Standardising language

Let’s think power for a minute, and how it works to hold so many elements of our social order (language and culture being two of those) without us not even noticing it by effecting what Fairclough referred to as ‘Power behind discourse’ (Fairclough,1989: 43).

La culture


The standardisation of a language is a clear example of power used to sanction certain segments of society and other communities through language use. Over the past 150 years, but especially since the Second World War, Liberal Humanist cultural values have come to dominate the most important cultural institutions of many Western countries: schools, the academies, museums, galleries, and so on. They have determined what counts as valuable culture and who has access to the means of cultural production, distribution and legitimacy. Domination by these doctrines rests in the fact that Liberal Humanism presents many attractive values. The rational individual sits at the centre of history. Human history is seen under the umbrella of Liberal Humanism as a history of progress and enlightenment based on education and rational planning and then extended to other societies where Europe’s self –image was defined in opposition to a less civilised, non-European ‘Other’.

At the centre of Liberal Humanist thinking is the rational, freedom-driven individual who uses the language to freely express his or her view of the world. The English language reached the nations where English is currently a second language or a variety on its own right, via colonialist practices. Britain transported liberalism throughout the globe in a language that although initially foreign to colonised peoples, became an essential part of their routines as both colonised and independent subjects.

In the metropolitan centres, the emergence of a social preference for certain forms of speech was due to various factors.

  • Fusion of political and cultural identities leading to the early formation of nation-states. England and France in particular developed and fostered ‘high’ forms of their languages in capitals and courts.
  • The European Renaissance treasured the usage of Greco-Latin usage in some of the vernaculars. These classicised vernaculars became status symbols and prestigious vehicles for learning. They retained a Greco-Latin literary legacy of genres, formulas and styles, which consolidated them in their positions as models.
  • The direct translation of the biblical scriptures into the new vernaculars, granted these languages sanctity and privilege beyond any other varieties.
  • The fifteen-century European ‘printing’ revolution, was accompanied by an inevitable imposition of standard formats, and regular ortographies for the major vernaculars.
  • ‘Standardisation’ came hand in hand with mechanised mass production. The variety of fixed shapes, sizes and materials used in non-artisan production, reinforced the value of ‘standardisation’ and intensified the high rank of the selected languages leading towards ‘standard’ status.

The English language was one of the European vernaculars, which came to associate linguistic standards to upper class use. This tendency has remained for much part of this century (Bailey, 1991:355). The formula ‘King’s English equates Standard English’ has remained unquestioned until recently, despite the diversity of uses worldwide and the heterogeneity of speakers.[1] However, the social bar that the usage of ‘King’s English’, BBC English’ or even the English of the Public Schools, so fiercely divided social classes in Britain, is now fading away, particularly thanks to the many and colourful versions developing over the Internet. Native varieties are taking new shapes and non-native varieties are fighting to be heart. In the meantime, UK scholars show no consensus as far as the nature of the Standard English language. Authoritarian or purist linguists, are certain that Standard English is the language, enthroned above all forms; it is the only possible pedagogical model. The more libertarian scholars, although acknowledging the intrinsic value of standards, reject its position above other varieties. British egalitarian academicians, on the other hand, consider Standard English an elite controlling device yet ironically they are compelled to abide by it to be able to publish their works. Others, choose to remain uncertain or eclectic according to needs and situations.

As far as the role played by the United States, this nation expanded its involvement in different zones and different fields of world’s affairs after the Second World War, adding to the former spread of the language by British Nationals. Former colonies obtained their independence and these nations were left with a legacy of either bilingual or ‘potentially’ bilingual populations. Furthermore, technological advancements and the unprecedented role of mass communication lead to the numbers of non-native speakers of English surpassing the numbers of native speakers (Quirk, R., 1984:2)[2].

In 1968, before the vast number of ‘heretical’ forms of the English language which were developing, Clifford Prator (1968) argued that the acceptance and encouragement of local varieties of English by the British was detrimental to global communication. Prator’s followers, amongst which Sir Randolph Quirk appears as the most outspoken defender of a monochromatic standard, reject the sociolinguistic identity of the varieties of English emerging outside the native English Speaking nations, considering the recognition of such identities as ‘the false extrapolation of English ‘varieties’ by some linguists’(Kachru, B., 1991:184). A denial of the identity implies denial of identificational terms as “Nigerian English…”, for Quirk considers them “…misleading if not entirely false” (Kachru, B., 1991:184). He rejects too, the generally recognized dichotomy between ESL/EFL. He is, in other words, the legacy of a culturally specific understanding of the English language as a bearer of the Western, Judeo-Christian tradition. He is the exponent of ‘ a mysterious, semi-mystical difference between two groups of people, the native and the non native (the ‘us’ versus the ‘them’), ‘a difference which affects forever the way their minds work when handling the language concerned’ (Kachru, B., 1991:212).

It is not only at a community level that language is used to reinforce discrimination but the game is extended at international levels as well to sustain hierarchies of power. But this begs the question: Is the Internet today extending these forms of power or is it contributing to eliminate elitism and consolidate a universal usage?

[1] Henry W and Francis G Fowler’s The King’s English was published in 1906 by Oxford University Press. The current edition, the third, has been left unrevised since it first appeared in 1931 and has been available in paperback since 1973 with the subtitle ‘The Essential Guide to Written English’.

[2] English is now ‘in daily use not by seven million people but by seven hundred million – and only half of them native speakers of the language.’ Quirk, R., The English Language in a Global Context, in Quirk, R. & Widdowson, H.G.,(eds.) 1984. English in the World,, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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