Standard English: The Widening Debate

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

8

STANDARD ENGLISH AND LANGUAGE IDEOLOGY IN BRITAIN AND THE UNITED STATES

Lesley Milroy

1

Some beliefs about standard English

The term ‘standard language ideology’ as described by Milroy and Milroy (1998) and Lippi-Green (1994) characterises a particular set of beliefs about language. Such beliefs are typically held by populations of economically developed nation states where processes of standardisation have operated over a considerable time to produce an abstract set of norms—lexical, grammatical and (in spoken language) phonological—popularly described as constituting a standard language. The same beliefs also emerge, somewhat transformed by local histories and conditions, in these states’ colonies and ex-colonies. For example, in all the countries discussed by contributors to Cheshire (1991) where English has been imported (I confine my comments in this chapter to English-speaking hegemonies), beliefs about language similar to those discussed below can be found. These are reported in a sizeable literature; for example Platt and Weber (1980) and Gupta (1994) both describe the operation of a British-style standard language ideology in Singapore. Although debates about standard English are a staple of the British press (in the United States the most contentious ideological debates are usually slightly differently oriented, as we shall see), experts and laypersons alike have just about as much success in locating a specific agreed spoken standard variety in either Britain or the United States as have generations of children in locating the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

I have suggested elsewhere that standardisation is best treated as a process, since attempts to locate a specific standard (product) are doomed to failure, given that all languages (except dead languages) vary and are in a constant state of change, phonology being particularly resistant to standardisation (Milroy and Milroy 1998:22). In Britain and in former British colonies the

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