"Standard English: what it isn’t" : a summary

মন মাঝি's picture
Submitted by monmajhi [Guest] on Sun, 19/02/2012 - 12:49pm

I recently stumbled upon the following summary of an article titled "Standard English: what it isn’t", by the eminent sociolinguist Peter Trudgill. I wrote this a long time ago as a training 'reading assignment'. Majority of it is cut/paste business I think (I haven't closely compared it with the original this time). But, since the recent Bangladesh High Court suo moto ruling against the use of "distorted Bangla" and the resultant debate (a very old one though) on 'Standard Bangla", it occurred to me that this article by Mr Trudgill, a well known authority on dialects , is although about English and not about Bangla or at all about the kind of debate we are having at this moment due to the High Court ruling - may still be able to shed a bit of light on some issues relevant to us - albeit very indirectly.

So, I've decided to post my summary here (without the last 2 paragraphs of it) in the spirit of sharing and hoping that it is suitable for Sachalayatan and does not break any of its posting guideline and most importantly - readers find it illuminating, interesting and pertinent in some way, despite the poor quality of my summarization. Interested readers can still read the full original article by Trudgill here.

The main goal of the article under discussion, “Standard English: what it isn’t” by Peter Trudgill, is – as stated by the author – a characterization of Standard English. The author also hastens to add that, this is indeed a characterization rather than a strict definition.

The author starts by defining Standardization as consisting of the processes of language determination, codification and stabilization. In his view, language determination “refers to decisions which have to be taken concerning the selection of particular languages or varieties of language for particular purposes in the society or nation in question", Codification is the process whereby a language variety "acquires a publicly recognised and fixed form", and Stabilisation is a process whereby a formerly diffuse variety (in the sense of Le Page and Tabouret-Keller,1985) "undergoes focusing and takes on a more fixed and stable form". The author therefore finds it somewhat surprising that there seems to be considerable confusion in the English-speaking world, even amongst linguists, about what Standard English is.

It’s not a language. According to the author, Standard English is not "a language" in any meaningful sense of this term. Standard English, whatever it is, is less than a language, since it is only one variety of English among many, albeit perhaps the most important one.

It’s not an accent. There is one thing about Standard English on which most linguists seem to agree, and that is that Standard English has nothing to do with pronunciation. There is in Britain a high status and widely described accent known as Received Pronunciation (RP) which is sociolinguistically unusual when seen from a global perspective in that it is not associated with any geographical area, but it is clear that in principle we can say that, while RP is in a sense, standardised, it is a standardised accent of English and not Standard English itself, the author opines.

It’s not a style. There is considerable confusion though, regarding the relationship between Standard English and the vocabulary associated with formal varieties of the English language. Style is characterized (see Trudgill, 1992) as varieties of language viewed from the point of view of formality. Styles are varieties of language which can be ranged on a continuum ranging from very formal to very informal. As far as the relationship between style and Standard English is concerned, the author highlights the following. The phonological sensitivity to stylistic context obviously has no connection to Standard English since, Standard English has no connection with phonology. Lexis is examined then. The author asserts that the sentence “The old man was bloody knackered after his long trip” is clearly and unambiguously Standard English. To assert otherwise - that swear words like bloody and very informal words like knackered are not Standard English - would get us into a very difficult situation. “The old man was bloody knackered after his long trip” -- is a Standard English sentence, couched in a very informal style, while “Father were very tired after his lengthy journey” is a sentence in a nonstandard variety of English, as attested by the nonstandard verb form ‘were’, couched in a rather formal style. The author concludes on this point by saying that he is therefore justified, with some individual exceptions or reservations, in asserting the theoretical independence of the parameter standard-nonstandard from the parameter formal-informal.

It’s not a register. The author states that the question of register and the question of standard versus nonstandard are in principle entirely separate questions. That one can certainly, for example, acquire and use technical registers without using Standard English, just as one can employ non-technical registers while speaking or writing Standard English. Therefore, there is no necessary connection between the two. Thus “There was two eskers what we saw in them U-shaped valleys” is a nonstandard English sentence couched in the technical register of physical geography. This type of combination of technical register with a nonstandard variety is much more common in some language communities than others. For example, In German-speaking Switzerland, one may hear, in the corridors of the University of Berne, two philosophy professors discussing the works of Kant using all the appropriate philosophical vocabulary while using the phonology and grammar of their local dialect. It would of course be possible to argue that their philosophical vocabulary is not an integral part of their native nonstandard Swiss German dialects and that the professors are "switching" or that these words are being "borrowed" from Standard German and being subjected, as loan words often are, to phonological integration into the local dialect. But, the author asserts, that there seems no reason to suppose that technical vocabulary is the sole prerogative of standard varieties, or that while, if you are a nonstandard dialect speaker, it is possible to acquire new non-technical words within your own nonstandard dialect, it is sadly by definition impossible to acquire technical words without switching to the standard variety. The author concludes on this point by saying that, if the Swiss example tells us anything, it tells us that there is no necessary connection between Standard English and technical registers.

