Authority in Language: Investigating Standard English

By James Milroy; Lesley Milroy | Go to book overview

2

STANDARD ENGLISH AND THE COMPLAINT TRADITION

2.1

The history of Standard English

Most people are of the opinion that the influence of the mass media in recent times has had a powerful effect in reducing the diversity of English and bringing about uniformity. This is not a proven fact: it is merely a belief. In favour of this view, it can be reasonably argued that remote rural dialects have been dying out quite rapidly. Against it, we can point out that although the Received Pronunciation of Standard English has been heard constantly on radio and then television for over 70 years, only 3 to 5 per cent of the population of Britain actually speak RP (Trudgill and Hannah, 1982). It can also be pointed out that the spread of English to former colonies has continued to create diversity, and new brands of English have been springing up even in recent times (on Singaporean English, see Chapter 5).

There are three areas of research that suggest that the promotion of standardisation through official and centralised channels is less widely effective than is generally believed. One is the study of variation in English in the British Isles. The phonological structure (pronunciation) of regional forms of English does not appear to adapt rapidly towards the standard. For example, Belfast English (as described by J. Milroy, 1981) has a radically different phonological system from that of SE, and that system remains different in spite of radio, television and the educational system. Belfast English (and other Hiberno-English) pronunciation preserves certain structural characteristics of Early Modern English that have long been lost in SE (Milroy and Harris, 1980): these varieties and many others, although they change quite rapidly in some ways, have successfully resisted centralising influences for centuries. A second relevant area is research into the language of the mass media themselves. For example, Bell (1982), in a study of the language of several New Zealand radio channels, has shown that broadcasters tend to adapt to the language of their target audiences, following rather than leading in language variation and change. A third relevant area (one that has not been noticed so far by linguistic researchers) is the general study of diffusion of innovations in society (Rogers and Shoemaker, 1971, and see Milroy and Milroy, 1985).

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