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Plain English

As plain as possible

Many terms in linguistics are used in highly specialised ways. Like physics and other sciences, linguistics exerts its own discipline. Here I try to keep my use of specialised terms to a minimum, using words in the most familiar senses as far as possible. And I use capitals to represent speech sounds and their often quite variable pronunciations.

In some cases, such as the sense of language and its elements as such, known as ‘metalinguistics’, I just bite the bullet and use the technical term.

Four particularly problematic terms are word, language, dialect and accent.

Word is problematic in the sense that it includes too much. Catch seems obviously one word. But what about caught? It refers both to the act of catching and to a past time-scale or tense. Linguists would say that there are two ‘morphemes’ in caught, a stem or root and a past tense. In a slightly different sense, don’t might be perceived as a word, but it has two morphemes, the root form and the shortened markere of negation in n’t. But here I skate over these problems and refer to all of these cases as words.

I unashashedly use language in both of the most familiar senses, the sense of the special faculty of being able to talk and being understood, and the sense of English as what is spoken in what are taken to be English-speaking countries, even though sub-titles are often reguired on TV when a particularly divergent variety is being spoken. But as these divergences reveal, the notion is highly problematic. Are the most divergent varieties actually different languages? Where there are wide differences in prestige, the speakers of the less prestigious variety often believe that what they speak should be treated as a different language.

It is often suggested that where there differences in the words themselves or the order of them, these differences should be treated as matters of dialect, and that where the differences are in the pronunciation of words, these should be treated as matters of acceent. There are many problems here. One problem is the distinctions are largly subjective. What counts as a difference?

In 1917, the phonetician, Daniel Jones, coined the term ‘Received pronunciation’ for what he quaintly called “the speech of men educated at one of the great public schools of Englind.” What he thought of women’s speech or the speech of men educated anywhere else, such as members of the royal family at the time, he does not say. But the intention behind what is now mainly called RP is clear. It is the speech of privilege and inherited wealth in Britain. RP is sometimes characterised as an ‘accent’ of English, a particular way of pronouncing it. But this assumes that there are no associated particularities in the grammar. But these exist. One such particularity occurs in the question “How many are we?” completely ungrammatical for many speakers. The characterisation of RP as an accent coyly hides the sociology.

The term, RP, is widely criticised. On the point of one critique, RP changes over time. The opening of Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932 was carried out in a version of RP which is no longer spoken. In 1933 Herbert Ponting, the gifted photographer who accompanied Scott on his last trip to the Antarctic, published a new version of his film of the expedition with a commentary which he voiced himself, Ponting was born two years after Jones. To take just one example of his 1930s RP, he pronounces the word picture with the T as a T before a Y and the U as a long vowel rather than a CH and a short ER sound, as by most versions of RP today.

Dodging the issue, here I just speak of varieties of the language, some diverging more widely from a notional standard than others. The notional standard is perhaps best characterised by the quip “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy” seemingly inspired by the Yiddish scholar, Max Weinreich. The quip is first recorded in Yiddish.

Noam Chomsky disputes the need for anything like such a notional standard, seeing the faculty of language as defined exclusively on the mind of an individual speaker. But it seems to me that without such a standard, no laws, treaties or contracts could ever be formulated.