Published 24 February 2020
What if I told you there’s no such thing as Standard English? Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean all your efforts in teaching or learning English (or both) have been in vain, but linguistically speaking, there is not just one Standard English, and even first-language (L1) speakers of English can sound very different from each other. So instead of trying to learn or teach ‘Standard English’, which most L1 speakers don’t even use anyway, it’s more important to focus on teaching or learning how to communicate in English.
There is more than one variety of English.
English is spoken all around the world, and has official or special status in more than 80 countries (Crystal 2019: 114). So it comes as no surprise that there are many different varieties of English: depending on where in the world English is spoken, there will be some differences in grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary and so on. Just a few varieties of English are:
- British English,
- American English,
- Australian English,
- South African English,
- Irish English,
- Canadian English,
- Scottish English,
- New Zealand English,
- Caribbean English.
For example, a ‘biscuit’ in British English is called a ‘cookie’ in American English, and the vowel in the word ‘bath’ sounds different in many varieties of English, like Welsh, Irish, British and American English.
Because of these differences, many varieties of English each have their own standard variety as well. Some examples are General American, Standard British English, General Australian, and Standard Scottish English. So there is not just one Standard English: there are several Standard Englishes. But not many people actually speak a standard variety of English: many people speak their own dialects, and have their own accents that can be very different from the standard form.
What are dialects and accents?
For example, someone born in Yorkshire in England may speak using a Yorkshire dialect, in which, for example, reflexive pronouns ‘hisself and theirself’ exist alongside ‘myself’ and ‘yourself’. The definite article ‘the’ is reduced to a ‘t’, and the simple past tense of some irregular verbs takes the same form as the present perfect tense, as in ’She done that yesterday.’ (Beal 2008: 375, 379).
On the other hand, someone from the West Country in England may speak in a West Country dialect, and could, for example, overuse articles such as ‘I stayed until the Christmas’, or use a subject pronoun where you would not use it in Standard British English, as in ‘I gave it to she’ (Wagner 2008: 418, 421).
Accent, on the other hand, only refers to the way speakers pronounce their language. So someone from Scotland may have a Scottish accent, and for example pronounce vowel in ‘book’ in the same way as in ‘goose’ (Stuart-Smith 2008: 55), but also use the Scots dialect, and say things like: “Tha’s pure barry!”, (That’s excellent!).
Standard Englishes also all come with their own standard accent. In British English, the standard accent is Received Pronunciation, although it is becoming less and less common as the norm in the media, in favour of more diversity when it comes to accents. For example, that’s why you can often hear TV presenters in the UK speak with a moderate (not too strong) regional accent, but a more ‘standard’ grammar.
So what are Standard Englishes?
Standard varieties of English (or any language) haven’t been around forever. For English, the first Standard English was developed in the 15th and 16th centuries, and was based on dialects spoken in London and the East Midlands for spelling and grammar, and the accent of the high society in London for pronunciation (Nevalainen 2003: 133-134). At first, it was only used by the government, but it soon became the norm for the upper classes in general: it became the language of literature, science, politics, and education.
And so, Standard British English was created (as opposed to dialects, which developed more naturally) and the same kind of process happened for every Standard English in the world: government officials and academics chose grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary from one or more dialects that had some higher status in society, and decided that these would form their Standard English.
L1 speakers and learners: not so different after all.
In this way, L1 speakers of English aren’t actually all that different from learners of English. Learners are taught a standard variety of English, and with good reason, as the different dialects of English can be quite different from each other. But if you think about it, most L1 speakers are also learners of their standard variety of English. Very few people learn it as their first language: usually, they learn the languages of their parents, surroundings and peer groups, which are often dialects or at least have regional accents. And just like learners of English have an accent because of their first language, L1 English speakers also have an accent when speaking a Standard English.
This is not to say that Standard Englishes have no use: for learners, it is important to have one single form of English that they can learn, and more generally, being able to speak a standard form of English means that people from all around the world can understand each other more easily. But Standard Englishes shouldn’t be seen as ‘the one true’ form of English, or as having a higher status.
So whether you’re a teacher, a learner of English or a L1 English speaker using a regional accent or dialect, remember that speaking a Standard English isn’t all that important: what matters most is being able to communicate with people in English.
If you have enjoyed this topic on linguistics, you may be interested in reading ‘Dispelling ELT myths: What really matters when teaching pronunciation‘ a two part series by Laura Patsko.
Beal, Joan. 2008. English dialects in the North of England: morphology and syntax. In Bernd Kortmann & Clive Upton (eds.). Varieties of English. Vol 1: The British Isles. 373-403. Belin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
Chambers, J.K. & Trudgill, Peter. 1998. Dialectology. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nevalainen, Terttu. 2003. English. In Ana Deumert & Wim Vandenbussche. Germanic Standarsizations: Past and Present. 127-156. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
Stuart-Smith, Jane. 2008. Scottish English: phonology. In Bernd Kortmann & Clive Upton (eds.). Varieties of English. Vol 1: The British Isles. 48-70. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
Wagner, Suzanne. 2008. English dialects in the Southwest: morphology and syntax. In Bernd Kortmann & Clive Upton (eds.). Varieties of English. Vol 1: The British Isles. 417-439. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.