I. THEORETICAL PART
I.1 LANGUAGE IDEOLOGY
I.2 PRESCRIPTIVISM, DESCRIPTIVISM
I.3 ACCENT, DIALECT & LANGUAGE
I.4 ‘STANDARD LANGUAGE’ AND THE STANDARD IDEOLOGY
II. DISCOURSE OF PRESCRIPTIVISTS AND POPULAR SCIENTISTS
II.2 LINGUISTIC EQUALITY AND LANGUAGE ADAPTABILITY
II.3 ‘STANDARD ENGLISH’ AS EMPOWERMENT
II.4 LANGUAGE CHANGE & LANGUAGE DECAY
III. SCHOLARLY DISCOURSE
III.2 THE LINGUISTIC FACTS OF LIFE
All spoken languages change
All spoken languages are equal in linguistic terms
Grammaticality does not equal communicative effectiveness
Written language and spoken language are historically, structurally, and functionally fundamentally different creatures
III.3 LANGUAGE VARIATION AND IDENTITY
From ideolect to identity
Ideolect, Identity and the standard ideology
III.4 LANGUAGE-BASED DISCRIMINATION
III.5 LINGUISTS’ ‘STANDARD ENGLISH’
IV. FROM THEORY TO PRATICE
IV.1 WHAT ENGLISH SHOULD LOOK LIKE (ACCORDING TO PRESCRIPTIVISTS)
Letter to the Editor of The Times by J.R.Colville, entitled “ Correct English ”
Sources of authority
IV. 2 WHAT ENGLISH DOES LOOK LIKE
Excerpts from Shuckin ’ and Jivin ’ - Folklore from contemporary Black Americans
Excerpt from Jonah ’ s Gourd Vine by Zora Neale Hurston
V. PUBLIC DISCOURSE
V.1 DOMINANCE OF PRESCRIPTIVE IDEOLOGIES
V.2 DISCOURSE IN THE US AND THE UK
This paper is concerned with the discourse on standard language and its consequences. As suggested by the title, particular attention will be given to the conflicting views of linguists and popular scientists, as well as their respective influences on public opinion. In the first section, fundamental definitions will be given to lay the foundations for further discussion. Part (II) will then deal with the discourse of prescriptivists and popular scientists. Correspondingly, I will focus on the scholarly discourse in part (III) and the public discourse in (V). The latter will be preceded by a short excursus (IV) in which I will look at ‘standard’ and ‘nonstandard English’ from different angles by means of (1) some examples of prescriptivism and (2) analysis of the ‘nonstandard’ variety AAVE.
In advance, it must be said that the topic of standard language ideology is often highly politicized and fought over with strong feelings. Reproducing the arguments in a neutral tone thus poses a challenge. The reader will probably not be able to avoid noticing the biased view of the author in favor of academic linguistics. This is inevitable, as this paper is composed from a linguistic point of view, while some arguments by prescriptivists simply disagree with established principles. For the same reason, I will not consider prescriptivists as belonging to the linguistic community (even though they might spend a great deal of time studying language) but refer to them as popular scientists or simply prescriptivists.
It should also be pointed out that some linguists question the general existence of ‘standard language’. To emphasize that it is a contested idea, I put the term in quotation marks. The same applies to questionable concepts such as designating a language variety as ‘nonstandard’. Since this paper is primarily concerned with the English language as it is spoken in Great Britain and the United States of America, it will be necessary to specify which of the two is being discussed at some points. I will then explicitly refer to ‘standard English’ as ‘standard American English or ‘standard British English’.
I. Theoretical Part
I.1 Language Ideology
Language ideologies or language attitudes are beliefs, assumptions and perceptions about language that are linked to socio-cultural, political, moral and aesthetic values. They can exist on the individual level, within social groups, or as public perceptions of society (cf. Hartley & Preston 1999; Bonfiglio 2002 ff.; Edwards 2009: 257).
I.2 Prescriptivism, Descriptivism
Attitudes towards language can generally be broken down into either descriptive or prescriptive approaches. Descriptivism is based “on description of the structures actually used in language” (Yule 2008: 241), whereas prescriptivism is “the doctrine, that one particular dialect - or manner of speaking - is ‘proper’, and that its use should therefore be prescribed” (Edwards 2009: 259). The phrase ‘standard language’ already indicates a prescriptive bias, namely as a means of orientation for the correct use of language.
I.3 Accent, Dialect & Language
When discussing standard language ideology, the terms accent, dialect, language and language variety have to be defined, as their scholarly use can differ greatly from the use in public discourse. For purposes of this essay, the perspectives of Lippi-Green will be adopted. According to her, accent is
„A set of phonological features, loosely bundled, that provide clues about the speaker's geographic origin, social and ethnic allegiances, standing, education, and other characteristics that are socially distinctive in a given language community.“ (2012: 46)
Accent, therefore, refers to social, ethnic and geographic markers in spoken language on the phonological level. In public perceptions, accents are assigned to people who sound differently from the listener’s norm or standard and are seen as something absolute on the speaker’s part. The “listener’s judgments” (Derwing & Monro 2009: 478, quoted in Lippi- Green 2012: 46), however, are based on his or her own subjective language norms. Consequently, the listener’s perspective can be the “only comprehensible window into accentedness” (ibid.). This in turn leads inevitably to the rejection of the idea of non-accent.
