Standard & Non-Standard English
The Dangers of Ill-defined Concepts

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Varieties of English

English is used by many different people in many different settings for many different purposes. Naturally, the result is that English is not a single unified whole but comes in many different packages. Linguists have had to develop a number of different specialized terms to label the different ways we have of using English.

1. Regional variations abound—in England, the U.S., Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, India, Africa, Asia….   These varieties differ considerably in pronunciation and much less so in vocabulary and grammar. 

2. Within those regions, sub-regions exist—Southern U.S., for example and the many dialect groupings in England.  An important point: someone from England might not be able to sort out all the various U.S. dialects but would lump us all together as “American” where we hear clear differences between people from Ohio and people from Alabama.

3. All of these varieties of English are different but also alike—they share a “common core” of language that makes them all “English.”

4. In addition to regional variations, English has sub-groups of speakers who are alike in education or social standing.   Features of pronunciation and grammar are used to link people together as members of the same social group—and are part of the social identity of the members.

5. English can also be analyzed into subsets based on the language of particular types of communication—discourse types.  The language of applied linguists, for example, or of car mechanics.  Generally, these types are identified with specialized vocabulary. 

6. English can also differ depending on whether it is written or spoken.  This topic is a complex one that we’ll return to throughout the semester.  The language of conversation is different from the language of a research report, but the language of conversation can be quite like the language of written advertisements.  This topic is hugely important for ESL/EFL teachers as we sort out which type of English we are teaching and help students learn to use language appropriate to the communication setting. 

7. Finally, linguists sometimes talk about varieties of English based on “style.”  Style is often divided into loose sub-groups labeled things like “formal,” “neutral,” and “informal.” 


Standard & Nonstandard English(es)

Their discussion of standard English leads us to a topic that must be approached with utmost care.  Standard and nonstandard and uneducated are terms that variously--and never completely clearly--defined.  Biber and his co-authors prefer the term vernacular to non-standard because vernacular just does not have the negative implications of non-standard. However, they then decide to use the term non-standard in their labels!

We do need as professional teachers of English to be as precise as possible in this matter of labeling and defining these sub-categories of English.  Here are some issues to consider:

1. The word standard is supposed to be limited to labeling the variety of English that is used by the people in power.  That version of English is standard because that's the way the powerful people talk and write and if one wants to join that group--then, one learns to use that version of English.  That is, there's nothing intrinsically better (or "best") about this version of English.  Moreover, this version of English was not selected by some rational process aimed at "standardization." 

2. The word uneducated is not helpful in linguistic analysis not just because of the negative connotations but also because of its vagueness.  What level of "un-" amounts to "uneducated"?  Few people in the modern U.S. have absolutely no education at all. 

3. An analytical system with just two categories--standard vs. nonstandard--helps us very little in specifying the many different subgroupings of English based on features of vocabulary/grammar/pronunciation used by members of identifiable social sub-groups. 

4. Additionally, we need to remember that any individual must speak more than one version of English.  From encounter to encounter throughout each day, we use various of the resources of English in various combinations for appropriate communication.  We write personal messages (in letters and email messages); we write academic papers; we read the newspaper; we read the TESOL Quarterly; we chat over lunch about a tv show or a movie or the weather; we do formal presentations to our classes.  Some speakers are bi-dialectal--like Shirley Brice Heath who is fluent in both "academic English" and in "black rural working people English." 

Double Negatives

On page 6, three examples are given to illustrate features of non-standard or vernacular English. Examples 2 and 3 both involve what is called "double negative," the use of more than 1 negative to make a negative statement: #2. I ain't done nothing and #3. There ain't nothing we can do.

Grammatically, the situation with double negatives is a bit complex....

English has two kinds of double negatives: (1) the emphatically negative double negative--I don't want no cake--and (2) the cleverly positive double negative--You have to eat some cake; you must not not have some. 

In Old English, the more negative particles thrown in the stronger the negative.  So, the emphatic double negative has a long history in English. 

The emphatic double negative is now not a feature of certain types of formal writing and speaking.  Using the emphatic double negative in certain communication situations is socially improper.  It's not that the form doesn't communicate its meaning--but rather than it carries along with it another meaning associated with social class membership. 

However, the emphatic double negative lives on in the informal spoken English of many people--highly educated people as well as people with less education.  Probably the emphatic double negative is more often used by men than by women.  Several years ago a study showed that women avoid using ain't while men use it regularly in everyday conversation (especially with other men).  The analysis was that women (on the whole) are more obedient to the rules taught in school, and that men (on the whole) don't think those rules apply to them. 

The difference is probably between people who use the emphatic double negative for the fun and highly emphatic negativeness of it while also knowing not to use it in certain situations--as compared to people for whom the emphatic double negative is their basic way of making negative statements.  For people who always use the "emphatic double negative"--it probably doesn't carry any special emphasis at all because it is just the way that the negative is formed.  In contrast, those of us who use the emphatic double negative for extra emphasis--we feel the emphatic meaning. 

A final issue raised by this topic:  we need to be careful about distinguishing between (1) varieties of English and (2) the language of any particular speaker of English.  That is, it is accurate to say that "academic English does not include the emphatic double negative while it does include the positive double negative."  It would not be accurate to say that "an educated speaker of English does not use the emphatic double negative." 

Finally, as students of language, we recognize that no single feature of grammar or vocabulary or pronunciation is the defining characteristics of any version of English.  Any description of any version would include sets and clusters of features. 

Topics That Matter to ESL/EFL Teachers

To keep this reference book to a reasonable length (and price), the authors have to move rapidly thorough topics that could take up whole books. 

They have given us plenty of information to think about, however.  If so many different varieties of English exist, how in the world do ESL/EFL programs and teachers decide which one to teach to their students?  What varieties of English are you teaching right now?  Why?

1. Selecting the appropriate version of English for students--how do you do that?

2. Recognizing that we all use many versions of English for different purposes and in different contexts—how do we help students learn to have a repertoire of “Englishes,” too?

3. Learning enough about English to be aware that “our way” isn’t the only way--how do we learn about different national varieties of English and what do we do with that information?

What other topics occurred to you as you read this chapter?  What do you see in this topic of importance to our profession?  I’d appreciate hearing from you at patbyrd@comcast.net.  Thanks--I look forward to hearing from you.


More Information

If you are interested in this topic, you might want to check out other sources of information about English.  For example:

Cheshire, Jenny. (Ed.) (1991). English around the world: Sociolinguistic perspectives.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

English in the World.  An ERIC listing compiled by Craig Packard.  [http://www.cal.org/ericcll/Minibibs/engworld.html]  (accessed 12/21/1999).

Nayar, P.B. (1994). Whose English Is It?  TESL-EJ 1(1).  [http://www.kyoto-su.ac.jp/information/tesl-ej/ej01/f.1.html].  (accessed 12/21/1999) 

Widdowson, H. G. (1994). The ownership of English. TESOL Quarterly, 28 (2), 377-89.

Wood, Alastair. (April, 1997). International scientific English: Some thoughts on science, language and ownership. Science Tribune.  [http://www.tribunes.com/tribune/art97/wooda.htm#R22] (accessed 12/21/1999).