Standard English?

The question mark in this title is extremely intentional.  I have been teaching freshman writing since 1980 at a state university and then at community colleges.  And unlike Britain and unlike France, I have yet to see a “standard” English.  In fact, as close as I can come is a myth (sometimes referred to as the Muhlenberg Vote) that German missed by one vote becoming the “official” language of the United States!

I concede that there are registers.  I also concede that in guiding students through freshman composition, I have participated in discussions about edited American English and how the freshmen writers need to consider the options edited American English offers them as they are defining their audiences.  However, I chafe at the idea of a “standard” for American English.

Let’s look at the situation: First, who would police this alleged “standard” if we had one?  I certainly would not as a PhD and as an English teacher.  Second, what would happen to the richness of our experiences if suddenly, our language was limited to what ever the “language police” would allow? And third, how could any “language police” keep up with the rapid changes we are seeing in usage (e.g. what speakers and writers actually “use” in contrast to the “grammar” which is far slower to change)?

At one point in the mid to late 20th century, I understand the argument about “network speech,” e.g. the language options used by Chet Huntley or David Brinkley or Walter Cronkite.  Certainly when Americans watched the news and there were only a handful of channels–these language users set patterns, but not standards!

And now–with hundreds of channels available–the genie is out of the bottle and “standardization” is next to impossible.

So why do we waste so much time talking about “standard” English in public schools? Is this talk of “standard” English an attempt–as Ngugi wa Thiong offers in his Decolonising the Mind–an attempt to shape and control thought?

I don’t mean to sound like some conspiracy nut, but I have never come to a clear understanding of why English teachers taught “grammar” every year for nearly 7-9 years of public schooling to students who are native speakers of English and who have fairly capable grammars without formal instruction!

So let’s talk about this issue.  Why do we perpetuate a nonsensical notion of “standard” English?  Please share any thoughts here!


About deanmark

Dean of Arts, Sciences, and Education at Davidson County Community College.
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