John Honey: The Standard of English
John Honey believes that the standards of the English language are falling. Language is evolving all of the time-the most noticeable of course are slang terms-which means that young people speak in an entirely different way to the older generation.
The two things that are most important in the standard of spoken English are accent ad dialect. Accent is the way one sounds when speaking, and is attached to an area for example; a Mancunian accent originates in Manchester, a Liverpudlian accent in Liverpool. Dialect is the words and grammar used by people in different areas, generally spoken with a corresponding accent.
John Honey states that the grammar he believes should be taught is that of ‘standard English’, and he claims that ‘standard English’ is “…the language in which this book is written, which is essentially the same form of English used in books and newspapers…”
He argues that ‘standard English’ allows him to pronounce the beginning of the word financial as either fine or fin, but to pronounce it as foyn would be incorrect. Standard English ahs long been the preserve of the ‘educated’, and only imposed on those lacking such education to empower or improve them. This suggests that ‘standard English’ is a class-based dialect, and is not the format spoken by those of a more working-class background. At the same time however, John Honey contradicts himself by rejecting the idea that standardisation in history was an attempt to force this way of speaking amongst all English speakers.
The two ideas I have looked at in this investigation are whether young people speak differently to their elders, and whether ‘standard English’ is the preserve of the middle and upper classes.
To research my first idea, I conducted a survey consisting of slang words and their meanings among a group of retired adults. It consisted of terms regularly used by teenagers such as sick, and safe, and required them to know in what context each word was used.
For the latter, I recorded a conversation between two people in a café in Altrincham, and between two people at home in Fenham, Newcastle. By comparing the two, I was able to see the differences not only in accent, but in dialect as well.
Slang terms are very popular among young people today. Identify the words below and their current slang definition.
When conducting my survey, I asked ten retired people local to my area of Sale what each word meant. I was surprised to see how many were correct, which is contradictory to what Honey believes. On average, the people I asked knew 7 out of 12 of the words in the survey. This suggests that the slang terms that are currently popular may not be totally new words. Certain words have a tendency to reappear through time, going in and out of fashion, which could be evidence as to why the people I asked knew so many. Another explanation is that slang terms aren’t just limited to young people, and that older generations can pick them up at work, in the pub, while shopping or from younger relatives or friends.
Analysing the recorded conversations was more difficult, as the content was very different. Also, as they were recorded in two different cities, it could be argued that this is not a fair representation of whether ‘standard English’ is only present among those of a better education, as the two areas do not correspond.
However, from my recordings I found that the two girls in the café were generally more hesitant about when speaking than those at home in Fenham. Perhaps this is because they are in a public place, and do not want others to know every minute detail about their lives, or it may be because they are formulating their sentences before speaking so as to sound more fluent when doing so. The conversation held in the house was more informal, with overlapping and breaks in speech more common. This however again could be argued as not being a fair representation as the subjects are in different environments.
Another factor I picked out was that slang terms and swearing were more common between the pair in Newcastle compared to those in Altrincham. Again, whether this was due to the surroundings I do not know, but it still reflects that people in a more affluent area tend to speak more politely, and that taboo language is more associated with those in poorer or more working class areas.
While both pairs talked about intimate details of their personal life, it was clear that the couple in the café were much more reserved when it came to revealing their problems, whereas those in Fenham were very open and brazen about their dilemmas, using more fillers and follow ups like “you know what I mean”.
In this particular comparison, I found that the two girls in the café were much more well-spoken, with a lesser pronounced accent than the two at home in Fenham, who both had strong Geordie accents and used a lot of regional dialect. This can be used as proof that ‘standard English’ is familiar in more typically middle-class surroundings than in strong working-class areas, which supports John Honey’s theory that ‘standard English’ is a class-based dialect. However, both pairs used slang terms, which suggests that it is widespread, and that ‘standard English’ has no effect on the colloquialisms used by teenagers.
From my first investigation, I found that although different generations may speak differently in regular conversation, the dialect over the years hasn’t changed as slang terms were still recognised by older people. As I have previously mentioned, language can be picked up anywhere, so it is inevitable that new words will circulate around people of all ages.
Personally, I do not agree with John Honey that the standard of English is slipping. I believe that the language is growing, by adding new words and phrases to everyday vocabulary. It is clear from my research that people still speak in ‘standard English’, albeit with various accents in varying degrees, otherwise nobody would be able to understand those in different areas to their own. However, I do find that speaking in ‘standard English’ is looked upon as being posh and pretentious in some circles, and as someone who has quite an indistinguishable accent I find that people make assumptions about me from the way I speak. Perhaps this is why speaking ‘standard English’ has been taken on by some, to project a better image of themselves in different company, to appear more intelligent or wealthier. Still, my research neither proves, nor disproves John Honey’s theory that the standard of the spoken English language is declining.