What is Standard English?

Updated: Apr 3, 2019

When we hear 'use Standard English' there seems to be an unrealistic expectation that this means the same as RP English.

Standard English (SE) is divided into two aspects: written and spoken. SE in its written form (WSE) is a codified language, rooted in grammar, punctuation, lexis and orthography. Whereas, Spoken Standard English (SSE) is an abstract social ideology, rooted in the desired 'norms' of the privileged and upper classes.

The earliest entry in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED, 2019) stated that 'standard' was 'a military or naval ensign', suggesting that power and official status were the earliest associations of 'standard'. A further entry refers to 'standard' as 'an exemplar of measure and weight' and the 'original standard: the standard of which the others are copies, and to which the ultimate appeal must be made', illustrating that there is a standard that needs to be met. In addition, synonyms of 'standard' provide an interesting insight into the two main ways in which the term can be received:

a) Authoritative, conclusive and official

b) Average, common, good, formulaic

In addition to traditional definitions of 'standard', it is curious to note that non-standard usage of the word (urban slang) has similar connotations:

c) High standards

d) Maintaining standards

e) Refining standards

f) Achieving standards

With this in mind, what then is SE? If we assume that English is a uniform language and disregard the complexities of what constitutes as English, the OED tells us that SE is '[…] a variety of spoken or written language […] considered to be the most correct and acceptable form'. This is followed by a hyperlink to 'received pronunciation' (RP).

Merriam-Webster provides a much broader definition:

'the English that with respect to spelling, grammar pronunciation and vocabulary is substantially uniform though not devoid of regional differences, that is well established by usage in the formal and informal speech and writing of the educated, and that is widely recognised as acceptable wherever English is spoken and understood.'

So why is this important?

For a spoken variety to become the 'standard' it must have linguistic value, usually through being advocated by those who possess political power. Even though the second definition takes into account 'regional differences', there is still a notion of what is 'acceptable', a 'desire for uniformity' and a positive status applied to the 'educated'.

We must ask ourselves, who is defining these terms? Why is pronunciation important in a language form that is codified and supposedly based on intrinsic features? Why has WSE and SSE merged into a singular definition, when a spoken language cannot be evaluated on all of the same principles as the written form? And, who is this advantageous for?

Ok, a bit of an outdated image, but you get the idea!

The answers to these questions lie in the confusion between a 'standard language' and a 'standard ideology'. Standard English is not the 'standard', but in reality an abstract ideology, reinforced by the privileged to maintain a class-based hierarchal structure. This is rooted in biases of race, class, ethnicity and gender. This by no means suggests an attack on a standardised written form of English, as in order to aid communication, we must have a consistent set of grammatical and orthographical rules to adhere to. I am merely suggesting that social attitudes towards language are at the base of the advantages and disadvantages of Standard English.

Language must meet the communicative and social needs of all its speakers, however, the desire to speak Standard English can produce linguistic insecurity. This can be found in results of studies based on accent and dialectal differences. Standard English, in both its forms, can be seen to support the Marxist theory of maintaining the class hierarchy, where the upper classes remain at the top of the social scale. The process of social mobility is selective, as only those who conform to the desired 'norm' are able to progress up the hierarchal class scale. This is controlled using education as a filter to ensure only the 'best' and those achieving 'high standards' are allowed through.

In regards to WSE, there is no dispute in its existence, for example the post you are reading is written in Standard English. As an academic, I am aware that I have to use Standard English or penalties will be applied, thus maintaining the boundaries of the elite. However, Spoken Standard English is a social construction. Yes, it is important that we have rules and coding for grammar to help EFL/NTE and children gain understanding. Yes, we need a marker to assess progress in education. But what we need to do is question social attitudes to language, stop questioning the intelligence of those with different accents or dialects, question the educational system that prioritises their level of 'standards' and devalues those who do not conform.


#english #standardenglish #education #class #ideology #marxist #society #politics #sociolinguistics


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