Authority in Language: Investigating Standard English

By James Milroy; Lesley Milroy | Go to book overview
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The standard language ideology in Britain and the United States


Some beliefs about Standard English

Comments on Standard English and criticisms of non-standard speakers are commonplace in both Britain and the United States, but the most contentious public debates about language are framed rather differently in the two countries. It is difficult to imagine a long-running controversy in the United States with all the ingredients of the great grammar debate which we alluded to in Chapter 8. Equally, it is hard to imagine the British press focusing over many years on an English Only movement or on whether British Black English should be taught as a separate language, as in the Ebonics debate. In this final chapter we shall consider some social and historical factors underpinning these somewhat different manifestations of the standard language ideology. We begin by looking more closely at the term ‘Standard English’ when used in reference to a spoken norm.

Although not all scholars are in agreement with us, we suggested in Chapter 1 that standardisation was best treated as a process, since attempts to locate a specific standard (product) are by definition doomed to failure. We also saw that phonology was particularly resistant to standardisation. Hence some scholars identify the standard as a prestigious system of grammar and lexis which can be realised with any phonological system; for them there is no such thing as a ‘standard accent’. However, in practice Received Pronunciation (RP) is often treated not only by the general public, but also by some professional linguists as a reference accent and described as ‘Standard English’ (Smith, 1996:65). In the United States, so-called ‘network American’1 is often identified as Standard English, although RP and network American are horses of a very different colour. Network American is a mainstream accent associated

1 In reality many high-profile American broadcasters speak with regional accents. For example, Walter Kronkite’s successor as CBS newsreader is the audibly southern-accented Dan Rather.


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Authority in Language: Investigating Standard English


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