While accent is “restricted primarily to phonology,” dialect also encompasses “morphological structures, syntax, lexicon and semantics” (Lippi-Green 2012: 46). As well as accents, dialects are usually “associated with a specific geographical area or with a social group” (Lippi-Green 2012a). There are no linguistic features to distinct between a dialect and a language. The latter is historically and politically generated, mostly through “distinct literary histories […] and/or geo-political boundaries.” (Lippi-Green 2012: 46). To avoid the negative connotation of dialect - which may in some circumstances be seen as a “language that gets no respect” (idib.) - as well as emphasizing the fact that no spoken language is without dialect or accent, the more neutral term language variety will be used throughout this paper.
I.4 ‘Standard language’ and the standard ideology
The terms standard and norm are frequently used in Western society. Originally standard referred to a military ensign of a king, great noble, city or nation that acted as a “marker or constructor of authority” (Crowley 2003: 77), which conveyed unity, commonality and uniformity. When determining a standard, power and control are initially external. But when established, the standard eventually becomes an “authority in itself” (ibid.: 78). This insight is particularly relevant when investigating the public discourse on standards in language (see V).
Today, the concept of standard is associated mostly with efficiency or quality and serves as orienting guide in a world that frequently seems to be too complex for individuals to comprehend. Consequently, the idea that things are standardized can be very soothing, as seen in the following definition:
„A standard is a document that provides requirements, specifications, guidelines or characteristics that can be used consistently to ensure that materials, products, processes and services are fit for their purpose.“ (ISO n.d.)
It appears to be a logical consequence that something as important as language is not left to chance. Therefore proponents of ‘standard language’ take it on themselves to establish and maintain norms in language usage with the aim to form a pure, invariant language that is substantially uniform. They set standards in pronunciation, orthography, syntax, and lexicon and henceforth determine the ‘standard language’. As a result, advocates of these prescriptions claim that: “standard English is not merely one variety among many, but instead is a specially important and valuable variety which derives its value from a set of qualities which are not shared by other, non-standard dialects” (Honey 1997: 5).
Most non-linguists seem to be quite comfortable with the existence of a correct and universally valid ‘standard language’ (cf. Lippi-Green 2012: 57). The idea that there is a single correct variety of English is prevalent in general public (see V.). From a linguistic point of view, however, the notion is rather problematic and has to be questioned as “standard language ideology” (Milroy & Milroy 1985), which Lippi-Green defines as “bias towards an abstracted, idealized, homogenous spoken language which is imposed from above, and which takes as its model the written language” (1994: 166).
In turn, this “case against ‘standard English’” is also labeled “ideological” (Honey 1997: 5) by prescriptivists, who do not agree with the notion of linguistic equality (cf. ibid.: 6 ff.). Setting aside the negative connotation of the term, both views can safely be characterized as ideological. They both constitute certain beliefs and perceptions of language, the appropriateness of which stands to discussion. Hereafter, the term ideology is used to point out that we do not deal with given facts but certain ideas about language, one of which is ‘standard English’.
II. Discourse of prescriptivists and popular scientists
"There are so many threats to the survival of good, plain English that it is not easy to be optimistic [...]. Happily there are people [...] still prepared to fight the good fight“
(John Humphrys, in Cochrane 2003: 8)
As mentioned above the divide between proponents and opponents of standard language is not within the linguistic realm but rather between linguists and non-linguists. Ironically the issues “linguists argue about least, are those which are most often challenged by non- linguists” (Lippi-Green 2012: 7). In the 1960s and 1970s, concepts of egalitarianism and descriptivism spread in linguistic circles. Prominent examples are Labov’s The Logic of Nonstandard English (1972) - who set out to demonstrate that African American Vernacular English is of equal value as ‘standard English’ - and Chomsky’s studies on Universal Grammar which bolstered the idea that “all human languages and dialects are ‘equally good’” (Honey 1997: 45). This notion of “anything goes” caused fear that the English language would “decline or even decadence” (Howard 1985) and increasingly brought language mavens to the scene to “guard the English language” (Daily Mail1 ). Apart from calling attention to ‘bad language’, proponents of ‘standard English’ set out to question linguistic concepts like linguistic equality and language adaptability, which clash with the standard ideology.
