Standard English: The Widening Debate

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

6

SPOKEN STANDARD ENGLISH

Jenny Cheshire

1

Introduction

The introduction of the National Curriculum for English in England and Wales (DfE/WO 1995) has highlighted, for linguists at least, the fact that we know relatively little about the syntactic structure of spoken English. One of the requirements of the programme of study for Speaking and Listening is that children ‘should be taught…to be confident users of standard English in formal and informal situations’ (DfE/WO 1995:18). This requirement presupposes that the concept of a spoken standard English is unproblematic. The reality, however, is that not only is the concept of spoken standard English problematic in itself, but the grammatical structure of spoken English generally is far from being well understood. This is especially true of the English that is spoken in informal situations, if we assume that these give rise to spontaneous conversational speech. Our conventional descriptions of English syntax fit written English (and, perhaps, the speech produced by educated speakers in formal situations) better than the speech that we produce in more informal styles, a point that has been made by many scholars who have worked on spoken English (see, for example, Crystal 1980; Stubbs 1983; Carter and McCarthy 1995; Milroy and Milroy 1998). In this chapter I will not attempt to deal with the educational aspects of these issues, important though they are; instead I will confine my discussion first to some of the reasons for our failure to describe adequately the grammar of speech, and then to a brief account of some of the grammatical structures that are typical of spontaneous informal spoken English. I will conclude by briefly examining the implications for the meaning of the term ‘spoken standard English’.

2

Problems in analysing the syntax of spoken English

An important reason for our failure to understand the nature of spoken syntax is that our frameworks of analysis conform to the views of language that we have acquired during our education rather than to the variety of language that we produce during face-to-face interaction. Strive as we may to be

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