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STANDARD ENGLISH

STANDARD ENGLISH A widely used term that resists easy definition but is used as if most educated people nonetheless know precisely what it refers to. Some consider its meaning self-evident: it is both the usage and the ideal of ‘good’ or ‘educated’ users of English. A geographical limitation has, however, often been imposed on this definition, such as the usage of educated people in Britain alone, England alone, of southern England alone, or the usage of educated people in North America and Britain generally. Others still find STANDARD English at work throughout the English-speaking world. For some it is a monolith, with more or less strict rules and conventions; for others it is a range of overlapping varieties, so that standard AmE is distinct from but similar to standard BrE. Although for some the term is negative, for most it appears to be either neutral or positive, referring to something important: ‘Standard English (by whatever name it is known) is the variety of English that is manifestly recognised in our society as the prestigious variety’ ( Sidney GREENBAUM, in English Today 18, Apr. 1989).

A minority form

Some commentators regard standard English as a convenient fiction, like the law; others see it as a thoroughly inconvenient fiction built on social élitism and educational privilege. Even the distinction in writing between Standard English with two capital letters and standard English with only one implies that the form may be viewed as more or less institutional. It is generally agreed that standard English contrasts (often strongly) with other kinds of English, but there is no consensus about the best way of describing and discussing this contrast: for example, as between ‘standard’ and ‘dialect’, ‘standard’ and ‘nonstandard’, or ‘standard’ and ‘substandard’, or some mix of these. It is also usually agreed that standard English is a minority form. Some consider that this has always been so and probably always will be so; others see standard English as a social and political good to which all citizens of English-speaking countries have a birthright and/or should aspire; others again are less certain, or are hostile to the concept. The precise proportion of users of standard English to users of other kinds is not known, and may not be knowable; it is also seldom discussed. Even so, however, there appears to be a consensus that such a form exists, and serves (or should serve) as the basis for public and private education in English-speaking countries and in English-medium schools elsewhere.

A general definition

In everyday usage, standard English is taken to be the variety most widely accepted and understood within an English-speaking country or throughout the English-speaking world. It is more or less free of regional, class, and other shibboleths, although the issue of a ‘standard accent’ often causes trouble and tension. It is sometimes presented as the ‘common core’ (what is left when all regional and other distinctions are stripped away), a view that remains controversial because of the difficulty of deciding where core ends and peripheries begin. Linguists generally agree on three things: (1) The standard is most easily identified in print, whose conventions are more or less uniform throughout the world, and some use the term print standard for that medium. (2) Standard forms are used by most presenters of news on most English-language radio and television networks, but with regional and other variations, particularly in accent. (3) Use of standard English relates to social class and level of education, often considered (explicitly or implicitly) to match the average level of attainment of students who have finished secondary-level schooling.

A negative definition

In ‘What is Standard English?’ (RELC Journal, Singapore, 1981), the British applied linguist and language teacher Peter Strevens sought to establish the nature of standard English by saying what it was not:
(i) It is not an arbitrary, a priori description of English, or of a form of English, devised by reference to standards of moral value, or literary merit, or supposed linguistic purity, or any other metaphysical yardstick—in short, ‘Standard English’ cannot be defined or described in terms such as ‘the best English,’ or ‘literary English,’ or ‘Oxford English,’ or ‘BBC English.’(ii) It is not defined by reference to the usage of any particular group of English-users, and especially not by reference to a social class—‘Standard English’ is not ‘upper class English’ and it is encountered across the whole social spectrum, though not necessarily in equivalent use by all members of all classes.(iii) It is not statistically the most frequently occurring form of English, so that ‘standard’ here does not mean ‘most often heard.’(iv) It is not imposed upon those who use it. True, its use by an individual may be largely the result of a long process of education; but Standard English is neither the product of linguistic planning or philosophy (for example as exists for French in the deliberations of the Academie Francaise, or policies devised in similar terms for Hebrew, Irish, Welsh, Bahasa Malaysia, etc); nor is it a closely-defined norm whose use and maintenance is monitored by some quasi-official body, with penalties imposed for non-use or mis-use. Standard English evolved: it was not produced by conscious design.

