I’ve been blogging like a bit of a maniac lately, but wanted to blog about language, for once. That was, after all, what I’d vaguely intended for my blog to be about when I started it back in 2008, before it kind of descended into random strands of Katie’s life.
This is the article in question (warning: Daily Mail link. Here’s another one). The gist of it is that Sacred Heart school in Middlesbrough has sent out a letter to parents, asking them to correct the way in which their children speak. The aim of this is to teach children standard English, and to prepare them for working life. This has been heralded by some as a victory for traditional, old-fashioned values in the battle against slang.
The school’s views on this matter, however,  have also generated a certain amount of controversy, because rather than stamping out slang, as it claims, it’s seen as attacking the local dialect. The line between slang and dialect is something of a blurry one. Because of the low prestige associated with most UK dialects, most dialects are slang, if we define slang as informal language. However, not all slang is dialect, and indeed, some of the words, grammatical constructions or pronunciations the school points out can be heard up and down the country: pronouncing ‘th’ as ‘f’, letta, betta, ‘he was sat’ instead of ‘he was sitting’ etc. Furthermore, some are part of a sociolect, in that they’re heard far more frequently among young people. This might well fall under the definition of slang.
However, there are several words mentioned in the letter that fall quite clearly under the dialect umbrella (rather oddly, the letter also points out the difference between you’re and your, something which can’t be heard in pronunciation and which children are taught in schools anyway. It’s worrying that pronunciation is seen as equally objectively correct as the grammar of standard English, but I’m digressing). Words like yous and nowt have been the standard in the parts of the UK that fall above a particular isogloss for centuries – in the case of nowt, for at least as long as ‘nothing’ as been used in other parts (nowt deriving from the now almost obsolete ‘naught’). In large parts of the UK (largely, but not exclusively, northern England), saying ‘nowt’ is the standard. Such words are very clearly part of the standard local way of speaking, regardless of age, gender, and to some extent, social class.
The linguistic elephant in the room, of course, is that the school’s point rests on the assumption that those who do not speak standard English cannot speak standard English. It’s a lazy assumption, similar to the assumptions made about creole languages in the past; that creoles are a simpler, ‘baby’ version of the standard. I’d reject the school’s assumption, and would even say that there isn’t a single speaker of a UK English dialect who cannot make him/herself understood to someone who exclusively speaks the standard language, or to a speaker of a very different dialect. It may once have been the case, before the invention of radio and radically improved transport links, that speakers of dialect were unaware of the standard language. This is no longer the case, however. Children already know that saying nowt is less formal than saying nothing. Of course, because of increased use of regional accents on TV and radio, the reverse is also true: we’re all more aware of the different accents used within the UK, and are better able to understand them than we were 150 years ago.
The best thing about all this is that we all adapt our language to a particular situation, and we do this from an early age. Even speakers of standard English adapt their level of formality through choice of words, and through accent. We’ve all heard of a ‘phone voice’. And this is something we do more or less unconsciously. I’d have more understanding for the school’s viewpoint if children were being specifically taught how to speak at a job interview, for example. I would accept (with some reluctance, but that’s a story for another day) that it’s more appropriate, in that it gives a more formal impression, to use the ‘nothing’ variant than the ‘nowt’ variant in that particular situation. However, the school is trying to interfere with one of the least formal relationships that exists – not that between an employer and an interviewee, or even that between a teacher and their pupil, but the relationship between a parent and a child. But of course children are going to speak to their parents in the dialect or using the accent that their parents have taught them. It doesn’t mean that they can’t – or don’t – adapt their language use for more formal situations.
Primary school children already have to deal with the various stresses that school brings, and I’d maintain that it’s wrong to add to that by telling them that the way that they speak, which is almost always identical to how their parents speak, and often identical or similar to how their teachers speak, is incorrect. At best, it’s arbitrary (children in the south of England tend to use language closer to standard English and thus have a much lower risk of being corrected, even when they use slang and/or dialect, and as we’ve seen, the school in question has a certain amount of confusion between dialect words, slang words, and standard grammar), and at worst, it’s discriminative.
On a final, related note: the accents of the north-east often come top of the popularity ratings (and I know I’m lumping Teesside and Tyneside together here, and that this is not really allowed or correct, but bear with me). The school’s notion that children who speak with that accent, who can also be easily understood by speakers of all varieties of UK English, will find it harder to get a job only perpetuates the idea that accent and dialect can hinder your progress in life. While I would certainly agree that some accents are viewed far more positively than others (a favourite of mine is Scouse, but I often feel alone in that preference), it’s simply not true to maintain that the way these children speak is undesirable in any given situation. By trying to stamp out informal language use among children, we risk losing even more of the UK’s linguistic diversity.