Standard English: The Widening Debate

By Tony Bex; Richard J. Watts | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION TO PART I

The chapters which make up Part I have a common ground in that they are all concerned with the ways in which the concept of ‘Standard English’ has been ideologically constructed. This is a strand that runs through the whole volume, but it is here where these issues are most explicitly expressed and given a historical context. The authors are not necessarily in agreement as to the precise definition of the term ‘Standard English’, but they do share a common perception that standardisation is best seen as a process driven by spokespeople who have successfully articulated a particular set of social values. Necessarily, such social values are rooted in history which is why each of the following chapters has a historical dimension.

In Chapter 1, James Milroy teases out a number of interwoven strands in the development of what he calls the ‘standard language ideology’, paying particular attention to the ways in which it has been promoted, often indirectly, by linguists’ conceptualisations of language. There is a strong lay interest in maintaining certain standards of correctness through features of accent and grammatical forms. These features are often equated with the standard language, although they only represent a tiny proportion of the dialect and are often slightly antiquated. However, the stigma attached to using incorrect forms results in discrimination, and it is this interrelationship between linguistic form and social discrimination that enables us to refer to the conceptualisation of ‘Standard English’ as ideological in its nature. Linguists who attempt to resist the ideological underpinnings have been hampered by a set of research paradigms that have dominated linguistic study certainly during this century, and in varying forms in the preceding centuries. Milroy spells out both what these are, and how they are being challenged by new sociolinguistic research into language variation. 1

In Chapter 2, Richard J. Watts investigates the genesis of the debate about ‘Standard English’ by discussing the works of some eighteenth-century grammarians. Although the ‘complaint tradition’ has a long history, it was only in the eighteenth century that detailed codification of English grammar was undertaken. Watts demonstrates that the codification was driven by a desire to describe a very limited dialect, and to describe it from a predominantly

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