Authority in Language: Investigating Standard English

By James Milroy; Lesley Milroy | Go to book overview

3

SPOKEN AND WRITTEN NORMS

3.1

Introduction

In Chapters 1 and 2 we have been largely concerned with attitudes to language, especially with the effects of the standard ideology on publicly expressed attitudes. We have noted that the most fully described and codified forms of language are those appropriate to public, formal and, especially, written usage. One effect of this has been a neglect of the structure and social dynamics of spoken forms and hence a tendency (in the absence of adequate descriptions of speech) to evaluate spoken usage on the model of written usage. In this chapter we focus on the relation between speech and writing, and differences in the forms and functions of the two channels of language.

It is appropriate to draw attention once more to the fact that there is much greater variability in speech than there is in written language. This variability can be traced, or described, in at least three dimensions: geographical, social and situational. Spoken language varies regionally, it varies according to social grouping of speakers, and it varies in the speech of individuals according to the situational contexts in which they find themselves from time to time. Some consequences of this variability are examined in this chapter and are further discussed in subsequent chapters.

Variation in the synchronic dimension is the counterpart of change in the diachronic dimension. Linguistic change, especially in phonology and grammar, originates in speech rather than in writing: it is thus characteristic of spoken forms to be perpetually in a state of change. The eighteenth-century prescribers and codifiers were well aware of this. Swift saw no reason why language should be allowed to change continuously, and Johnson spoke of ‘fugitive cant’ which was always ‘in a state of increase or decay’ (Bolton, 1966:150); he therefore preferred to codify the established literary part of the vocabulary, which he regarded as more ‘durable’. In this chapter, we shall approach variability in speech by first considering the social factors that affect linguistic change in the spoken channel, and balancing these against the factors that encourage stability and resist change. The discussion then moves on to the relation between the written and spoken channels. We consider some consequences of evaluating

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