Standard English

by Nov 20, 2012Linguistics

From the American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition:

Standard English n. The variety of English that is generally acknowledged as the model for the speech and writing of educated speakers.

USAGE NOTE The term Standard English is sometimes used to denote the variety of English prescribed by traditional prescriptive norms, including rules and usages that many educated speakers do not systematically conform to in their speech or writing. Recently, however, the term has more often been used to distinguish the speech and writing of middle-class educated speakers from the speech of other groups and classes, which are termed nonstandard. This is the sense in which the word is used in the usage labels in this Dictionary. In this sense, though, the term is highly elastic and variable, since what counts as Standard English will depend on both the locality and the particular varieties that Standard English is being contrasted with. No matter how it is interpreted, however, Standard English in this sense should not be regarded as necessarily correct or unexceptionable, since it will include many kinds of language that could be faulted on various grounds, such as the language of corporate memos and television advertisements.

The recently released Fifth Edition (a truly beautiful book, by the way) says a good deal less, collapsing the large usage note into part of the “definition.”

Standard English n. The variety of English that is generally acknowledged as the model for the speech and writing of educated speakers, especially when contrasted with speech varieties that are limited to or characteristic of a certain region or social group.

But the newest AHD’s frontmatter does includes an excellent essay on lexicography by usage panel chair Steven Pinker, saying much the same as the fat usage note quoted above:

A meaning or pronunciation is correct to the extent that literate speakers treat it as correct and expect each other to treat it that way, and sometimes those expectations can be squishy or in flux.

Pinker, however, is a little fuzzier than the older edition’s “Standard English” usage note on one very important factor: the role social class plays in qualifying someone as “literate.” Note what he says at the end of the following paragraph.

Some [grammatical] distinctions are governed by perverse irregularities and seductive similarities that are so demanding of close attention that it’s almost a miracle they have survived. Among these traps are the noun and verb senses of affect and effect; the spelling of all right; the meanings ofdisinterested and enormity; the difference between forebear and forbear; [and] the conjugation of intransitive lie/lay/has lain and transitive lay/ laid/has laid…Writing that respects these distinctions is what biologists and economists call a costly signal. It advertises that care has been invested into one’s choice of words, commending the writer as someone to whom precision matters.

He’s certainly right. But am I right in detecting a squeamishness on his part to make a clear correlation between A) those to whom precision matters and B) those who have received a great deal of expensive education? It’s not a big step to get from B) to C) those who could afford an expensive education, then to D) those who are rich, then to E) those who inhabit the highest American social classes.

The chain is not unbreakable. I fit in B but not exactly in C—and certainly not in D or E. And yet I’d like to think that America is still class-neutral enough to allow me to be called “literate.” (One of my dreams, and I’m not being sarcastic, is to some day be included on a dictionary usage panel.) Even a very poor person who applies himself to reading can become literate. However, class and wealth and education in my experience do bear a strong correlation. Maintaining careful grammar is a costly signal.

I’ve explored this idea in one of the posts I myself go back to most frequently. And another one.

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