inglis.

Swatch are to be applauded for their initiative. I have shown here, here and here that the Swiss have no hang-ups about their dialects. On the contrary, they are proud of them, and use them all the time. The Swatch report will be understood by all German speakers in a way that a report in Lallans, or any other British regional dialect, would not be understood by most English speakers. But Swatch know that Swiss German is not understood by most non-German speakers, so they have also made it available in English. It would be a gesture in the cause of linguistic diversity if a British company published their annual report in both Standard English and in the dialect of the region in which they principally operated. But they wouldn’t dare.

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Filed under Dialects, Language, Swiss German