The Question of Standard English

Annika Hohenthal, Department of English, University of Turku, Finland

A standard variety has undergone at least some degree of regularisation or codification, it is recognized as a prestigious variety or code by a community, and it is used for high functions alongside a diversity of low varieties (Holmes 1992:83). It provides a means of communication across areas with various different dialects. According to Saghal, a rather nebulous educated Indian English variety close to the native standard is favoured as a model for Indian English by the general consensus (Saghal 1991: 303).

According to Kachru, the spread of English and its intercultural uses raise questions concerning diversification, codification, identities, cross-cultural intelligibility and power and ideology. The ultimate danger could be decay or even loss of international intelligibility, some have argued (Kachru 1987:220-221). In the multilinguistic and culturally pluralistic context of India, the English language has developed its regional, social and occupational varieties: typically Indian registers of legal system, business, newspapers, creative writing (Kachru 1986a: 110).

The fact that English has acquired multiple identities and a broad spectrum of cross-cultural interactional contexts of use is, according to Kachru, "a purists' and pedagogues' nightmare and a variationists' blessing". As a consequence of the spread of English, there are "various semiotic systems, several linguistic conventions and numerous cultural traditions: English absorbs and unfolds meanings and values from diverse cultures" (Kachru 1987: 207-211). Kachru points out that the contexts of diversification of English are not just deficiencies, but that there are deeper sociological, linguistic and cultural reasons. The diversification often, then, is symbolic of "subtle sociolinguistic messages" (ibid, 218).

Crystal points out that while, on one hand, English-speaking communities are striving to nativize the language to reflect their own experiences, on the other hand many are of the view that a universally intelligible, more ore less standardized medium would be desirable (Crystal 1988: 261-262). Not the least because "British English is now, numerically speaking, a minority dialect, compared with American, or even Indian English" (ibid, 10).

Samuel Ahulu suggests that the concept of Standard English be redefined. According to his view, Standard English is usually associated with British and/or American English. English, however, as an international language, has developed, and continues to develop forms or features divergent from British and/or American English. As arguments that any divergence from British or American English is an error appear unrealistic, Standard English, in Ahulu's view, should accommodate to the developments of new Englishes. The variability of non-native Englishes should, ideally, be seen as styles of speech or expression which makes a part of the speakers' repertoire; they should not be thought of as errors. English lacks standard codification which would reflect its international character adequately. Thus, one of the major problems with new Englishes appears to be the issue of codification (Ahulu 1997: 17-19),

The variation manifested in the use of English as an international language should be subsumed within the concept of "Standard English", and the divergent forms should be recognised as standard practice or styles of Standard English; styles of speech or expression to which speakers of English as an international language will be exposed, and which will constitute their repertoire.

Cheshire points out that sociolinguistic analyses can contribute to English language teaching issues

by ensuring that descriptions of world varieties of English have a sounder empirical base. Current descriptions are all too often given as lists of assorted departures from southern British standard English or American standard English with no attempt at determining the extent to which the local linguistic features function as part of an autonomous system (1991:7).

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