Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Possible Origins of Different Usages in Present-Day Spoken and Written English

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Possible Origins of Different Usages in Present-Day Spoken and Written English

Article excerpt


Within the continuum of spoken and written English some variations, c. g. the varying usage of negation and the opposition of pronominal usage, can be explained with reference to the varying characteristics of speech and writing. The origins of these variations, however, cannot be explained along these lines. After rendering some basic concepts, I would like to propose a view which accounts for the given variations with regards to the mentioned period of the history of the Standard English dialect. The paper will show that quite a lot of the variations which nowadays occur along the spoken/written divide equal those features which early grammarians, such as Robert Lowth or Joseph Priestley, discussed referring to good or bad language use. Therefore. I would like to argue that the grammatical structures found in spoken or written Present Day English originate from suggestions for seventeenth- and eighteenth-century norms of English.

1. Introduction

In 1986 Bertil Sundby stated: "Most linguists would agree that the study of historical English may be a help in describing and analyzing current English syntax and style. But scholars have been slow to recognize the linguistic potential of the old grammar-books, which may give clues to grammatical or stylistic problems precisely because of their normative approach ..." (1986: 397). Now, 20 years later, his words lend themselves readily to introducing this contribution which touches on similar sources and treats variation in English in the way the quotation describes.

Of course, language variation has always been a major concern of linguists, and whatever their starting point, whatever their approach, whatever their factual conclusions, it seems clear that variation is a fundamental feature of languages. It is just as undisputed that Present Day English differs in many respects: there is regional variation, there is social variation, and there is--this is essential for my paper--variation between the spoken and the written variety of the generally assumed common core. With respect to variation between the spoken and the written, it is frequently noted that speech draws one way, writing another, i.e. within the scope of my presentation speech prefers other grammatical constructions than writing. A further point which may be discovered is that speakers (1) use the different constructions along the spoken/written divide without giving much thought to it. However, plain reasons for how this came about do not seem to exist. Therefore the focus of this paper is on possible origins of the matter. Also I would like to suggest reasons why some of the grammatical structures found in spoken and written Present Day English originate from normative proposals for seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English.

2. Notional preliminaries

So far I have referred to notions and concepts which, in some respects, appear quite distant from one another: variation, speech and writing, prescription, Present Day English and seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English. That these issues are still quite closely related in a number of aspects can be seen in the numerous discussions whose study has helped to shape the present paper, and because of the many concepts, it appears sensible to begin with brief remarks which, I hope, will give orientation amongst my paper's presuppositions.

I will start with a short discussion of spoken and written language. Apparently, they are well-discussed, and, obviously, they relate to the medial distinction. Yet, twenty years ago Koch and Oesterreicher have suggested to go beyond this medial divide, i.e. speech and writing ought to be seen as conceptual genres within a continuum (1986: 17). In this continuum the conceptual poles waver between the naturalness, swiftness, structural simplicity and situatedness of orality and the artificiality, inertia, structural complexity and desituatedness of literacy (cf. …

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