Languages are perceived to include several dialects. According to this view, the English language would include the varieties spoken in Edinburgh, Newcastle, New York, Atlanta, Sydney, Wellington, Jamaica, etc.
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- selection process
- significant proportion
- for instance
Language and Dialect
When we use the term the English language, what normally comes to mind is Standard English. Standard languages are seen to have greater prestige than a dialect. Part of this prestige is due to the fact that they have a written code while a dialect does not. So when we talk about German, French, Norwegian, Chinese, Russian, etc. we are actually referring to the standard versions of these languages.
Hudson (1980: 32) sees the standard versions of a language as rather abnormal in that they are the result of deliberate intervention by society. Standard languages are quite a modern invention and historically are often due to the desire to distinguish one region or nation from another. Dialects, on the other hand, generally develop without conscious development by the people who speak them. It is clear then that a standard does not just appear.
The Language of the Rulers
First there is a selection process in which one particular variety is chosen. In the case of English, a variety spoken by the monarchy, the nobility and bureaucrats within the triangle formed by London, Oxford and Cambridge. Normally, a significant proportion of the population consciously or unconsciously accepts a particular variety as the standard even though it is not the variety that they speak. It is quite common to hear people who do not speak Standard English say things like “I can’t speak proper English”. The selection process might take years and can involve coercion on the part of powerful members of society. For example, in might not be possible to get certain jobs if one does not have a standard accent. Some standard national languages are resisted by part of the population of a nation –normally because they speak another variety of the same language or a different language. That is why some people say that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.
Printing Press Creates Standards
For a variety to become the standard there is always a codification process in which the correct forms and meanings of words are recorded in dictionaries and the morphology and syntax of the language are recorded in grammars. Caxton, who brought the printing press to England, was influential in setting a written standard. He was a businessman at heart and standardizing spelling meant he could sell his books all over the country.
At the same time the language is adapted so it can function in all the contexts found in a modern society, such as government, science, law, etc. This has happened quite recently in the case of Catalan, for example.
Standard Language is Also a Dialect
One of the results of the Standardization process is that one variety is given precedence over all the others. In effect this means that varieties that are considered dialects are not as prestigious as the standard and are not taught, for instance, at school. We should not forget, however, that even the standard is a dialect albeit one with prestige. For linguists all varieties of a language are equally important and worthy of study.
Pidgins and Creoles
Pidgins are basically contact languages. They evolve between people who speak different languages and need some way of communicating with each other to carry out trade or work. Many English pidgins were created when slaves were shipped from the west coast of Africa to the colonies in the West Indies or the United States. Pidgins are languages stripped of all but the bare necessities (Romaine 1988: 24). In other words, they are normally very simple from a grammatical point of view.
Several linguists say that part of the evolution of English itself is due to language contact between the Scandinavian conquerors from Sweden, Norway and Denmark in the Midlands and North of England2 and the defeated Anglo-Saxon population. Both communities spoke different dialects of a common Germanic ancestor language. Basically, the roots of the words were the same but the endings were different. It has been put forward that this is the reason why English lost its case endings3 while other languages like German, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, etc. kept them.
A pidgin becomes a creole when it is learned as a first language of a new generation. From a linguistic point of view, creoles are made up of a superstrate4 language such as English and one or more substrate languages such as those of Western Africa. The creole is not limited to certain functions but takes on all the functions needed by the speech community. Some creoles go through the same standardization process described above for Standard English and become the vehicle for education, law and government. This is the case of Afrikaans made up of a Dutch superstrate and English and Bantu substrates.
In countries in which Standard English exists alongside the creole, the former might exert pressure on the latter. The process by which a creole becomes more like the standard superstrate is called decreolization. In Jamaica, for example, one kind of creole, the acrolect, has become more and more like Standard English. Other varieties of creole, called basilects, are very different from Standard English5. Between these two extremes we find the mesolects (Bickerton 1975). There is no exact division between these types but a continuum. Such a situation, in which different varieties of a language live side by side, is quite normal. For example, many people in Newcastle are speakers of Standard English while most of the population speaks what can be a very different variety of English called Geordie. Some English speakers find Geordie very hard to understand indeed. Many people in England could be described as bilingual in that they are able to switch from their local dialect to Standard English and vice-versa without any difficulty6 and this is also the case in Jamaica and many parts of the English-Speaking world.
Bickerton, Derek (1975) Dynamics of a Creole System. Cambridge University Press.
Hudson, R. A. (1980) Sociolingistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Romaine, Suzanne 1988. Pidgin and Creole Languages. London: Longman.
- Due to the fact that dialect is often used in a derogatory way, linguists prefer the term variety.
- The area under the rule of the Norsemen was called the Danelaw.
- Case endings are found at the end of a word and tell us if it is nominative, accusative, dative, genitive.
- Normally the language of the former colonial power.
- To get an idea of just how different they can be, listen to the two girls in the recording of Jamaican English.
- This is the case of the young woman in our recording of Newcastle English.