More than just talking proper: Randolph Quirk argues Standard English is about words and meanings, not accents

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THIS WEEK there has been fresh sound and fury from teachers as they faced the National Curriculum Council's proposals for revising the teaching of English. Among other things, this puts new emphasis on Standard English. Nigel de Gruchy, a union general secretary, exploded. 'When will this nightmare end?' he demanded. 'Even Stalin did not force 'Standard Russian' down his subjects' throats.'

I have no experience of Russia in the Stalin era, but certainly in the decade before the demise of the Soviet Union it was indeed Standard Russian that was the sole form of the language taught and accepted for speech and writing in Russian schools. No surprise, surely? The same is true in most Continental countries. Ministries of education in the German Lander set out the steps by which primary school children achieve 'correct and fluent use of the Hochsprache'. In France, too, from elementary school the curriculum unequivocally lays down that children acquire 'mastery of the standard language, spoken and written'.

This does not mean that Russian, Polish, French, German and the rest are without dialects or that their dialects are any less respected than those in Britain. But you don't have to teach children what they already know. The job is to build on what is known and to extend language ability to cope with enriched content and a range well beyond the local. To this end (the French government's document continues) 'the language of the teacher is clear, well-articulated, correct', offering 'pupils an example, a model' of this extended language ability.

Surely Mr de Gruchy and others singing in the 'chorus of disapproval' (Independent headline) over the Government's proposals cannot be actively seeking inferior education for the children here as compared with those across the Channel? Presumably not. But there does seem to be some tendency to wilful misrepresentation - well, to casual misunderstanding, anyhow - of what is meant by Standard English. The Guardian had a field day on Friday, with a piece all about 'the death of dialect and accent' with 'toffee-nosed sounds' standing round the grave. 'It would be a very sad day if teachers were to iron out accents,' it said. But the proposed curriculum, like the one it seeks to replace, is absolutely explicit in leaving accents 'unironed'. Standard English is spoken in an indefinitely wide range of accents: John Major, John Smith, Paul Keating, and Bill Clinton all speak Standard English.

But getting rid of the canard that Standard English is 'just a posh accent' (as alleged in a BBC educational programme) still leaves us with another: that it is 'just the shibboleths of grammar'. For those who are against teaching Standard English, this is just as good a way of pouring ridicule, since grammar is popularly equated with a few controversial issues of usage such as the split infinitive. The Times's front-page headline was: 'Put grammar first, Patten tells schools'.

Not so, in fact. In his mildly critical preamble to the curriculum document, John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, urges that 'greater emphasis' be placed on the vocabulary to offset 'the present emphasis' on grammar, and that the curriculum should 'bring out the importance of clarity of diction, whatever the accent'.

All rather deja vu, actually. In English in Use, which I co-authored in 1990 with Gabriele Stein, we stressed just what was standard about Standard English and the overwhelming (if, we thought, pretty obvious) importance of its vast and rich word-stock - the vocabulary we depend on to shape and also express our thoughts. It is at school that we have to learn how to learn words and meanings because we shall have to go on learning new ones throughout our lives. It is not a matter of ignoring the framework in which we must use words (grammar conventions, sentence forms, paragraph structures): just of putting things in perspective.

This the new document by the NCC signally fails to do. For example, the 20-page section on writing is boldly subtitled 'Spelling, Grammar and Hand-writing', totally ignoring words and meanings. Well, not quite, actually.

In outlining this section, the NCC offers an unbelievably ill-conceived sentence: 'In addition, Council recognises the role of vocabulary enrichment in conveying meaning.' In addition] How could the Council fail to 'recognise' that vocabulary was not additional but absolutely central and indispensable 'in conveying meaning'?

Among other signs of muddle and uncertainty, there is even the hint that the NCC comes close to sharing the belief that Standard English is a socially divisive and alien language to which pupils must 'be introduced sensitively'. No wonder Friday's headlines included one calling Standard English a 'middle-class' phenomenon. It is high time educationists with class hang-ups started to think for themselves and to realise just how classless Standard English in fact is. It is, for instance, the medium of the media: Radio 2 and Channel 4, the Sun and the Independent on Sunday. When something is popped in that is not standard ('You ain't seen nothin' yet'), the author rightly expects it to be recognised as just that.

Classless and really quite familiar. It is silly to think that teaching Standard English invades a child's dialect space. Children arrive in school not only used to hearing lots of Standard English: they actually arrive in large measure already speaking it, since most of the vocabulary and most of the grammar of most dialects are shared with Standard English. The teacher helps to adjust, polish, and amplify the children's language (to parental pride and joy), equipping them to join the vast community for whom Standard English is their most precious bond.

Rejecting outrageous claims to the contrary, the Kingman Report of 1988 asserted that a command of Standard English served to 'increase the freedom of the individual'. If Whitehall can be so Gallic in expression, it is not surprising to find the Centre National going one better to claim that Standard French is essential 'for success in social and professional life, and by the same token is the chief instrument of liberty'.

What's this about nightmares, Mr de Gruchy?

Sir Randolph Quirk is a linguist and writer.