03 Sep 2013

Standard English vs. Non-Standard English Dialects

Standard English started as a regional dialect that developed in the southeast of England.

This variety, which is perceived as official, is used in writing, the education system (grammar books and dictionaries), the court, the church, in newspapers, the media and for official purposes. It sets a certain set of rules for the English language in terms of grammar, syntax and lexis.

Standard English can be spoken in a vast range of regional accents or without any regional pronunciation.

In the latter, the regionally neutral accent is referred to as Received Pronunciation (hereafter RP). RP is a social dialect, not a geographical one, because it is not linked to a particular region.

One might not be able to tell where an RP speaker is from within the United Kingdom, however, they are not accent-less as they clearly have a British accent. Hence, statements such as ’He speaks correct English, without a trace of dialect’ fail to realise that Standard English and RP are dialects as any other variety, and that everyone speaks with an accent. This also implies that, although all RP speakers speak Standard English, Standard English can be spoken with an accent.

On this note it needs to be mentioned that there is a clear distinction between an accent and a dialect.

An accent of a speaker refers only to the pronunciation of utterances, whereas a dialect describes the lexical use, grammar and pronunciation. For instance, a Scottish speaker might use the ‘correct’ grammatical forms of Standard English, but speaks it with a regional Scottish accent.

The term ‘Standard English’ described a form of the English language that was universal or common in the nineteenth century. By the 1930s, however, it had become associated with social class and was seen by many as the language of the educated. Rural dialects had become revalorised as ‘class dialects’ and one of the main symbols of class became pronunciation.

With regard to this, not much has changed since then. Standard English is still referred to and spoken by British people who have a very high, perhaps even the highest, social status and therefore are the most influential, educated, prestigious and wealthiest people in the United Kingdom. Hence, Standard English is held in high esteem within society. However, they are the minority of the British population. Only a small percentage of UK residents have upper or upper-middle class backgrounds.

Therefore, no more than 9%-12% of the British population speak Standard English with a regional accent and only 3-5% speak it without any regional accent.

It is unsurprising, then, that RP has become stigmatised, because only the ‘pure’ form of it is spoken and represented by the highest social classes.

On the contrary, nonstandard dialects have a distinct grammar, lexis and pronunciation and vary greatly throughout the United Kingdom; for instance, a nonstandard dialect speaker might use the forms ‘I ain’t done it’, ‘them sandshoes over there’ or ‘she sings nice’. The dialects of rural areas often contain more distinctive lexis and grammar than those of urban areas, because speakers of these varieties are not often exposed to being in contact with speakers of other dialects.

Occasionally, nonstandard dialects are more accurate than Standard English. For instance, the Newcastle dialect distinguishes between the second person pronoun in number: the singular is represented as the usual ‘you’, but the plural with ‘yous’.

Speakers from lower classes tend to use nonstandard dialect features more excessively, because they are more likely to have left education earlier, have non-professional jobs and therefore have no need to associate themselves with specific lexis or a ‘prestige’ way of speaking. Hence, the use of nonstandard dialect words, grammar and pronunciation decreases the longer an individual spends in education as they have to be more ‘aware’ of the context as speakers from other social classes.

However, it needs to be emphasised here that nonstandard dialects are often wrongly perceived as being ‘incorrect’, but linguists persistently stress that Standard English is in no form superior to any spoken dialect and that, linguistically, no dialect has a lower status than Standard English. Trudgill (1990:13) states in The Dialects of England that ‘it [Standard English] is not even legitimate to claim that it is more “acceptable” than other dialects, unless we specify who it is acceptable to’.

To put matters in a different perspective, the linguist Paul Kerswill argues in RP, Standard English and the standard/non-standard relationship that social mobility leads to dialect levelling, i.e. the reduction of differences between local accents and dialects and the development of new features that are adopted by speakers over a wide area.

This is extremely common in urban areas, such as London and Tyneside. New linguistic features diffuse in these areas and due to the high degrees of contact and mobility of the speakers, linguistic homogenisation might be an outcome in the future.

Estuary English is one example – it is the only regional levelling process that has received a name. The British linguist David Rosewarne coined the term ‘Estuary English’ in 1984. He describes the variation as a ‘variety of modified regional speech (…) a mixture of non-regional and local south-eastern English pronunciation and intonation’.

John Wells defines EE as ‘standard English spoken with an accent that includes features localisable in the southeast of England’ and David Crystal refers to it as a ‘continuum of pronunciation possibilities’, because the elements of this dialect share Cockney and Received Pronunciation (henceforward RP) features.

EE has some distinctive lexical features. Coggle (Do You Speak Estuary?) and Rosewarne (Estuary English – tomorrow’s RP?) mentioned that there is a frequent use of the word ‘cheers’ in preference to ‘Thank you’, the word ‘mate’ is used frequently and the original meaning of the word ‘basically’ is extended and used as a gap filler.

Additionally, both linguists state that speakers of EE are not averse of using American terms, for instance ‘There you go’ as an alternative to the British equivalent ‘Here you are’, ‘Excuse me’ instead of ‘Sorry’ and ‘No way’ as a substitute of ‘By no means’.

Morphological speaking, there is a frequent use of the word ‘innit’ as opposed to tag questions, as in ‘She is nice, innit?’ in contrast with ‘She is nice, isn’t she?’. The word ‘ain’t’ is used occasionally instead of the negative form of the present tense of the verb ‘be’, for instance ‘I ain’t coming’ as a substitute for ‘I am not coming’ and as a replacement for the negative present tense of the auxiliary verb ‘have’, forming the present perfect tense, for example ‘I ain’t done it’ rather than ‘I have not done it’.

Furthermore, similar to the Cockney accent, there is a generalisation of the past tense plural ‘was’, such as ‘You was there’ instead of ‘You were there’. Sometimes there is an omission of the adverbial suffix ‘-ly’, as in ‘You are going too slow’ as opposed to ‘You are going too slowly’.

Kerswill states that this variety is a “result of greatly heightened mobility since the period just after the Second World War, coupled with a change in ideology allowing non-RP users to occupy a range of occupations, especially in broadcasting, from which they were formerly effectively barred”.

David Britain, however, argues in Language in the British Isles that the loss of the local dialects in the east of England is a result from “greater short- and long-term mobility, the replacement of primary and secondary by tertiary industries, labour market flexibility and family ties over greater geographical distances”.

It is uncertain to which extent mobility and contact between various speakers of an accent will have on the development of dialects in the future, but it is certainly an interesting phenomena to watch.

Which of the following three phrases would you use?

a) Father was exceedingly fatigued subsequent to his extensive peregrination.

b) Dad was very tired after his lengthy journey.

c) The old man was bloody knackered after his long trip.


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