views updated May 29 2018

BRITISH ENGLISH Short from BrE. The English language as used in Britain. The phrase contrasts with kinds of ENGLISH used elsewhere, and especially with AmE. For many people, however, especially in England, the usage is tautologous. For example, the language-teaching organization Linguaphone has often made a distinction in advertising its courses between simply ‘English’ and ‘American English’. In addition, the phrase British English has a monolithic quality, as if it were a homogeneous variety and a straightforward fact of life. The term, however, shares in the ambiguities and tensions associated with the term BRITISH, and can be used and interpreted in two ways, with some blurring between them:

A broader interpretation

Broadly understood, BrE is the English language as used in Great Britain (England, Scotland, and Wales) or the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, depending on the use of British employed. In this sense, the term covers all varieties, STANDARD and NON-STANDARD, at all times, in all regions, and at all social levels. It is unlikely, however, to include the variety known as SCOTS, which in this context is usually treated, explicitly or implicitly, as a separate entity. In this interpretation, BrE is a heterogeneous range of ACCENTS and DIALECTS, including standard varieties used in several systems of education.

A narrower interpretation

Narrowly understood, BrE is the form of STANDARD ENGLISH used in Britain at large or more specifically in England, and more specifically still in south-eastern England. It is essentially the medium of the middle and upper classes. Although not confined to one accent, especially in recent decades, it has been associated since at least the late 19c with the accent known since the 1920s as RECEIVED PRONUNCIATION (RP), and with the phrases the QUEEN'S ENGLISH, OXFORD ENGLISH, and BBC ENGLISH. When BrE refers to a model of English taught to foreigners, it is an idealization of the south-eastern middle-class standard, as presented in dictionaries and other materials prepared for learners.

Tensions and controversies

The precise naming of the kind or kinds of English used in the UK, and in those parts of the English-speaking world which have been closely influenced by it (mainly in the Commonwealth), is affected by tensions and controversies that fall into three groups:

Regional antagonism.

There are different perspectives and preferences in different parts of Britain. These include objections among the non-English to being categorized as English. While they object to this on grounds of ethnic reality, they also object to occasions when especially the southern English treat their use of English as quaint or inferior. Scots often argue that they exist in the worst of both worlds: they are called English when they are not English at the same time as their use of English is dismissed as not English. To a lesser degree, there are also within England tensions between in particular the North and the South, in which NORTHERN ENGLISH is often seen as secondary to Southern English, principally because it has no educated spoken standard to weigh against RP.

Class antagonism.

Issues of class remain significant in Britain, often mixed with regional, ethnic, and linguistic issues. Many working-class people regard the standard language and RP as beyond their reach, as middle-class impositions, or both. Standard usage containing ‘big words’ is sometimes seen as a kind of social and educational conspiracy, while RP and near-RP accents, despite their general prestige, or perhaps because of it, are perceived as posh, hoitytoity, put on, or toffee-nosed (snobbish and affected).

Precision of reference.

The issues relating to region and class become linguistic when their clarification depends on the preciseness or looseness of the terms used to discuss them. The scholarly debate includes both defences of and objections to the presentation of the traditional, standard, RP-linked variety as a single, prestige form when it is used by a small minority. The English sociolinguist Peter Trudgill has observed:
My own preferred label for varieties of English from England is ‘English English’, by analogy with ‘American English’, ‘Australian English’ etc.… Note that, whatever label is used, we have been careful in this book to distinguish between the terms ‘English English’ and ‘British English’. The latter is often used in literature, particularly, it seems, by Americans and writers on English as a foreign language, where it is really the former that is intended. (Introduction, Language in the British Isles, 1984)

Kinds of British English

It is not, however, surprising that the term ENGLISH ENGLISH is not widely used. To the English it seems as tautologous or as silly and inelegant as ‘German German’ and ‘French French’, whether or not there may be grounds for using those names, as for example to distinguish German in Germany from Austrian German and French in France from Quebec French. However, to many Scots, Irish, and Welsh people, and to others with comparable perspectives, some such term is essential to allow an explicit and productive contrast among the British varieties of English. Equally, however, the term SCOTTISH ENGLISH can seem odd to English and Scots alike, because of the ethnic sense of the word ‘English’: Scottish English seems to be a contradiction in terms. Similarly, the term IRISH ENGLISH may seem bizarre, both because of centuries-old connotations of illogic and whimsy acquired by the word Irish and because of the hostility of many in Ireland towards anything that links them too closely with England.

Because they belong to groups with strong positions in the ‘pecking order’ of the language, English and American scholars have tended to find ‘British English’ and ‘American English’ convenient labels for their respective varieties and standards, without further qualification. However, in recent years interest in and action on behalf of other varieties has made it difficult for these labels to be used as sweepingly and uncritically as in the past. It has also become increasingly difficult to resist the use of such terms as English English, Scottish English, WELSH ENGLISH, HAWAIIAN ENGLISH, INDIAN ENGLISH, SINGAPORE ENGLISH on the grounds that they are tautologous, paradoxical, bizarre, or dubious.


British English

views updated May 23 2018

Brit·ish Eng·lish • n. English as used in Great Britain, as distinct from that used elsewhere.

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