So what is it then ? The author argues that, Standard English is not therefore a language, an accent, a style or a register, but actually it is a dialect. It is simply one variety of English among many. It is a sub-variety of English. Sub-varieties of languages are usually referred to as dialects, and languages are often described as consisting of dialects. And, it is also of interest that dialects of English, as of other languages, are generally simultaneously both geographical and social dialects which combine to form both geographical and social dialect continua. But, there is really no continuum linking Standard English to other dialects because the codification that forms a crucial part of the standardization process results in a situation where, in most cases, a feature is either standard or it is not. Secondly, unlike other dialects, Standard English is a purely social dialect. Because of its unusual history and its extreme sociological importance, it is no longer a geographical dialect, even if we can tell that its origins were originally in the southeast of England. The most salient sociolinguistic characteristic of Standard English is that it is a social dialect. Historically, the author continues, we can say that Standard English was selected as the variety to become the standard variety precisely because it was the variety associated with the social group with the highest degree of power, wealth and prestige. The author then concludes on this point by saying that, Standard English is a social dialect which is distinguished from other dialects of the language by its grammatical forms. But then he hastens to point out that these grammatical forms are not necessarily identical with those which prescriptive grammarians have concerned themselves with over the last few centuries, that Standard English is not a set of prescriptive rules.

Grammatical idiosyncrasies of Standard English. Standard English of course has most of its grammatical features in common with the other dialects. But the author points out that, when compared to the nonstandard dialects, however, it can be seem to have idiosyncrasies which include the following: 1. Standard English fails to distinguish between the forms of the auxiliary forms of the verb do and its main verb forms, 2. Standard English has an unusual and irregular present tense verb morphology in that only the third-person singular receives morphological marking, 3. Standard English lacks multiple negation, 4. Standard English has an irregular formation of reflexive pronouns with some forms based on the possessive pronouns, 5. Standard English fails to distinguish between second person singular and second person plural pronouns, 6. Standard English has irregular forms of the verb to be both in the present tense (am, is, are) and in the past (was, were). Many nonstandard dialects have the same form for all persons, Standard English redundantly distinguishes between preterite and perfect verb forms both by the use of the auxiliary have and by the use of distinct preterite and past participle forms, 8. Standard English has only a two-way contrast in its demonstrative system, while many other dialects have a three-way system involving a further distinction.

Linguistic Change. There is also a question concerning which grammatical forms are and are not Standard English which has to do with linguistic change. The author opines that, Given that it is possible for nonstandard features to become standard (and vice versa), it follows that there will be a period of time when a form’s status will be uncertain or ambiguous. For example, most Standard English speakers are happy to accept the new status of than as a preposition rather than a conjunction.in constructions such as : “He is bigger than me”, but less happy, for the time being, to do so in – “He is bigger than what I am”.

Nonstandard lexis. The author has argued above that there is no necessary connection between formal vocabulary or technical vocabulary and Standard English. But he continues saying that in a particular sense, however, in which this is not entirely true. He gives the example of the nonstandard verb (from the dialect of Norwich, England) to blar, contrasting it with the standard form to cry which has the same meaning. He points out that, ‘to blar’ is both regionally and socially restricted. This means that there is a sense in which it can be said that to cry is a Standard English word, whereas to blar is not.

Find full original article here.

Past posts in Bangla :  Micro-fiction | Micro-horror sereis | Non-fiction | Travel


অনিন্দ্য রহমান's picture

nice summary. trudgill interestingly problematises the very notion of 'the standard'.

he, however, did not focus on the fact that any act of standardisation requires violence. ( it was beyond the topic, perhaps)

now, rumour has that there used to be 28 words for 'egg' known to the island when the saxons settled down there. unwanted eggs, i guess, would have been broken much easily in other parts of the later empire.

carry on!

রাষ্ট্রায়াত্ত শিল্পের পূর্ণ বিকাশ ঘটুক

মন মাঝি's picture

Trudgill did not focus on 'violence' or the politics behind the standardisation of a dialect, simply because these were not, well, the focus of this article. Besides the role of actual violence or the implicit threat of violence, force, etc behind the recognition and 'enforcement' of a certain 'dialect' as the standard variety of a particular 'language' is one among the basic points of discussion in sociolinguistis. Trudgill, I think, did not feel the elaboration of that point very relevant in this particular article, the focus of which is rather different.

But he did mention though that, "Standard English was selected as the variety to become the standard variety precisely because it was the variety associated with the social group with the highest degree of power, wealth and prestige." That basically sums up the whole point/role of 'force' behind the selection of a particular vaiety/dialect as the standard variety.

