Standard English: The Widening Debate

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

INTRODUCTION TO PART III

Part III of this volume contains three chapters all of which present alternative approaches to the debate on ‘Standard English’. It is perhaps not entirely by chance that they are written from a totally or partially non-British point of view, even though Lesley Milroy, despite her present position as full professor at the University of Michigan, stems from the British tradition in socio-linguistics. The aspects of the debate so far have all been focused on the question of ‘Standard English’ seen from a British perspective. But the protagonists of both sides are locked in an argument from which there is no escape. It is because of the urgent need to find an escape from this impasse that we offer three chapters containing salutary perspectives from outside Britain.

In Chapter 8, Lesley Milroy offers a comparison and contrast between the ways in which ‘Standard English’ is understood in non-linguistic circles in Great Britain and the United States. It is certainly not new to look at the processes of standardisation from an ideological point of view, but the term ‘ideology’ has been studiously and consistently avoided by lay commentators, sometimes even by linguists supporting such notions as ‘correct’ ‘Standard English’, ‘educated’ speakers of ‘Standard English’, ‘good’ English and ‘bad’ English. Honey (1997), for example, devotes a whole chapter (Chapter 6) to the demolition of the Milroys’ notion of ‘authority in language’ without even mentioning the term ‘ideology’ once. Lesley Milroy, however, is quite open about what her aims are in this chapter, viz. to uncover and discuss ‘the rather different ideologies which result in subtly but noticeably different language attitudes in Britain and the United States and can be related to contrasting national histories and social structures’. It is, indeed, this approach which we would like to see applied with more honesty and openness in the debate.

The second refreshing aspect of Milroy’s approach is to insist on thorough sociohistorical research. She starts off by suggesting that the very notion of ‘Standard English’ in Britain is different from the equivalent notion in the United States. She also restricts her discussion to the ‘spoken language’, by which she means accent, i.e. the phonological codification of the standard which Trudgill maintains has not taken place. At this point we have to be careful, however, since Milroy is talking about an ideology, a set of beliefs about language shared by a community, and not about real attempts at codification and stabilisation. Any change in language is not held to be ‘a neutral

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