Language Change and Variation

  • Created by: Ellie
  • Created on: 28-05-14 20:27

Received Pronunciation (RP)

RP is widely accepted as the standard pronunciation of British English. It is based on educated speech from southern England.

John Honey: marked vs unmarked RP. Both are non-regional forms but marked RP suggests a privileged upbringing whereas unmarked RP is relatively classless but suggests a high degree of educatedness. Marked RP has its own vowel system so 'man' is pronounced as 'men'. There are also vocabulary differences between marked and unmarked. Napkin, lavatory, and lounge are all unmarked and serviette, toilet, and sitting room are marked. Marked RP would have been used to separate the upper classes from the rising middle classes.

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RP - public perception

Positives: research has shown RP rates highly on qualities such as authority, confidence, intelligence and determination. It is associated with wealth and high social status. Many people view RP as the 'correct' pronunciation and many learners of English as a foreign language will learn RP as it is viewed as prestigious. It has high overt prestige and may be helpful in getting a job, many people take accent reduction classes to acheive RP if they feel their regional accent is holding them back professionally. 

Negatives: it tends to receive lower ratings for qualities such as approachableness, attractiveness and sense of humour. Most people feel socially distanced from the upper classes which RP is associated with. RP can act as a social barrier as it is associated with snobbiness. RP may hold you back if you want to apply for jobs such as a DJ or a TV presentor or work in customer services.

Many RP speakers have adopted mockney, a fake form of cockney which can help them appear matey with out appearing snobby. People can code switch back to full RP when needed and mockney is separate enough from real cockney so it still gives a sense of privilege and educatedness that may set them apart from the lower classes.

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Howard Giles' capital punishment experiment

Five groups were presented with identical arguments against capital punishment, one in RP, three in regional accents and one control just written on paper. Whilst the RP group rated the speaker's presentation as more impressive, they were less likely than the regional accent groups to be persuaded and change their views.

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Estuary English

People who feel their RP accent acts as a social barrier or people who feel their regional accent holds them back professionally may chose to adopt an Estuary accent. Estuary accents have been described as the accent equivilant of a eurocheque in that it can be used anywhere; it is both classless and non-regional. It is close to standard English but has pronunciation and dialect features from cockney and south England. The growth in Estuary English could be due to its use in broadcasting and media and higher social mobility. 

Features include glottal stops (fewer than cockney but more than RP), the non-standard contraction 'ain't', long vowel sounds, 'l's pronounced as 'w's and 'th' pronounced as 'f' or 'v'.

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Regional accents and dialects

Regional accents may lack overt prestige and imped people professionally but have high covert prestige. They are often rated higher than RP on qualities such as approachableness, sense of humour, and attractiveness. Regional accent and dialect may be a key part of a person's identity and membership to a group. Schools teach standard English dialect which often replaces children's regional dialect. Many people do not want to speak in standard English as they feel it is the language of dead white middle class English men. 

Montgomery: foreigners have no preference over different regional accents, our preferences are due to what we associate the accent with. For example we may dislike a strong Essex accent as we may associate it with low intelligence. 

Trudgill: we like accents because of what they stand for not because of what they sound like.

John Honey: children are being disadvanted by not being equipped with an accent that will help them succeed in life. It is damaging to teach children that their accent and dialect is a key part of their identity as it will stop them from climbing the social ladder and advancing professionally. Standard English dialect and accent should be taught in schools.

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Regional accents and dialects continued

Lindsay Johns (writer and broadcaster who works with young people to 'improve' their grammar): encouraging youths to use 'street' or 'ghetto' grammar and claiming that this non-standard usage is to be expected is harmful because it limits their life choices and ostracises them from society. Street sland is not cool, it's self-sabotage and leads you straight to the doll queue. Limited vocabulary leads to people using violence to express themselves. Standard (or 'correct') grammar equals power. 

It could be argued that Honey and Johns are ignoring the fact that it is possible to code switch. Most young people are aware that the language you speak with your friends is not appropriate in writing or in formal situations. Furthermore if we stopped young people from using their dialect/slang they may be ostracised from their social group (seen as 'talking white'). It would be better to teach them to code switch. 

David Crystal: to try and control language means we must try and control society, a task which can only suceed to a very limited extent. Time would be better spent enabling society to cope with new linguistic forms that accompany every new generation. It is important to develop a greater tolerance to change, especially in a multi-ethnic society. This would require schools to teach a common standard whilst recognising and acknowledeging the value of linguistic diversity. 

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Black English

Slave traders mixed slaves so that there were few in each group who spoke the same language to prevent plotting. The only common language of the would have been that of their oppressors e.g. English, Dutch, French. New languages called pidgins were created. Pidgins occur when two groups of people who have no common language need to communicate, they have limited vocabulary, simple grammar structure and a narrow range of functions. When pidgins become the first languag of a generation they become a creole. Creoles are distinct languages with their own rules.For example whereas in standard English we have 18 pronouns, Jamaican creole is more compact and only has 6 and in that way is much more compact and efficient and it makes the distinction between second person singular (you) and plural (unu). 