By the way, I am sure you are aware of the famous quotation from the Yiddish sociolinguist Max Weinreich which says " A language is a dialect with an army and navy. " This is a humorous quip highlighting the role of force behind the selection of a particular vaiety/dialect as the standard variety, but this does not literally mean the direct participation of an army or a navy in that process with actual violence or the explicit threat of it, at least not as a rule. In many or most cases, the actual force or threat of violence can remain invisible far behind the scene. It's the power,influence, wealth and prestige of the elite class of a society that determines the outcome of this standardisation process. The implicit "force" part of this "eliteness", i.e. the politico-military foundation of the overall prevailing political system that ultimately ensures or guarantees the apparent power,influence, wealth and prestige of the existing elite class can and often do remain uninvolved (in a direct sense) from this process - untapped or unaccessed. The prestige, influence and wealth component of the elite often does the trick without the need to resort to or access any resource of force or violence they might possess or have access to. This was how probably the dialect of the then Nadia district and some areas surrounding Calcutta eventually became the standard variety in Bangla, because the speech communities from these areas first poured into and merged in Calcutta which was at first the powerbase of the new merchant power of East India Company and later on of the same as the new political masters, and eventually the capital, seat of government, power, wealth, prestige and opportunity of the entire Indian colony of the British empire until 1911. Parts of the said speech communities formed the new local elite class in the then Bengal under British rule, and thereby selected and shaped the standard variety of Bangla (i.e. Standard Bangla) as per their liking. The dialects and the members of the speech communities of the then East Bengal could not, did not get the opportunity to or weren't successful in participating in and/or influencing this process in any significant manner. We in Bangladesh inherited the outcome of this process more or less. This is my understanding of the history of our Standard Bangla. I could be wrong though due to my very limited knowledge on the subject.

The present dilemma in our country also partly stems from this root of our linguistic history. The eliteness and the influence thereof of the first hand Calcutta variety(aka 'Standard Bengali')-educated or influenced elite in our society has been steadily eroding since the partition of India in 1947, and it has reached a point now, after 65 years, where a significant part of the new elite and the nouveaux riche-class here does not, cannot, care not or even in some cases doesn't even want to - stick to the inherited form/sub-variety fully. This is bound to impact the practice of the still accepted standard variety here, in some shape or form. But, I am not sure of the nature and extent of that impact and where this evolution is going to settle down, if it does. Only time will tell. I don't think HC rulings can prevent this evolution in the long run.

By the way, I think force albeit important, is not the sole factor or sole determinant of outcome in this process. Never was. So there is a chance I hope, that we can all fruitfully participate in this new debate and influence the evolution according to our respective abilities, especially in this era of democratic values, without being suppressed or browbeaten or simply totally ignored by the present or upcoming elite of our country and their foot-soldiers in various shapes and forms.

Thank you for reading!


অনিন্দ্য রহমান's picture

illuminating response.

i roughly agree with you on 'force'. but i consciously chose the word 'violence'. there is something 'immoral', 'unethical', 'unacceptable' about 'violence', which the 'deterministic' word 'force' cannot carry. its too scientific. but anyways, you are right.

my reading of HC order is a bit different. yes, i'd advocate for the strictest regulations on any business enterprise (that includes broadcasting, of course). but i also recognise blogging and any other form of social interaction as primarily non-business activities, thus fundamentally beyond such state regulations. and more importantly, i understand that there should be necessary democratic debate (which must take place in the parliament, and NOT mediated by so-called 'civil society') in determination of the nature of such regulations.

i knew very little about weinreich. regarding his witty comment i'd say he missed 'air force' হাসি much of our major linguistic shifts are air-borne nowadays, aren't they?

thanks for the long reply.

রাষ্ট্রায়াত্ত শিল্পের পূর্ণ বিকাশ ঘটুক

John Cowan's picture

Weinreich in fact attributed this saying to someone not known to him, a high-school teacher who had grown up speaking Yiddish but had always thought of it as "just bad German". Apparently the teacher heard Weinreich give a lecture and came up to him afterwards: in conversation he gave Weinreich this line, in Yiddish "a shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot". Yiddish, of course, is unquestionably a language, the language of most European Jews for a thousand years, despite never having had an army or a navy. When the Afrikaans-speaking whites lost power in South Africa there was a joke that Afrikaans is now a dialect of Hottentot.

As far as I know there have only ever been two words for 'egg' in English, the borrowed word egg and the native word ey (plural eyren), related to German Ei. There is a famous 1490 anecdote by William Caxton, the first English printer (translated into contemporary English here):

For we Englishmen are born under the domination of the moon, which is never steadfast but ever wavering, waxing one season and waning and decreasing another season. And the common English that is spoken in one shire varies from another. In my time it happened that certain merchants were in a ship on the Thames to sail over the sea to Zealand, and for lack of wind, they delayed at Foreland [in the Isle of Wight], and went ashore to refresh themselves. And one of them named Sheffield, a cloth dealer, came to a house and asked for food, and especially he asked for egges, and the good woman answered that she could speak no French. And the merchant was angry, for he also could speak no French, but he wanted to have egges and she did not understand him. And then at last another said that he wanted eyren. Then the good woman said that she understood him well. So what should a man in these days now write, egges or eyren? Certainly it is hard to please every man, because of diversity and change of language.

উচ্ছলা's picture

Your article is like a floodlight that successfully illuminated all the characteristics of  "Standard English". 
It's been an absolute pleasure reading this post and knowing your thoughts on some really really interesting linguistic facts.  চলুক

মন মাঝি's picture

আপনারে অসংখ্য -ধইন্যাপাতা-

But as far as English is concerned, the praise should go to Peter Trudgil really, not me. হাসি

Thanks a lot anyway.


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