In the entry for "Standard English" in The Oxford Companion to the English Language (1992), Tom McArthur observes that this "widely used term . . . resists easy definition but is used as if most educated people nonetheless know precisely what it refers to." For some of those people, Standard English (SE) is a synonym for good or correct English usage. Others use the term to refer to a specific geographical dialect of English or a dialect favored by the most powerful and prestigious social group. Some linguists argue that there really is no single standard of English.
It may be revealing to examine some of the presumptions that lie behind these various interpretations. The following comments--from linguists, lexicographers, grammarians, and journalists--are offered in the spirit of fostering discussion rather than resolving all the many complex issues that surround the term "Standard English."
What Is Standard English?
- A Highly Elastic and Variable Term
[W]hat counts as Standard English will depend on both the locality and the particular varieties that Standard English is being contrasted with. A form that is considered standard in one region may be nonstandard in another, and a form that is standard by contrast with one variety (for example the language of inner-city African Americans) may be considered nonstandard by contrast with the usage of middle-class professionals. No matter how it is interpreted, however, Standard English in this sense shouldn't be regarded as being necessarily correct or unexceptionable, since it will include many kinds of language that could be faulted on various grounds, like the language of corporate memos and television advertisements or the conversations of middle-class high-school students. Thus while the term can serve a useful descriptive purpose providing the context makes its meaning clear, it shouldn't be construed as conferring any absolute positive evaluation.
(The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fourth edition, 2000)
- What Standard English Is Not . . .
(i) It is not an arbitrary, a priori description of English, or of a form of English, devised by reference to standards of moral value, or literary merit, or supposed linguistic purity, or any other metaphysical yardstick--in short, 'Standard English' cannot be defined or described in terms such as 'the best English,' or 'literary English,' or 'Oxford English,' or 'BBC English.'
(ii) It is not defined by reference to the usage of any particular group of English-users, and especially not by reference to a social class--'Standard English' is not 'upper class English' and it is encountered across the whole social spectrum, though not necessarily in equivalent use by all members of all classes.
(iii) It is not statistically the most frequently occurring form of English, so that 'standard' here does not mean 'most often heard.'
(iv) It is not imposed upon those who use it. True, its use by an individual may be largely the result of a long process of education; but Standard English is neither the product of linguistic planning or philosophy (for example as exists for French in the deliberations of the Academie Francaise, or policies devised in similar terms for Hebrew, Irish, Welsh, Bahasa Malaysia, etc); nor is it a closely-defined norm whose use and maintenance is monitored by some quasi-official body, with penalties imposed for non-use or mis-use. Standard English evolved: it was not produced by conscious design.
(Peter Strevens, "What Is 'Standard English'?" RELC Journal, Singapore, 1981)
- Written English and Spoken English
There are many grammar books, dictionaries and guides to English usage which describe and give advice on the standard English that appears in writing. . . . [T]hese books are widely used for guidance on what constitutes standard English. However, there is often also a tendency to apply these judgments, which are about written English, to spoken English. But the norms of spoken and written language are not the same; people don't talk like books even in the most formal of situations or contexts. If you can't refer to a written norm to describe spoken language, then, as we have seen, you base your judgments on the speech of the "best people," the "educated" or higher social classes. But basing your judgments on the usage of the educated is not without its difficulties. Speakers, even educated ones, use a variety of different forms. . . .
(Linda Thomas, Ishtla Singh, Jean Stilwell Peccei, and Jason Jones, Language, Society and Power: An Introduction, Routledge, 2004)
- Standard English Is a Dialect
"If Standard English is not therefore a language, an accent, a style or a register, then of course we are obliged to say what it actually is. The answer is, as at least most British sociolinguists are agreed, that Standard English is a dialect. . . . Standard English is simply one variety of English among many. It is a sub-variety of English. . . .
Historically, we can say that Standard English was selected (though of course, unlike many other languages, not by any overt or conscious decision) as the variety to become the standard variety precisely because it was the variety associated with the social group with the highest degree of power, wealth and prestige. Subsequent developments have reinforced its social character: the fact that it has been employed as the dialect of an education to which pupils, especially in earlier centuries, have had differential access depending on their social class background.
(Peter Trudgill, "Standard English: What It Isn’t," in Standard English: The Widening Debate, edited by Tony Bex and Richard J. Watts, Routledge, 1999)
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