However black English is often seen as inferior to white English but it is no less functional and can be equally effective in expressing meaning. People often use black English or creole in speech and in writing as a form of cultural expression. Black Enlish may not have high over prestige but it often has covert prestige, many non-blacks use it too to fit into social groups. Contrasting John Honey's argument about teaching young people 'correct' (standard) accents and grammar, if black people adopted white English they would be seen as 'talking white' which is an insult. For many people their creole or black English vernacular is part of their cultural and social identity and losing it may lead to social exclusion. Furthermore many people can code switch between black English and standard white English and know when it is appropriate to use both forms. Instead of teaching people not to use black English, we should teach them to code switch

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Will English lose its global status? Technology is becoming multi-lingual, people no longer need to learn English to use the internet and other pieces or technology. American films are increasingly available with subtitles or dubbed into another language and other countries are becoming rich enough to make their own films in their own languages. 

Although at the moment English is the business language, when China and other countries become more powerful they will no longer need English and they will want to trade in their own countries and in their own language. There is already an increase in the number of people learning Chinese in order to get better business opportunites and many universities offer Chinese and business together. However no single language is likely to replace English.

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David Crystal on Globalization

When a language spreads it changes. This is because different parts of the world have different environments and cultures and therefore need a different vocubulary. There are differences in flora and forna, geographical features, food, technology, mythology etc. The South African English dictionary has over 10,000 words not in the British English dictionary. 

To have learnt a language is to have rights in it. You may play with it , add bits of it, ignore bits of it as you will. English is not owned by the British with whom it was originally created and neither by the Americans who comprise its largest mother tongue community. 

People used to think Latin would become the ultimate world language, or at least the language or Europe but versions of Latin in Spain, France, Portugal, and Italy were increasingly diverging from each other until they become mutually unintelligable and Latin is now a dead language. Different versions of English are used in different countries just like Latin, could it happen to English too? 

In the mid 19th century it was predicted that British English and American English would become mutually unintelligable within 100 years but this hasn't happened, we can still understand each other almost perfectly, why haven't we diverged like Latin did? 

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David Crystal on Globalization continued

We all have a need for mutual intelligibility which leads to standardisation. We all need to be able to understand each other and which ever language acts as a lingua franca needs a standard form to be able to continue. When people communicate accross nations or write things for international publication they use standard English. Many people in other countries can watch films and TV and listen to music and radio from Britain and America which reinforces standard English. We also have easier communications accross countries with easier travel and online communications such as skype and email. All of these mean that countries can maintain communication with each other. These centripal forces were not around a thousand years ago and so once Latin had started to fragment there was little to stop the different variations tearing apart from each other. It is isolation from each other that causes a formely common language to move in opposite directions. Nowadays English speakers around the world are in no way separated from each other and so there is little danger of variations of English becoming seperate languages like Latin did. 

Crystal suggests that what may happen is something called bidialectism whereby the dialects of English become quite different and therefore it may be hard for an American English speaker to understand a British English speaker. However we would retain a standard English, English speakers would know their own dialect as well as the standard English dialect too. Other theorires of globalisation include that of uniformity whereby everyone speaks English the same and dissintegration whereby English splits into different languages like Latin did. 

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David Crystal on Attitudes to Language Change

Change is inevitable, like the ebbing tide: always inevitably changing but never decaying or progressing. Jean Aitchison describes it as an ever-whirring wheel. There is no end point for language change. There is a widely held belief that change must mean deterioration. Fiercely proud Brits see Americanisms and other foreign forms as an invasion and older generations see the casual speech of the young and assume standards have dropped, but this belief is shared by every generation about the younger one. In 'The Queen's English' (1863) the author lists a number of language issues which worry them and gave many people cause to think the language was deteriorating. Many people against language change use the slogan 'let's preserve the tongue that Shakespeare wrote' but Shakespeare himself did not stick to the rules of standard English. The fact is language has always been changing and people have always seen this change as deterioration. 

Blame is often placed on the education and the media, any variation from traditional standard forms receives attack from conservative language prescriptivists. Language changes because society changes, to stop one requires we stop the other - a task which can only succeed to a very limited extent. Time would be better spent enabling society to cope with new linguistic forms that accompany every new generation. It is important to develop a greater tolerance for (linguistic) change, especially in a multi-ethnic society. This would require schools to teach a common standard whilst recognising and acknowledging the value of linguistic diversity.

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More Attitudes to Language Change

Our view of 'correct' English is very subjective. We have been brought up with the idea that there is right and wrong language but this is nothing but a subjective opinion. For example double negatives, people try to apply mathematics (two negatives cancel out and become a positive) to language to argue that this form of negation is 'wrong'. However it is not 'wrong': it still functions, when people say 'I haven't done nothing' we don't think they're admitting to doing everything. We still hold 18th century prescriptivist views on language, the BBC will still get complaints if they split an infinitive but 'to boldly go' is no less understandable than 'to go boldly'. In the 18th century it was decided that the standard form of English would be based on the dialect of white middle class men living the English midlands and everywhere else would be non-standard. Standard English rules are little more than preferred customs of particular writers passed down through generations often bearing little relation to how language is actually used by the majority of the population. The reason we dislike non-standard forms is simply our subjective opinion. Most likely it is because these forms are associated with the lower classes and standard forms are associated with the well-educated. David Crystal says we all use about 5 different dialects a day: we change how we speak depending on how we want to be perceived. 

