Authority in Language: Investigating Standard English

By James Milroy; Lesley Milroy | Go to book overview

1

PRESCRIPTION AND STANDARDISATION

1.1

Language prescription and its consequences

In this book we attempt to look dispassionately at prescription in language and the effects of prescriptive attitudes on the daily lives of individuals. Prescription depends on an ideology (or set of beliefs) concerning language which requires that in language use, as in other matters, things shall be done in the ‘right’ way. We can, perhaps, best understand what it is by comparing language with other aspects of human behaviour, such as dress or table manners. If, in a particular culture at a particular time, guests at a dinner are required to wear evening dress (of a particular form) and required to use their knives and forks in a particular way, these requirements are prescriptive, that is, they are imposed from ‘above’ by ‘society’, not by ad hoc agreement amongst the guests themselves. They are also arbitrary: in North America, for example, the fork is transferred to the right hand for eating, whereas in Britain, the fork remains in the left hand and the knife in the right. One could actually think of a variety of perfectly efficient ways—besides these—in which a meal could be eaten; yet, in these cultures, the slightest deviation from the prescribed norms is immediately noticed and considered to be ‘bad manners’.

Language is a much more complex phenomenon than table manners: it is also a much more central aspect of human experience. Whereas table manners are codified in handbooks of etiquette, ‘correct’ use of language is codified in handbooks of usage. It is probable that all speakers of English (and probably most speakers of many other languages) have a number of definite opinions as to what is ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ in the language they use. They may often look to ‘expert’ opinion, rather than to their own knowledge of the language, to decide. Particular English usages, such as double negatives, as in He never said nothing, are viewed as unacceptable although they are very widely used; some varieties of a language (e.g. BBC spoken English) are publicly considered to be ‘better’ than some other varieties (e.g. Birmingham urban dialect). Indeed, some languages are thought to be in some senses ‘better’ than others: it has often been claimed, for example, that French is more logical than English.

Language, as we have suggested, is a much more complex phenomenon than

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