A standard accent?

In Strevens's view, the term standard English is valuable because it helps account for a range of distinctions and attitudes, offers a label for the grammatical and lexical components of the core taught to all students of the language, and constitutes the unifying element within the enormous diversity of the language. He argued strongly, however, that the standard applies to grammar, vocabulary, writing, and print, but not to accent (except as a pronunciation target in the teaching of English as a foreign language). However, although it is widespread among contemporary ‘liberal’ linguists, this view is relatively recent and is not universal. Use of the term to include, and specifically identify, an accent (and most commonly the accent known as RECEIVED PRONUNCIATION) has long been common and continues in use: US ‘The British version of standard English, RP, is the same for all speakers regardless of their place of origin’ ( W. Nelson Francis, The English Language: An Introduction, 1967); UK ‘Both CHAUCER and SHAKESPEARE rhymed cut with our present-day (southern) standard English put’ ( John Honey, Does Accent Matter?, 1989). See RECEIVED STANDARD ENGLISH. The question of whether standard English does, can, or ought to include norms of speech remains the most controversial of the many difficult issues associated with the term.

An institutional definition

The Kingman Report on the teaching of English in England and Wales, submitted to the British government in 1988, began with a statement defining standard English that presented the variety as virtually limitless in its reach yet closely bound to one medium:
All of us can have only partial access to Standard English: the language itself exists like a great social bank on which we all draw and to which we all contribute. As we grow older, and encounter a wider range of experience, we encounter more of the language, but none of us is ever going to know and use all the words in the Oxford English Dictionary, which is itself being constantly up-dated, nor are we going to produce or to encounter all possible combinations of the structures which are permissible in English …. It is important to be clear about the nature of Standard English. It developed from one of the Middle English dialects (East Midlands—the dialect first printed by Caxton) to become the written form used by all writers of English, no matter which dialect area they come from. It is the fact of being the written form which establishes it as the standard. And it is the fact of being the written form which means that it is used not only in Britain but by all writers of English throughout the world, with remarkably little variation.

Standards and the standard

The figurative strength of the term standard English has been considerable. Just as there was at one time only one standard yard, kept in the capital as a measure against which all yards everywhere might be checked, so (by extension in the 19c) there was only one standard language, ‘kept’ in or near London for the ‘same’ purpose. Even after a war established the US as a separate centre of English, years passed before the British (and indeed many Americans) began to accept that government, writers, and publishers had set up a second centre and with it a second yardstick for the language. Even after 200 years, old ways of talking about the language die hard: ‘The British are quick to point out how different American English is from Standard English’ ( Mandy Loader, EFL Gazette, Apr. 1990). Despite the time lag and the confusion of terms, however, there appears to be little doubt that since at least the early 19c two yardsticks have existed for English, and that in principle more are possible, if not already actual.

A standard of standards

Among the objective indicators that a language or a variety of a language has a standard form are such artefacts as GRAMMARS and DICTIONARIES and such cultural achievements as a literary canon. It was taken to be proof positive of the success of French as a national and international language that by the end of the 17c it had all three. English had only achieved this status by the time the American colonies declared their independence. By the middle of the 19c, the US also had its grammars, its dictionaries, and its literary canon, although it took until the early 20c for many Americans to feel sure that ‘American English’ and ‘American literature’ were firmly established. In more recent times, Australia and Canada have produced national dictionaries and style guides, and have begun to acknowledge the extent and vitality of their literatures in English. In this, they appear to be experiencing afresh what happened in Britain and America. Some commentators favour the development and acceptance of various national standards: an indefinite number of distinct centres of gravity for a vastly complex world language. Others see such a plurality of ‘Standard Englishes’ as disruptive and disturbing. The paradox of the 1990s is the possibility that there can be, at one and the same time, a range of national standards and a single broadly recognizable international standard that subsumes them: a standard of standards. Even more than in the past, it is a creature born of consensus. See CLASSICAL LANGUAGE.

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