Essay on Standard English
Number of words: 1765
English is increasingly used throughout the world, either as a first or second (or even third) language. At the same time, the notion of Standard English still seems to be an important one. Is there more than one Standard English? Evaluate the notion of Standard English, considering social, linguistic and ideological assumptions.
Estimates of the number of people who speak English around the world tend to vary- unsurprisingly given the complex task of conducting a thorough census of those who speak it as their first language, with it being further ambiguous in determining if English is one’s second or third language. Even at the turn of the century, Crystal (2000), a renowned linguist and scholar, theorised that over 1.5 billion people across the world spoke English in 2000 (then approximately a quarter of the world’s population), which is certainly a considerable amount, with the number since that time being considered to exceed this considerably, with English currently been estimated to be the third most commonly spoke language across the globe (Ethnologue, 2015). This shows the prevalence of English worldwide. However, prior to entering the main breadth of this assignment (which discusses whether there is one Standard English (SE) or not), it seems pertinent to note the amount of people who have English as their first language (‘mother tongue’), how many have it as their second language (‘L2’, where the individual is fluent in English to at least some degree) and those who speak it as a foreign language (where they have some competency in the language, but are a distance away from the aptitude of a native speaker). Upon researching the literature, it can be difficult to locate the precise amount of people who fall into the three categories which are mentioned above, however Denison and Hogg (2006), in their authoritative tome on the spread of English across the globe, estimate that there are around 400 million native speakers of the language, roughly the same number who speak it as a second language (also known as a Lingua Franca i.e. English is spoken in their locale, rather than as the first language in their country), with approximately 700 million speakers of English as a foreign language. Adding these statistics together, mean that this estimate of people who speak English (in some form or capacity) is commensurate with the earlier figure provided by Crystal (2002), although such statistics should be treated with caution, as they are not up-to-date in the present era. The notion of SE will first be discussed in reference to the UK, before proceeding to dissect it into its minutiae across the globe in English-Speaking Countries (such as America and Australia), also considering which other factors may influence the style of SE which is projected in a country.
What is Standard English?
Again referencing the work of Crystal (2011), he defines SE as being the most commonly accepted form of English across the globe (although his article was mainly penned with reference to England itself). Elaborating further upon his definition, he articulates that it is a ‘dialect’ of English in itself, in that it is devoid of any regional identifiers or grammar/syntactical features, therefore it may be hard to discern where the individual speaking the language originates from in terms of which part of a country they are drawn from (again his definition of what constitutes SE seems to be predominantly restricted to English-Speaking Countries where there are widespread regional variations of how English is spoken).
However, Crystal (2011) redeems himself slightly by extending his definition of SE to one which is more malleable to be extended to the concept of English being a ‘global’ language, in that he purports that it is the variety of English which is most accepted in a country (he labels this in an ameliorative fashion as ‘prestige’). From this, the inference could possibly be made that SE could be a potential indicator of social class or economic status (regardless of which country one inhabits). The Committee for Linguistics in Education (2011) perhaps give further credence to this point as they are adamant that SE is the variety of English which pupils (in English-speaking countries) are expected to use in their academic work (with an insistence on regional/dialectal features being absent from their text or prose), an expectation which is extended to any one communicating in the academic vernacular, regardless of what level of education (primary, secondary, tertiary etc.) they may be at. In their paper, the Committee for Linguistics in Education (2011) also articulate the notion that many scholars have failed to comprehensively define SE, perhaps because the concept is so wide-ranging as defining SE will constitute defining all tenets of the English Language (grammar, spelling, vocabulary and punctuation), and (as the point will be made later on in this assignment) the definition of SE may depend on what section of the globe (in geographical terminology, hemisphere) the country which speaks English is located in.
