What does Standard English Mean? A Model: British, or American?


What does standard English mean?

The standard variety of a language emerges out of the political and economic influence of its users. English became an international language, because of the political and economic power of English speaking countries.

"Standard English may be simply considered as that dialect most often spoken by educated members of society; it is the form usually employed in writing and is generally used by the media", says John Edwards, a linguist. Standard English, he says, is also the form of the language used and promoted in schools (in Britain and the United States, the schools iron out the differences between the various regional dialects that children speak in their homes).

British English and American English
These two varieties of English are not very different, so it is possible to know both. Just like an optimist and a pessimist describe a half-filled glass of water (the optimist says the glass is half-full, the pessimist says it is half empty!), so also with British and American English: we can either consider them very close to each other and choose not to worry what we say, or we can be very particular about the differences between them.

These two varieties of English are indeed distinguished mainly by their spelling and their "turns of phrase"(the kinds of expression and the idiomatic language they use). They, of course, differ in their pronunciation; where the British English standard is known as the "Queen's English" or "BBC English" or "public school English", the Americans speak of "Network English" as their standard.

Difference between British and American English Grammar

As far as grammar is concerned, there are very few differences today in the grammar of Standard British and Standard American English. Even the handful of such differences are dying out, because of the constant interaction across the Atlantic in all media: not only print, radio and television, but the Internet and the telephone. But here are some examples of the grammatical differences between these varieties.

 Look at these pairs of sentences: which sounds better to you?

Have you no sense at all?
Don't you have any sense at all?

Let's not do that.
Don't let's do that.

The first sentence in the pair represents British English, the second, American English.

What language varieties differ most often - next to pronunciation - is vocabulary or the words that they use.We can tell American from British English because of these words, for example,

elevator     lift                        sidewalk     pavement    

The first word in each pair is American English; the second, British English.

Spelling difference between American and British English

In the case of American English, there was also a conscious attempt to reform English spelling, and this is one aspect of our writing that we do have to pay particular attention to.(if you use a computer word-processing programme to compose or type out your work, as I do, its automatic spell  check facility may underline in red the British spellings you type in, or it may even just turn them into American spelling!)

A priest who was an educationist and vocational counsellor tell us about his five year period of study in America: "I really did try for almost two years not to become Americanized. I started watching my spelling.... I felt that if I returned to India spelling centre as c-e-n-t-e-r or counsellor as c-o-u-n-s-e-l-o-r, my people in India would think that I did not have a proper education...." But then a teacher, returning to him an assignment in psychology that he had submitted, told the whole class: "Remember that counselor is spelt with only one'l'." The priest jokes: "I decided that if I wanted to improve my grade I had to go American in my spelling. Today, I am thoroughly mixed up about my spelling and can never tell whether butter is spelt with one 't' or two!" (article "Caught in a cultural cross-fire" by Reverend Peter Lourdes in the October 1987 issue of SPAN.)
Standardization of English Language
The development of a distinct form of American English in the 19th century has been called the biggest change in English since the time of Shakespear. The history of English shows rapid changes in the language until the time of  Shakespear. This is because the technology of print was invented only about a hundred years before Shakespear. The invention of print was followed by a period of stability and standardization of the language. Before printing, there wasn't even a single standard form of spelling for English. Printing led to a slowing down of the kind of natural changes that had earlier been taking place in spoken English. English wrote before 1100 looks like a foreign language to us; even the English of Chaucer, in the 14th century, has to be modernized for us to understand it. But Shakespearean English is not so far from modern English, because printing standardized the language and protected it from change.

But in the nineteenth century, changes once again set in, in the English spoken in America. The distance between England and America was so great that contact between the two groups of English speakers became limited, and the process of language change began once again. These were again reversed in the 20th century because of the radio, movies and television, and air travel. Today, "although there are differences in vocabulary and spelling, readers might not easily distinguish an English from an American newspaper report," says  Kevin Finneran.

Two Attitudes to Standard English - Prescriptive and Permissive

There are two attitudes to Standard English, and to the need for a model. These attitudes may be called "prescriptive" or "purist", and "permissive".
The Prescriptive Attitude
The prescriptive attitude emphasizes the need to use the language correctly, elegantly and consistently, and is very particular about spelling, pronunciation, and the way words are chosen - they must be chosen with care not only to express our meaning as precisely as possible but to conform to a particular style. Dictionary makers, book publishers and newspaper editors, media personnel and teachers, all feel that they are "the gatekeepers" for language - they feel responsible for how language is used. They often are concerned to maintain the "purity" of a language against outside influences. In the case of English, they make sure that the standard of usage they adopt is consistently either British or American.
The Permissive Attitude
The permissive attitude stresses that language belongs to its users and is constantly shifting. In the case of English, it sees no reason why local communities of English users should not have their own standards: "why should Nigerians care whether, if Nigerian English has forms like He is not on seat or Master, they are looking for you and these are perfectly acceptable in the Nigerian context, they are unacceptable and unintelligible to native speakers of English?" asks a Nigerian scholar, Adetugbo, asserting that national intelligibility should have priority over international acceptability.

Quoting him, Sydney Greenbaum, the director of the survey of English Usage, University College, London (and the author of such publications as A Comprehensive Grammar of the English language and the Oxford Companion to the English Language), agrees:"In practice, variability is not a major impediment to international communication in English. Those who want to communicate accommodate to each other's variations... As there is in Britain and other first-language countries, there is "a continuum of competence" in the use of English in South Asia." This idea of "a continuum of competence" in English, brings us to a point that instead of speaking of native and non-native varieties of English or speakers of English, it may be better to speak of proficient and not-so-proficient speakers of a standard variety of English.
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