Course materials © for/by Peter
L. Patrick. May contain other copyrighted material used for
educational purposes. Please respect copyright
Here are some notes drawn from
the readings, including Mesthrie et al. 2000, Wardhaugh 2002 and Milroy & Milroy 1999. They're filtered through my own views, but most ideas are not
original. Please consult & cite the original works, too.
Standard Language & Prescription
Notes for LG 232 by Peter L. Patrick
Consider the relation of the
technical terms language, dialect, accent, variety:
Variety a neutral term: any linguistic
system with cohesive distribution in social space
Accent: subordinate variety of a language differing principally
in phonology (pronunciation)
Dialect: subordinate variety of a language.
- Dialects are historically
related to a superordinate language,
- but may differ from it on 3
linguistic levels (phonology, syntax & lexicon);
- they are also regionally or
- A Dialect is a single norm of
Special sense of sub-/superordinate: not social values, membership in
speaking, all linguists agree that there is NOTHING INFERIOR about any
dialect compared to any other member of its language family – judgements about
superiority/inferiority on aesthetic, moral, expressive or social grounds are
simply prejudices, with no scientific basis in truth. (Similarly, there is no basis for judgments
which discriminate between different language families as somehow “worse”
Language: (a) a
single linguistic norm, or
(b) a group of related
by Einar Haugen. Haugen means norm in
sense #1 below.)
Norms is used with several senses in sociolinguistics.
The key meanings both stress the notion of agreement within a social group:
- practice, or custom, a behavior
pattern; how things are said in a certain community
- values: the set of social values or
beliefs used to justify, uphold or enforce that practice.
Two lesser senses of the
term Norms are worth distinguishing from these.
- Chambers & Trudgill refer to NORMs (Non-mobile Older Rural Males) as typical subjects of traditional dialectology.
- Shopen & Wald
use "norm" the way most sociolinguists use "variant",
to refer to one of the possible choices in a linguistic variable (more
later). I find this usage confusing and don't recommend following it.
imposition of norms of usage by authority.
We'll distinguish this from standardization.
We're also going to look at language discrimination, on the basis of
standards and prescription.
- Linguistic differences are
associated w/class, religious, gender, ethnic etc. differences.
- Discrimination on the latter
grounds is no longer publicly acceptable, but
- Discrimination on the grounds
of accent, dialect, etc. is tolerated.
- If attitudes to language stand
for attitudes to speakers, then it follows that:
- Discrimination on the grounds
of language use stands in as a proxy for discrimination on social
grounds, and naturalizes and legitimizes it.
- I.e. one can openly
discriminate against lower-class, foreign or ethnic students, job
candidates, etc. by means of language discrimination, while avoiding
direct (and possibly illegal) reference to class, ethnicity, or
Most linguists claim that
linguistics is Descriptive and not
Prescriptive, thus prescription is not a part of the discipline and need
not be studied.
- This has led to neglect of sociolinguistic issues
involved w/prescription. Also,
- This attitude has had no effect on the general
public, teachers, etc., who continue to think in prescriptive terms and to
believe that this is natural and logical.
- This goes hand in hand with the belief that
preference for a standard language
variety is natural and logical, and has no negative social consequences.
- Sociolinguists advocate recognizing that value judgments are normally
attached to all language varieties by all speakers -- and that this
attachment of values can be socially motivated (often in unfair ways, or
due to social power & discrimination), or sometimes have no logic to
it at all.
- What you don't find is a universal
logic supporting the claim that standard languages are better than other
languages. They are not.
Standardization: of a language involves
- the suppression of optional
variability in language forms and rules.
This means choice of a
particular form as acceptable -- a choice that is a social convention -- and
the convention that other forms are not, or less, acceptable (e.g. ain’t). The kinds
of values that we investigated in the language attitudes lecture are then
attached to all the variants: positive ones for the standard, negative ones for
One of the tasks of
sociolinguistics is to explain why and how this attachment of values takes place. No-one claims it is a conscious
conspiracy of the elite! It's rather mysterious, yet the evidence that it has
occurred is very clear.
It's also true that most
people show preferences for non-standard variants in certain circumstances --
that is, these values are not absolutely good/bad, but rather are relative to
appropriate situations and social contexts. (Compare newsreaders to sports
announcers on the same television channel -- broad or non-RP accents, and
dialect or non-standard expressions and colloquialisms, are much more likely in
That the assignment of
social value is arbitrary can be shown by looking at the "same"
variants in different communities:
post-vocalic (R) in NYC vs
in Reading (Romaine 1994, p.70)
Thus, standard languages are not identical to non-standard ones in general
linguistic terms: they show less natural
variation. They are in fact unnatural,
social creations. Like all such social conventions, they tend to favor one group, process or category over
Sociolinguists have never
advocated that standard languages should not be taught. We usually support the
teaching of literacy and speech in standard languages in schools.
However, we also support the use of non-standard varieties,
including accents and dialects, in appropriate circumstances, and the right of speakers to choose which
variety they will speak in without being penalized for it.
There are perfectly good
reasons behind the development, use and teaching of standard languages. However
they are social reasons.
- Standardization is a historical process which is always in progress.
- A standard is an ideology, abstract, not a particular set variety.
- Standards are abstract
norms to which actual usage more/less conforms.
- Think of Standardization in weights & measures
& money: lack of variation ensures reliability & confidence in
- Standardization occurs in spelling, pronunciation,
word-meaning, word-forms (he does/do), sentence structure
- The ideology of standardization blinds us to fact
that a 'standard language' is not really very well-defined.
- Stages: the need for uniformity is felt;
- A variety is selected;
- It is accepted by influential
- It is diffused geographically
and socially (thru e.g. newspapers, education, a writing system,
- Then it becomes established.
- Now it must be maintained against competitors,
- chiefly thru Elaboration of Function,
the second characteristic of a Standard language.
- This gives it increased value and function:
vocabulary is created or borrowed, technical terms are established and
connected with prevalent ideas, works of literature are created and valued
and taught, social identity is invested in it, history & religion are
connected with it, etc.
- Also, it acquires social prestige thru use by the
powerful and wealthy.
- A writing system and literacy are modelled on it
exclusively, and ...
- Speech is confused with and modelled on writing,
which is less variable, and...
- It is taken to be the most logical and valuable
form of language because of the other connections with written products.
- Thus Public Consciousness of a standard is
created and maintained.
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