Episode 317: April 12, 2012
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What Is Standard English?
Today we’re going to tackle an interesting question: When we talk about “Proper English,” what exactly do we mean? Do we mean the English that you can take home to your grandmother? Do we mean the English that will impress your boss? Or do we mean the English that everyone will understand?
Most of the time, we mean all these things. When we go looking for grammar guidance, we’re hoping to refine our tone, our sophistication, and our clarity. We want, at the end of the day, to be better writers.
But if we mean those things, then what we should really say is “Standard English”—although it would probably be even more accurate to say, “The English That a Very Few People Agreed Upon About 600 Years Ago and That We’re Now Mostly Stuck With.”
Because when we use the phrase “proper English,” we’re playing into a whole mess of stereotypes and misconceptions about language. All it takes is a quick look at the history of Standard English to see why this might be true.
Setting the Stage: The History of English
I like to think of a standard variety of language as the lingua franca for speakers of a single language. A speaker from West Texas, for instance, might have trouble understanding a speaker from South Boston, but neither one of them has any trouble watching the national news, which is conducted in Standard English—the type of English that just about everyone will understand wherever it’s spoken.
English first flirted with written standardization back in the ninth century, when Alfred the Great noticed that everyone’s Latin wasn’t what it used to be (is it ever?) and requested Anglo-Saxon translations of “those books that are most necessary for all men to know.” (From the preface to Alfred’s Anglo-Saxon translation of Pope Gregory I’s Pastoral Care.)
When William the Conqueror showed up in 1066, however, he brought with him a slew of scribes and courtiers whose languages of choice were Latin and Norman French, and English was more or less exiled to the monasteries for the next few centuries.
Still, English never ceased to be a widely spoken language. So when England ultimately distanced itself from France, English was right there waiting, ready to reassert itself into official business and the written record.
It happened slowly at first, but by the time of Henry V, English had displaced French as a language of government almost entirely.
Soon the use of written English was spreading rapidly, from guild masters to merchants to churchmen, many of whom must have been wildly relieved to be able to conduct business in a version of their native language.
As English began to be used for increasingly important purposes, it become increasingly important to use a form of English that everyone could understand—and that everyone would respect.
The Rules of the Game
At first standards were largely—though not exclusively—determined by the language of the royal clerks. The rise of the printing press also played a key role in standardizing language, particularly with regard to spelling. For instance, we have foreign compositors and typefaces to thank for the use of “gh” instead of “g” in certain words (such as “ghost”).
Soon enough, though, the subject of language standardization was taken up by dictionary writers, grammarians, and even general linguistic busybodies.
The Influence of Scholars
Many of the early English dictionaries and grammars ostensibly sought to describe prevailing usage—they were not meant to be prescriptive. But, of course, the selection of any one variety as a representative form is, in and of itself, a kind of prescription.
These early and influential dictionaries and grammars relied on a variety of criteria to determine their recommended words and rules. In his landmark Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson—a man who famously remarked that “the chief glory of a nation arises from its authors”—leaned heavily on citations from widely respected authors, a trend that continues to this day. Grammarians had their own guiding principles, often calling on logic (decrying double negatives and superlatives) or etymology (railing against the substitution of “nauseous” for “nauseated”).
Others rationales were more subjective. Some writers, for instance, believed that it was better to use one-syllable words whenever possible because they were closer to the language of Adam and Eve. And then there were those who felt so strongly about the linguistic virtues of Latin and Greek that they could come to believe, as John Dryden famously did, that a preposition at the end of a sentence is something to be strenuously avoided. (Read the article about ending a sentence with a preposition.)
No matter how persuasive the scholarship, the facts remain the same: the variety that would become Standard English was based on the varieties of the political, economic, and intellectual elite—not because they were necessarily better, but because they were the ones who got to decide.
The Authority of Salesmen
This is when things start to get a bit tricky.
The literary market in the 17th and 18th centuries was not so different from our own. There wasn’t much demand for linguistic observation—what readers wanted was linguistic guidance. And again and again, scholars and linguists from Johnson to Webster to Henry Higgins did their best to fill this need. Even Robert Cawdrey’s 1604 Table Alphabeticall, the earliest English dictionary, makes explicit on its title page that it has been “gathered for the benefit & helpe of Ladies, Gentlewomen, or any other unskilfull persons. Whereby they may the more easilie and better understand many hard English words.”
But as social mobility increased, the standards of the written language exerted more and more influence on the spoken language, which was looked to as a measure of refinement and “politeness.” Soon the demand for linguistic instruction outstripped the scholarly supply, and readers began to snap up handbooks and how-tos whose advice was justified not by years of study—or any study at all, for that matter—but rather by the ruthlessly efficient principle of “you should.”
Or, more accurately, “you shouldn’t.”
So it was that non-standard language became a nuisance to be dealt with (like troublesome household vemin, as in the 1878 volume Enquire Within upon Everything) or a bad habit to be frowned upon (like breathing through your mouth, as in 1888’s Don’t: A Little Book dealing Frankly with Mistakes & Improprieties more or less Common to All).
And when you teach that there is only one way to be right, it’s only natural to conclude that every other way is wrong.
The Slippery Slope
As long as we’ve had language varieties, we’ve also had stereotypes about the people who speak those varieties. But the implementation of the standard form of a language—couched as it so often is in terms of elegance, propriety, and correctness—can take an otherwise unassuming us/them split and institutionally marry it to a set of pernicious value judgments: what is “right,” what is “educated,” what is “civilized,” what is “good.”
Linguists and philosophers, and just about anyone who has ever stopped to think about it, have been doing battle with perceptions like these for centuries—just as they have been doing battle with similarly ingrained stereotypes relating to race, ethnicity, class, and gender. And they’re having about as much luck with the former as they are with the latter. Today conspicuously non-standard varieties of English—particularly those spoken in the South and by African-Americans—are still routinely characterized as “defective,” “lazy,” and flat-out “wrong.”
But the truth is this: every variety of English is equally regularized and expressive—just as every language is equally expressive. They all have their own internal rules and grammar. Despite what the usage mavens of yesteryear might have us believe, proficiency with Standard English has nothing to do with innate linguistic superiority, or cognitive or moral superiority. Though the language we use in any given situation is surely a product of external circumstances, it is in no way a function of internal worth.
That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t learn Standard English—quite the contrary, given the importance placed upon its usage, it would be irresponsible to suggest otherwise.
But surely there’s room for one more standardization: that we all agree to do away with the idea that there’s a single, objectively superior form we call “proper” English. It’s much more accurate to refer to what many think of as proper English with the term language scholars use: “Standard English.”
This podcast was written by Elizabeth Little, who traveled America meeting people who speak America’s many languages and dialects including Navajo, Basque, and Gullah. Her book is Trip of the Tongue. Website | Twitter