II.2 Linguistic equality and Language adaptability
Probably the most basic and fundamental question on which opinions differ is linguistic equality. This is the notion that all languages and all varieties of one language are equally good and adequate. Or more elaborately defined: “every language, dialect, patois or lingo is a structurally complete framework into which can be poured any subtlety of emotion or thought that its users are capable of experiencing” (Haugen 1974, quoted in Honey 1997: 7). A standard language which is “specially important and valuable” (ibid.: 5) would disagree with this principle. But what arguments are brought forth to contradict this principle, which is firmly established in linguistics?
Honey, an advocate of ‘standard English’, argues that languages can be compared by means of vocabulary size and “development of more sophisticated ways of representing abstraction” (ibid.: 13). He further claims that although few words do not necessarily mean that concepts cannot be expressed or reflected on, the availability of vocabulary facilitates expression. As a result, even if every concept could be discussed, the constraint of vocabulary makes communication less efficient and economical, and therefore not equal. A similar line of argumentation is brought forward by Kilpatrick, who lists a number of synonyms for dull and then provocatively calls up to try this in languages such as “Spanish, Swahili or Norse” (1999). Put another way, prescriptivists see an “intellectual advantage” (Honey 1997: 21) in the use of a standard language compared to a non-standard variety.
Another argument brought forward by linguists is the instant adaptability of any language (or language variety) to allow communication about newly introduced concepts. A quite recent example is the advent of the computer age that necessitated numerous new words like email or software. Honey claims that even though this holds true for languages such as English, German or French, languages of only “a few thousand words” would be “swamped” (ibid.: 15) by such a task.
II.3 ‘Standard English’ as Empowerment
Whereas linguists often refer to ‘standard language’ as discriminatory tool (see III.3) and see the requirement to learn it as an “act of oppression,” prescriptivists consider it an “act of empowerment” (ibid.: 42). They claim that ‘standard English’ gives access to more knowledge and greater authority, which is “genuinely liberating” (ibid.). The radical belief that it may be misguided to make “knowledge, power and privileges” (ibid.: 43) accessible to the underprivileged through ‘standard English’ are held by some hardliners, but naturally will not be further dwelt upon. Others see the emphasis on ‘standard language’ as a gesture of the “ruling classes [, who insist] on sharing it with every child” (ibid.: 203) in order to “improve the lives or ordinary people” (ibid.: 164). It is added that denying access to this “power-laden forms of language” (ibid.: 204) would be a much more effective way to ensure control. Further examples for ‘standard English’ as empowerment are given with reference to Black’s rights activists. Honey claims that the impact of Martin Luther King’s famous speech “I have a dream,” is traceable to the use of ‘standard English’ (ibid.: 41).
II.4 Language Change & Language Decay
Language change is an accepted fact well beyond the linguistic community. Even though it might be an inconvenient realization, or even perceived as a threat by some people (cf. Lippi-Green 2012: 7), prescriptivists do not deny the fact that “all living languages change” (ibid.). It’s indisputable that highly valued wordsmiths of the present do not use the same English as their counterparts of the past, and still have an equally functional and pleasing language at their disposal (cf. ibid.: 7f.). But how can language change be consistent with a prescribed and thereby (at least partly) fossilized language?
Many authors who publish on the correct use of English see themselves as guardians of the English language (cf. Honey 1997: 149; Howard 1985) who set the standards for language, because “somebody has to do it” (Kilpatrick 1999). To reconcile the idea of ‘standard English’ with language change, prescriptivists see their work as “management or control of change” (Honey 1997: 149). The rationales for why this control is necessary are manifold. Kilpatrick (1999) expressed his concerns that “without standards […] we lapse into linguistic anarchy”. Howard even portraits a scenario of a language “jungle” which may become so “impenetrable” that people will be cut off from each other and are “unable to communicate” (1985: 8). Others simply see “future of the language at risk,” or are bothered about someone “sounding like an idiot” (Daily Mail Reporter 2010). To put it in a nutshell, reoccurring concerns about what uncontrolled language change will lead to are (1) unpleasant language, (2) incorrect and bad language, (3) ambiguous language, and (4) inefficient communication.
(1) and (2) refer to purely aesthetic ideas about language. Along with the lack of linguistic criteria to determine whether one has bad or good taste in language, many of these arguments are limited to questions of pleasantness or, simply, the joy of pointing out mistakes. This is particularly true for pop-scientific books and articles that try to address a broad readership such as James Cochrane’s Between you and I: A little book of bad English (2005) or Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots & Leaves (2003), to name only two examples. Since there is no possibility of discussing good taste in language objectively, we will write these examples off as the authors’ personal opinions.
The latter two concerns relate to with language function. This line of reasoning can be encountered in more scientific publications - but outside the linguistic community, as argued above (see Introduction) - such as John Honey’s Language is Power: The Story of Standard English and its Enemies. These claims by prescriptivists need to be further investigated, which will be done in the next section. In (IV) we will then come back to prescriptive rules of ‘standard English’ and their justification.
1 Printed on the front cover of Howard, Philip (1985). A Word in Your Ear. Penguin Books. Harmondsworth. England.