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Descriptivism is an approach that seeks to understand the varieties of language and not interfere or judge them. Descriptivists:

  • Describe forms of variation without preference or judgement
  • Record change as it happens
  • Avoid interference with change and variation
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Prescriptivism is an approach that seeks to impose particular rules for language in order to maintain a specific standard for and in some cases to prevent the use of non-standard forms which are viewed as inferior.

Jean Aitchison describes 3 prescriptivist views

1. Crumbling castle: English language is deteriorating and needs to be restored and preserved.

2. Damp spoon: non-standard forms of arise and stick in language due to laziness.

3. Infectious disease: non-standard forms can be 'caught' unwittingly. 

However change is not necessarily negative and there has never arguably been a perfect 'castle' of English: people have always thought it was deteriorating. Furthermore peopl can chose to use non-standard forms due to cultural/social identity and covert prestige, not just unwittingly or through laziness. 

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Robert Lane Greene

Described two prescriptivist views: sticklerism and declinism

  • Sticklerism: described as a 'finger wagging' approach to other's language. Sticklers describe what other people say as wrong because it's supposedly illogical or incorrect. There is a sense of linguistic one-upmanship. They have popped up on the internet in the form of 'grammar nazis' correcting people's you're vs your misuse. 
  • Declinism: similar to the crumbling castle model, it beleives that language is in decline from a once-great peak. They blame this on: young people, technology, and immigrants. However Greene argues that English is a long way from broken, literacy rates are a lot higher across the UK and USA than they were a century ago. Aitchison argues that this falling standards complaint has been recycled from generation to generation, all harking on about a mythical time when English was at its peak. Declinists have a genuine lack of consideration for how language is actually used e.g. '10 items or less' signs don't confuse people. They say the castle of English language is crumbling away but infact it is being added to with new words and functions, it is now complete with a swimming pool, a sauna and a snooker room! 

In effect these prescriptivists aren't really annoyed at the misuse of language but what it symbolises for them: a changing society and a shift in power from the educated elite to a wider mass of speakers and writers.

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Middle English: 1066 - 1400s

In 1066 everything changed for the Anglo-Saxons as the population was now ruled by French speaking king William. French became the official language of the court and of the military. Latin became the language of the church and of writing. 

In the 15th century there was The Great Vowel shift were all the vowels moved along one. This can explain the unorthodox use of vowels in English spelling. 

The letters U and V were interchangeable.

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Modern English: late 1400s onwards

Spelling changed to be more similar to French e.g. 'undrestand', 'exhorte'.

Negation was left uncontracted e.g. 'had not' 'did not'.

Long complex/compound complex sentences were often used.

English borrowed heavily from Latin especially in the 1600s. There was often a pollysylabic latinate lexis seen in writing. Latin was the official language of learning, if you were writing a book on science you would write it in Latin. Isaac Newton wrote a book on maths in Latin in the the 17th century but when he wrote another in the 18th century he wrote it in English. By then English had begun to triumph over Latin: the church had chosen English and there was a rise social and occupational groups with little or no Latin and a rise in national pride thanks to the English epic poem 'The Fairy Queen' about Elizabeth I who defeated the Spanish.

Before the 18th century people used to spell however they wanted. The 18th century was the birth of prescriptivism Samuel Johnson wrote the dictionary (based on midlands pronunciation) and Bishop Lowth wrote a grammar book. 

Johnathon Swift proposed that we 'fix' English language forever (1712): 'I see no absolute reason why any language should be perpetually changing, some method should be thought on for ascertaining and fixing our language.

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Arrival of new forms

  • Substratum theory - influence of different forms of language that come into contact with language e.g. Jewish Yiddish accent influence the way new yorkers say 'coffee' which is why they say 'caw-fee' 
  • Functional theory - language changes according to the needs of the user. e.g. words for new objects or slang to form an identity.
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Word formation

  • Compounding - joining two or more words e.g. boathouse, windmill, multi-ethnic, sofa bed, milkman, football, greenhouse etc
  • Blending - joining two or more words together by taking parts of each word e.g. brunch, motel
  • Coining - new words are formed to represent a new invention or development e.g. wifi, kleenex
  • Derivation - adding affixes to existing words to change the word class e.g. edit + or = editor, act + ion = action
  • Clipping - cutting the beginning, the end, or both of a word e.g. phone, exam, flu, lab
  • Backformation - the opposite of derivation: removing affixes e.g. editor - or = edit
  • Acronymy - forming words (acronyms) by using the first letter of every word in a phrase e.g. NASA stands for National Aeronatuics and Space Agency. 
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