Saturday, January 22, 2011

I think I disagree with my lecturers ...

... and the course hasn't even started yet!

The course is U211, Exploring the English Language, which is not technically due to start for another week or so. However, in a bid to get ahead, since I really don't think I'm going to have the 15-16 hours a week (!) that it claims I need, I've reached the section on accents, chapter 5 of the first book.

The focus in the course has been that no one variety of English should be privileged. That's the sense of the background reading - Crystal's "The Stories of English" emphasises the fact that the conventional narrative of the rise and rise of English disregards the fact that "standard English" is only one facet of the English language. Graddol's "English Next?" explores the issue that English is, in world terms, dominated by non-native speakers. And the opening chapters of the first book have been keen to emphasise that the prescriptive approach adopted to the language in spelling, grammar and pronunciation has only led to one of the expressions of English that we see today.

In discussing accents, however, I think the course goes too far. I am quite happy that in general, accents don't in themselves say anything about the intelligence of the speaker - I've known too many English speakers from all over the place to think otherwise. I'm also quite happy that RP is not a "non-accent".

However, in discussing accents, the focus has tended to be on aspects of pronunciation that are "neutral" - for example, glottal stops or dropping aitches ("ge' inside the 'ouse!"). There has been no discussion so far on the fact that a few aspects of accents quite often betray a level of ignorance of English, or illiteracy - for example, one feature that arises often is the use of "of" where "have" is correct in English (as in "I couldn't of"). The sense I get from the course is that it seeks, in quite a postmodern/pluralist way, to affirm all users of English, regardless of how the language is spoken. (In true postmodern fashion, of course, the language adopted for the course is itself standard English, and I strongly suspect that a response to the course that was not would be likely to raise eyebrows).

I'm trying to imagine how the writers of the course would respond to this issue. They might suggest that English is mutating so that "of" instead of "have" in this context will be considered acceptable usage. But if this is to take place, then sections of the rules of English relating to particles and verb tenses have to be basically disregarded, and in the fullness of time, this would be likely to tidily erode the comprehensibility of the language. They might suggest that there is a difference between an accent and an incorrect usage - but the emphasis hitherto has been that there is no "incorrect usage" - just different, and people need to swim with the tide in this regard. I'd be interested in hearing their thoughts on this.

Personally, for what it's worth, I think that whilst the prescriptive approach is wrong, and fails to take into account many valid expressions of English, the people who write the course are also wrong if they are saying that all expressions are equally valid. There is some discussion about the tone used for science writing, which has taken shape over the centuries, and the writers accept the requirements of the medium. More generally, whilst RP and Standard English have no right to a privileged position in the canon of English language beyond their usefulness as being most widely acceptable, I don't think that the substitution of varieties of English which undermine its ability to communicate can be regarded as progressive.

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