Standard English Across the Globe
Definitions of what constitutes SE can be controversial in some quarters due to the ambiguity and assumptions which surround it. For example, in the UK, the standard accent of SE is known as Received Pronunciation (RP), also colloquially known as the ‘Queen’s English’, and is synonymous with the prestige articulated by Crystal (2011) at a previous juncture of this assignment (Roach, 2004). With this version of SE being known as the ‘Queen’s English’ (with the Queen being arguably the epitome/zenith of high social class and standing across the UK), this sentiment alone alludes to the class implications of this branding of SE in the UK, with the inference being clear that those of a higher class (or more favourable social standing and economic circumstances) speak SE (or RP as it is known in the incarnation of it in England). Treading into the area of sociolinguistics (branching away from the phonological aspects of the matter which were covered with disseminating the RP aspect of SE), Trudgill (2000) estimated that only a small minority of people (3%) actually speak Standard English, predominantly those from the South of England and in the midst of the sprawling London conurbation (which is known to be a more historically affluent area than the North of England), which again infers the elitist aspect of RP.
However, class may not be the only differentiator of SE, the country which one is located in may also have some bearing on the type of SE which is spoken in that country, which owes a lot to the spread of England across the world and the various global influences which impact upon it. In America, SE is known as General American (abbreviated as either GA or GenAM), and like its transatlantic counterpart in the UK, is considered to be devoid of any regional variations, although it is also recognised as transcending cultural and economic barriers, something which the English equivalent of SE fails to do (Wells, 2008). However, the differences between SE in British and America seem to be multifarious and abundant- the eminent Irish Playwright George Bernard Shaw once remarked that Britain and America are “2 Nations Divided by a Common Language” (Readers Digest, 1942). This alone references the cultural differences between the countries (something else which could be theorised to have an impact on the version of SE exhibited in both countries), although Shaw could have been making reference to the political reverberations which occurred at the time between the two countries. Specifically, the differences between SE and GA seem to be mainly in phonological (the American accent is notably disparate from those contained in the UK), spelling (Americans have a tendency to substitute ‘z’ where the British would use ‘s’ as well as omitting the letter ‘u’ from words such as ‘color’) and word choice (those in the USA have a collection of equivalent words for everyday words in the UK, such as ‘trash’ or ‘garbage’ for the British word ‘rubbish’, which are commonly known as Americanisms, although paradoxically some of these Americanisms did not originate from America; e.g. the word ‘garbage’ is from the Italian Derivative ‘Garbuzzo’), although it is interesting that there is apparently little distinction between written forms of SE and GA (Crystal, 2003). Regardless of the differences between SE and GA, this example alone illustrates how the nature of SE varies among each English Speaking Country.
In essence, the uniformity of Standard English seems questionable: there may be many versions which exist of it across the globe, being affected by which country the version of SE is located in, the class and ethnicity of the people who speak it and also the context it is used within (with factors such as the formality of a situation, the recipients of the individual who is speaking SE and the characteristics of the individual themselves being deemed to have a bearing on the nature of the SE being used). There is some commonality and convergence between the features of the versions of SE which are spoken across the globe (such as it being the most accepted form of language in that country, the absence of contractions and dialectal features in one’s speech when expressing themselves in SE). However, the notion of one version of Standard English across the globe seems to be an untenable proposition. Instead, it could be argued that there is one Standard English per each English-speaking country (or potentially set of English Speaking Countries if they are located within close geographical proximity to each other), with the demographic (class, country of origin etc.) and personal (dialectal) features exerting a significant influence over the style of SE which is spoken in that country.
Committee for Linguistics in Education (2011) Standard English. [Online]. Available at: clie.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/standard-english.doc (Accessed: 07 May 2015).
Crystal, D. (2000) ‘Emerging Englishes.’, English Teacher Professional.
Crystal, D. (2003) A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics. London: Blackwell Publishing.
Crystal, D. (2011) ‘What is Standard English?,’ English Teacher Professional.
Denison, D. and Hogg, R. M. (2006) A History of the English language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ethnologue (2015) Summary by Language Size. [Online]. Available at: http://www.ethnologue.com/statistics/size (Accessed: 06 May 2015).
Readers Digest (1942) George Bernard Shaw Quote.
Roach, P. (2011) British English: Received Pronunciation. School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies: University of Reading.
Trudgill, P. (2000) Sociolinguistics of Modern RP. University College London.
Wells, J. C. (2008) Longman Pronunciation Dictionary. 3rd edn. New York: Longman.