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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.

Special sense of sub-/superordinate: not social values, membership in linguistic family.

Scientifically 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” or “better”.)

Language:           (a) a single linguistic norm, or

                   (b) a group of related linguistic norms.

(Definition 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:

    1. practice, or custom, a behavior pattern; how things are said in a certain community
    2. 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.

    1. Chambers & Trudgill refer to NORMs (Non-mobile Older Rural Males) as typical subjects of traditional dialectology.
    2. 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.

Prescription:      the 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.

Most linguists claim that linguistics is Descriptive and not Prescriptive, thus prescription is not a part of the discipline and need not be studied.

Standardization: of a language involves

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 non-standards.

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 the latter.)

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 others.

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.


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