Some might think that the debate about Standard English (SE) emerged only recently when celebrities like Trevor McDonald and Emma Thompson in their Received Pronunciation (RP) made disparaging comments about young people’s use of English:
Don’t use slang words such as “likes” and “innit”. Just don’t do it because it makes you sound stupid and you’re not stupid… We have to reinvest, I think, in the idea of articulacy as a form of personal human freedom and power.
However, the debate about how we speak is almost as old as the subject itself. Even during Shakespeare’s time, people were complaining about the sloppy use of English language. Similarly, letters in The Times during the nineteenth century were voicing readers’ concerns about the state of English and its dissension.
But what are the key issues that fuel this debate and what do they really hint at?
Firstly it is worth noting that English is deeply divisive especially RP. It separates those acting as the custodians of the language – educated, professional class – from the common users, the uneducated class of labourers. By its very nature, therefore, it is elitist. Theoretically, at least SE is supposed to be egalitarian because it is concerned with the written language more than with the actual sound.
So contrary to RP, SE is mainly about dialect.
But dialects have their own grammatical forms which may challenge conventional laws. For instance, a few regional dialects have double negatives, sentences ending in prepositions and even irregular subject/verb agreement such as we was as opposed to we were, you was instead of you were and me mam and not my mother. And within some groups, even the apostrophe is considered almost redundant.
Essentially SE implies that there is a hierarchy of English.
Today, for instance, instead of encompassing, SE relegates other forms of dialect onto the sidelines and gives truth to a lie that one form of English – speaking/writing – is better than another. In doing so, the educated class have promoted their own form of language as being superior against all other dialects. To some extent, they have marginalised users. This may not be intentional but that is the effect. There is good English – the English of the rich privilege classes – which can be juxtaposed with what we might implicitly refer to as bad English, the grammatical/syntactical patterns of the working classes or young people who intercept their utterances with ‘like’ and ‘innit’.
So it is worth making the point that when Johnson compiled the ‘first’ dictionary (1755), he did not make such crude distinctions between one form of English and another. His dictionary was foremost a comprehensive collection of words/language – irrespective of their merit – spoken by ‘the English people of this land’. It was only later that dictionary editors – the educated class – started categorising English into different compartments. They began referring to quality and standards whilst making a distinction between educated, cultured speakers (like themselves) with those who lacked education and culture. Within this definition, class was an important feature. So by the early 20th century, for instance, SE was being defined with words like ‘best’, ‘currency’ and ‘cultural status’ of the person using the language.
In this context, it is worth noting that culture meant – and still means – high culture, the stuff of opera, theatre and arts and not necessarily the stuff of popular culture of working men’s clubs, soaps, pubs and football. In this definition and usage, therefore, SE is political as it denotes cultural superiority.
IMPLICATIONS OF USING ‘PROPER’ ENGLISH
This political debate has implications for teaching and learning. It has, for instance, been noted in educational research that pupils from middle and privilege classes do well in exams. They do so partly because the very means in which knowledge is transmitted in the classroom is familiar to them (Bernstein, 1990). This, however, is not the case for pupils from working-class backgrounds because their language is relegated to an inferior rank and status. Essentially the system that defines quality and designs mechanism to assess learning and the acquisition of knowledge is biased in favour of SE. From an early age, teachers get rid of their voice; they violate their language by intercepting their non-standard English and impose a ‘better’, corrected form. And in this process, well-meaning as it may be, pupils are made to feel inadequate. Throughout schooling, they are taught and tested in a medium whose very laws have to be learnt, adopted and applied. It seems that only then can facts and knowledge be measured and assessed with any degree of accuracy and, as result, a fallacy is manufactured linking intelligence with affectations of RP, class and snobbery.
This is a recurring idea in literature. Countless works have illustrated this division including Shaw’s Pygmalion and Dickens’ Hard Times where Gradgrind forces Sissy Jupe to use Standard English which, as the reader knows, maybe socially respectable but is, in fact, cold and clinical, robbed of fancy, warmth and love. It becomes a tool for control and conformity. This is the case when Gradgrind addresses Jupe regarding her name:
‘Girl number twenty,’ said Mr Gradgrind, squarely pointing with his square forefinger, ‘I don’t know that girl. Who is that girl?’
‘Sissy Jupe, sir,’ explained number twenty, blushing, standing up, and curtseying.
‘Sissy is not a name,’ said Mr Gradgrind. ‘Don’t call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecilia.’
‘It’s father as calls me Sissy, sir,’ returned the young girl in a trembling voice, and with another curtsey.
‘Then he has no business to do it,’ said Mr Gradgrind. ‘Tell him he mustn’t. Cecilia Jupe….’
The infliction of SE here robs Sissy Jupe of her identity as indeed it robs Eliza Doolittle.
The overall effect is that it leaves such individuals feeling that sense of inferiority that somehow they have not measured up to the expectations of the educated class. And, naturally, that sense of difference leaves them alienated that although they write, read and speak English, somehow it is not their English. Their tongue is a foreign one. Higgins, in Pygmalion, states this of Doolittle: She has a quick ear, and she’s been easier to teach than my middle-class pupils because she’s had to learn a completely new language. She talks English almost as you talk French.
