Friday, January 17, 2014

The Snobbery of Standard English

A couple of weeks ago, we read this piece in The Guardian about the idea that there is only one correct way to speak English. In it, writer Harry Ritchie poses the question "Why do we persist in thinking that standard English is right, when it is spoken by only 15% of the British population?", which certainly got us thinking. Are the implications involved in this question even true? If so, how do we answer it?

First of all, it's important to consider that Ritchie is speaking only about the use of English in the UK, since his article is published in a British newspaper. This question could certainly be asked in any English-speaking nation, though the percentage of speakers of each country's standard English would likely vary. This also leads us to wonder where this statistic came from... how can you even measure the percentage of standard English speakers? 

Queen Elizabeth II, undoubtedly in the 15%.
In this case, Ritchie states that standard English is only spoken by 15% of the British population, which he later attributes to "the richest 15%", which doesn't seem very scientific. Certainly there's a correlation between high socioeconomic status and speaking the standard, as those with more money are more likely to go to prestigious schools that promote the use of standard English more, but it's hard to imagine that only the richest 15% speak standard English.

Really though, the key word in Ritchie's question is we. It is hard to imagine that everyone in Britain who doesn't speak standard English (85% of the population, according to Ritchie) believes that the English they speak is "wrong" or somehow inferior. As an American living in England, I have seen first-hand how my six British housemates, all with distinct accents from across the UK, are proud of the way they speak and enjoy acquiring new terms from each other. I doubt that any of them would be considered speakers of standard English in Ritchie's eyes, but I've never heard them saying that they don't speak English correctly. When it comes down to it, it seems as if Ritchie's we is the 15%, in which case it seems like his entire argument could be boiled down to the suggestion that rich people think that their way of speaking English is the only way. 

Ritchie goes on to talk about how children who don't speak standard English "rarely progress" in the education system. He says that those who use terms that are unique to their dialect are considered "lazy, corrupt, or ignorant". There's even the claim that "in any informal, middle-class context, from office email to pub chat, non-standard usage will be noticed by standard speakers, who will judge that non-standard user to be at least unsophisticated, probably uneducated and very possibly a bit thick."

As far as I can tell, he'd have saved a lot of time if he'd just asked "Why do rich people judge everyone who doesn't talk like them?", though I imagine it might not have gone over very well with The Guardian's editors, let alone his readers. As someone who is neither British nor familiar with these "standard English" speakers, I certainly cannot answer the question, nor can I judge whether it is even a fair question to be asked at all.

Did you read the article? If you have any thoughts to share, we'd love to hear them in the comments below.