Setting Standards

Last week I attended the PG Linguistics Workshop at the University of St Andrews, which allowed me to present Proper English Usage as well as to spread the word about the Bridging the Unbridgeable Project. What became clear during the discussions with other PGs and academics is that standard language is among linguists, without doubt, a hot topic which is often handled with kid gloves to ensure that no one gets offended. But why is that so? Why does standard language or even the mere notion of it provoke such a divide?

To answer these questions, standard language, in this case Standard English, has to be defined first. Easier said than done. The lack of finding an appropriate definition of what Standard English is makes this issue even more delicate. During the panel discussion it was agreed that accepting the notion of a written standard in English was easier and probably made more sense than attempting a definition of Standard English in general.

Due to the great variety of dialects and accents, a spoken Standard English nowadays almost seems undemocratic. In the past, RP (Received Pronunciation), a variety spoken by less than 3 % of the entire population, was considered the spoken standard of English. Even today some hold the same view and thus RP can still be found as a model in English language teaching.

The Great British class calculator: What class are you? s

The association of the standard language with a prestigious upper class  is a “tradition” which is gradually broken by many. The development ofEstuary English, a variety of English considered to be the middle ground between RP and popular London speech, as well as the recent economic crisis appear to have had a considerable impact on the traditional class system as well as the linguistic landscape in Great Britain. 

Nevertheless, this proves that the notion of standard language is continuoulsy associated with power and ideology.  History has shown that the literati or those in power often defined what language was and how it was supposed to be used. These authorities in language have gradually shifted. From once educated or renowned authors such as Dryden, Shakespeare, Swift, authority in language has shifted towards institutions such as the BBC (British Broadcasting Cooperation).

BBC English, another spoken variant of English, is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “a form of standard spoken English associated with BBC announcers”. Although spoken varieties are often described and classified as a standard, it remains questionable whether the population agrees.

Measuring standards

The apparent becomes obvious; defining Standard English is not a piece of cake. However, an interesting conclusion was reached during the discussion; no matter whether one believes in it or not, there is no doubt that everyone has some kind of ‘yardstick of standard English’ according to which one measures what he or she believes to be correct, appropriate and/or acceptable in English.

Do you agree or have you found a suitable definition of what Standard English is? How general could such a definition be?