February 2015

Tidbits on the English Language - No. 1: English as Lingua Franca

Variety vss dialect

Despite its unique appellation, "English" differs a lot depending on the country or region. It's difficult to classify as "standard language" or "dialect" a language whose use extends over countries.

The Standard English as per the English population isn't the same as that of New Zealanders, Australians or Americans. Consequently, rather than calling a variation of English we aren't familiar with a "dialect," it should be considered a "variant." And it is also rather interesting to think about how such speech communities were achieved.
Instead of calling words used in a Standard Language "right" and those used outside of its scope "wrong," we should acknowledge that every variant possesses its own linguistic system. All in all, a dialect is basically a variant used in an area that didn't become a political or an economic center, therefore not reaching the status of "Standard Language." This reasoning applies to about every language.

Apparently, the idea that "this is proper English," that there is a correct or proper way to speak is a relatively new concept in English-speaking countries. This idealized image of English is called the Queen's English, BBC English, Oxford English or Public School English. But let's set our focus on Public School English, and this notion was born more or less a century ago.

Public School

In the United Kingdom during the Victorian era (1837-1901), public boarding schools in the regions of Eton, Harrow, Winchester, and so on, were populated by youngsters from upper-class families of various backgrounds across the nation. These public schools were famous for their strict education policy, and taught a unique accent as a means to attain homogeneity amongst students.

These students, the future leading and influential strata of society, spoke an English language whose characteristics differed from those of the general public, a speech form that people seemed to aspire for.

In the United Kingdom, in addition to the regional dialectical differences, manners of speech tend to differ depending on one's social class. If one wants to enter the higher society, he/she first has to adapt his/her way of speaking English. However, because of a lack of interaction between social classes, it was not the same as people from rural areas adapting to the Standard English when they moved to the capital.

Now, let's get back to public schools. When entering school, speaking with a different accent would lead new pupils to be coached by the school personnel and mocked by their fellow students. They had no choice but to live through this frustrating situation and acquire the coveted pronunciation.

At the time, speaking Public School English conveyed an image of intelligence, trustworthiness and class.

The situation changed altogether when radio broadcasting started in the United Kingdom, giving birth to a "dialect with no regional or social class affiliation" which instantly spread throughout the country. Some scholars refer to it as a "received standard" or a "super-dialect."

In the next issue, we will continue with this theme and talk about the state of English as it distances itself from the United Kingdom and reaches international shores.

Written by Masanori Itoh, Translation/Localization Department