Standard English: The Widening Debate

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

1

THE CONSEQUENCES OF STANDARDISATION IN DESCRIPTIVE LINGUISTICS

James Milroy

Introduction

Much of nineteenth- and twentieth-century linguistics has depended on the study of major languages that have been regarded as existing in standard, ‘classical’ or canonical forms. Languages such as Latin, Greek and Sanskrit, and subsequently English, Spanish, French and others, have been widely studied and often admired for their alleged elegance, expressiveness, richness or sophistication. Yet, in reality, many of these have at various times been spread by fire and sword through substantial areas of the known world. Their ecological success has arisen, not from the superiority of their grammatical and phonological structures over those of other less successful languages or from the great poetry that has been composed in them—but from the success of their speakers in conquering and subduing speakers of other languages throughout much of known history. I will refer to these as ‘major’ languages solely in recognition of the large number of native speakers that they have and the wide dispersal of these speakers.

This does not, of course, make these languages either good or bad, for languages are not in themselves moral objects. One language may use verbs at the end of clauses and another in the middle, but it cannot be shown that one word-order is in some way superior—more virtuous, more expressive—than the other. Much the same can be said of phonological and lexical structures. Thus (and this is the position of most professional linguistic scholars), no moral judgement or critical evaluation can be validly made about the abstract structures we call languages. It is the speakers of languages, and not the languages themselves, who live in a moral universe.

Most of the comments made so far are uncontroversial among linguists, although not to many others (including, for example, Honey 1997), and it is partly for this latter reason that these basic points must be repeatedly made.

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