And this failure of ownership of the language also persists amongst some educated. James Joyce’s Dedalus, for instance, reflects on this very notion in A Portrait of the Artist:
The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul rets in the shadow of his language.
Perhaps what is really underlying in the debate about SE is the idea of decadence, that sloppy language – that Thompson alludes to – somehow reflects the declining moral and spiritual health of our nation. We need to use ‘proper’ English because the social fabrics on which society operates, depend on it. Thompson and McDonald might borrow political lexis – reinvestment, freedom and power – but their overall concerns might not be for the individual but Order and society at large.
The importance of applying correct language is implicitly linked with stability and an ordered society and an individual mind. In this a correlation is made linking physical structure, expression and sanity. For instance, in Act II, Polonius objects to Hamlet’s letter to Ophelia on the count of his misuse of language:
To the celestial and my soul’s idol, the most beautified Ophelia,’–
That’s an ill phrase, a vile phrase; ‘beautified’ is a vile phrase…
It is such evidence that leads him to the fallacious conclusion that Hamlet is mad. And this is significant because Shakespeare reminds us over and over again about the importance of speaking plainly. In King Lear, for instance, children use elaborate language to win their fathers’ favour. Goneril and Regan use hyperbolic language as flattery for material gain. This is contrasted with the good characters who, in a state of paralysis, can barely utter a word. What can you say to draw a third more opulent than your sisters? demands Lear in the opening scene, Speak. And when Cordelia says and repeats nothing, we know we are at an important juncture. This insufficient language is going to be the springboard for the tragedy. Later, it is appropriate therefore that Edgar should conclude, Speak what we feel not what we ought to say.
POLICY DOCUMENTS AND SOCIAL FLUX
But our concerns about standards in English might also be linked with cultural insecurity. They suggest that the language is under threat by foreign cultures/people diluting the purity of English by their use of ungrammatical forms and ‘alien’ vocabulary. However, this is not a new idea. Successive governments since the beginning of the twentieth century have attempted to safeguard standards from the Newbolt Report of 1921 to Gove’s Education Act, 2011. And each policy document concluded, quite decisively, that standards were better thirty-forty years ago – almost as if the golden age was that time when the report writers were at school.
This is particularly the case with Baker’s White Paper, 1982, which became the catalyst for the reforms that followed in the eighties culminating in the introduction of the National Curriculum. With the rise of immigration in the sixties and seventies, urban social unrest and unemployment of the late seventies and early eighties and the growing competition from Europe and the wider markets, it became paramount for the government that British pupils learnt about their own cultural heritage and focused on speaking correctly. So examining government agencies and boards introduced speaking/listening components in English coursework and made the study of Shakespeare and the canon obligatory requirements. It could be argued that such emphasis was largely a reactionary measure to address the infiltration of ‘otherness’ as a way of counteracting modernity, agitation and change (Barber, 1990; Doyle, 1989). It was a way of heightening a sense of Englishness. And to some extent, the debate about SE embodies this historical legacy.
Such a line of thinking might grab newspaper headlines that a government is promoting and restoring the beauty of the language and English culture amongst our young people. However, it is, on the whole, a little more than marketing gloss. It fails to take into account that – despite one’s overweening love for English – language is fluid, at a constant flux and that to attempt to curtail this is bordering on idiocy.
Instead of insisting on SE, denigrating the speech of young people and depersonalising their language through fear, we should be encouraging them to use a variety of English forms. In fact, we should be celebrating the richness of the English language, the diversity it encompasses. And perhaps to state the contrary is dangerous. As Orwell in 1984 reminds us through Simms:
Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end, we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten.
To argue for one particular form SE or RP irrespective of the context is giving language an imperialistic veneer as echoed by nineteenth-century colonial, Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay:
It is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, –a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.
That, as we all know and history has proven, is a dangerous recipe for disaster.
It is, therefore, little wonder that colonial writers have felt that unease of writing in the language which is theirs and yet not quite theirs; universal and liberating and yet, a constant reminder of subjugation and cultural rape of their lands. Many have written about their disconnectedness with English. So in order to democratise the language we need to provide a mechanism for people to change and develop it. It has to reflect the changing world, the changing tastes in fashion and values. Language – whether SE or otherwise – should not hark back to the past but look forward to the future where people can feel a sense of ownership, affiliation and belonging.
Unlike love, language is not an ever-fixed star, it alters when its alteration find, bends with the remover to remove. It is anything but constant because society is forever changing, forever on the move. To argue that we need to restore the beauty of English to an idealistic, fictitious age by promoting SE and criticising young people for their unorthodox usage, ignores the fact that language is part and parcel of young people’s identity. Chiding them for this is a personal attack on their cultural identity and achieves very little. Language is about communicating effectively given a particular context. It is about using an array of different forms. And to some extent, it has to have an anarchic element, the potential to shock the older generation because it is this that keeps the language alive and ephemeral.
Bernstein, B. (1990) Class, Codes and Control, Vol. IV: The Structure of Pedagogic Discourse, London/New York: Routledge (p.94-130)
Doyle, B. (1989) English and Englishness, London: Routledge
Barber, M. (1996) The Learning Game: Argument for an Educational Revolution, London: Victor Gollancz