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Cristina Pennarola » 3.Standards of English


Standards of English

Lesson Plan

  • Correctness vs. acceptability
  • A controversial grammar test
  • Do as we teach, not as we does
  • Anyone’s agreement
  • Controversial views of language use
  • Descritive vs. Prescriptive
  • Levels of acceptability
  • Focus on non-standard English
  • A secret language: slang
  • An example of slang
  • A Clockwork Orange
  • Nadsat language

Correctness vs. Acceptability

When we are learning a language, we are very much concerned with grammatical rules and accuracy. This right concern reflects an idealised view of language according to which all language production complies with lexico-grammatical rules. However, especially at a proficient level, the rules of a language may be subverted or simply ignored. Moreover, different communicative contexts call for different standards of correctness.

Example:
Must be going now…
While in written English we do not usually omit the subject, in spoken English this is possible as long as the subject is the 1st person pronoun.

We must then be aware that the notion of correctness in language use can be integrated with the notion of acceptability:

  • Correctness: to what extent a stretch of language complies with lexico-grammatical rules
  • Acceptability: to what extent a stretch of language sounds acceptable even though it does not comply with lexico-grammatical rules

A controversial grammar test

The Guardian. September 21, 2008.

The Guardian. September 21, 2008.


A controversial grammar test

ACTIVITY: Read the article included in this slide.

  1. Is there anything strange in the headline?
  2. Can you explain the sentence ‘language is a living creature’?

Do as we teach, not as we does

We does is a substandard form, which can be found in regional varieties of English.
This headline, pivoting around two opposite ways of using language, effectively represents the contradictions of language teaching: we teachers are bound to teach standard language but we know that language in use does not always comply with grammar rules.

The controversy reported in the article concerns the agreement between anyone and the determiner.
Anyone who sees this film will find __________ hair standing on end.

a) their b) his c) her

Which one is the right filler?

Anyone’s agreement

Anyone who sees this film will find his/their hair standing on end.

According to the Cambridge Grammar of English (Carter, McCarthy 2006: 378), “In traditional formal usage, he/him may occur with reference to both sexes. Increasingly, however, gender-neutral pronoun forms are preferred, such as (subject forms) he/she, he or she, they, or (in writing) (s)he, or s/he; (object forms) him/her, him or her, them”.
In short, both his and their are correct: the first is more formal, while the second sounds more natural in spoken language. Finally, there is another possibility which was not included:

Anyone who sees this film will find his or her hair standing on end.

Examples:
A judgment by an Australian court which curtailed the powers of Senate committees prodded the Senate into reform. Now anyone who believes he has been injured by a senator’s words can ask to have a response written into the Senate’s records (traditional formal usage).
How can you expect someone to remember what they were doing five years ago? (preferred neutral usage).

(see Carter, McCarthy 2006: 378)

Controversial views of language use

There is some disagreement about certain uses of personal pronouns. Choices often depend on whether the context is formal or informal or written or spoken. In very formal usage, subject forms of personal pronouns are used as the complement of be or when subject pronouns are joined with and/or.

Examples:
A:   Who’s calling?
B:   It is I. (not often used)
B:   It’s me. (almost universally used)

Me and my wife (My wife and me) always go shopping on a Saturday. (standard usage);

The family and I wish you well. (formal).

(see Carter, McCarthy 2006: 381-382)

Descriptive vs. Prescriptive

A descriptive approach to grammar is based on observations of usage; it states how people use the grammar of a language.
A prescriptive approach to grammar is based on the idea that some forms are more correct than others. Compliance with prescriptive rules is believed to distinguish an educated speaker or writer.

Examples of prescriptive rules:
Do not end a sentence with a preposition

  • This is something you should not be involved in
  • This is something in which you should not be involved

Do not split an infinitive (= insert an adverb between to and the verb)

  • I expect to shortly welcome him here
  • I expect to welcome him here shortly

However, prescriptive rules may be disregarded by language users, as shown by the examples above, both acceptable and correct sentences of English.

(see Carter, McCarthy 2006: 6)

Levels of acceptability

If we decide to focus on language as is used, we may distinguish different levels of acceptability (as opposed to correctness and prescritive grammar):

  • widespread use in both written and spoken English
  • widespread use in both written and spoken English but not approved in more prescriptive grammar books and often avoided in formal English, for example, split infinitives, stranded prepositions (e.g. That’s the woman I gave it to vs. That’s the woman to whom I gave it)
  • widespread and normal in spoken English but rare in written English
  • widespread and normal within major regional/social varieties of English (for example, the use of ain’t)
  • non-occurring and unacceptable in all varieties of English (he did must speak)

(see Carter, McCarthy 2006: 168)

Focus on non-standard English

ACTIVITY 1. Identify the non-standard (ns) or colloquial (c) features of language in the texts below:
When my old man come home last night, he was really bushed. He sat and watched telly all evening. I done my homework and then watched television too. An operator doctor was talking about the Health Service. ’twas really boring. Then there was the one in charge of hospitals. He wasn’t very interesting neither.”

(see Trudgill 1994: 13)

ACTIVITY 2. Rewrite the following non-standard sentences into standard English:

  • I don’t want none of that stuff
  • Them books aren’t no good
  • He give it to me two days ago
  • We done what we was supposed to
  • That’s the one what I need
  • We always goes there in summer
  • She writ very quick

(see Trudgill 1994: 5-9)

Focus on non-standard English

KEY TO ACTIVITY 1
When my old man come (ns) home last night, he was really bushed (c). He sat and watched telly (c) all evening. I done (ns) my homework and then watched television too. An operator doctor was talking about the Health Service. ’twas (c) really boring. Then there was the one in charge of hospitals. He wasn’t very interesting neither (ns).


KEY TO ACTIVITY 2

  • I don’t want any of that stuff
  • Those books aren’t good
  • He gave it to me two days ago
  • We did what we were supposed to
  • That’s the one which I need
  • We always go there in summer
  • She wrote very quickly!

Focus on non-standard English

Non-standard English is characterised by:

  • Present simple used as simple past (she give it yesterday)
  • Past participle used as simple past (they done)
  • Incorrect conjugation (we goes, you writ)
  • Double negation (aren’t no good)
  • Them instead of those
  • What instead of the relative pronoun that or which

Some of these non-standard features (for example, double negation) can also be found in informal speech.

The mistakes made by language learners are not to be confused with these non-standard features. In fact they are usually unacceptable in all varieties of English (for example, he did must speak). Remember that it is largely the communicative context which determines the acceptability of a stretch of language. And university rooms inevitably call for a higher language standard…

A secret language: slang

Slang is

British or American variant of carelessly used colloquial language with explicitly social and regional variants. Slang is characterized by the innovative use of common vocabulary as well as newly coined words. Slang corresponds to the older designation cant which originally referred to secret languages. (H. Bussmann, 1996, Routledge Dictionary of Language and Linguistics, p. 437)

Slang is an important marker of group identity or in-group usage. Examples of slang include:

  • Street language
  • Teenagers’ talk
  • Soldiers’ language
  • Thieves’ cant

An example of slang

ACTIVITY: Read the text below and try to work out the meanings of the words in bold

‘What’s it going to be then, eh?’
There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Geordie, and Dim; Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry. The Korova Milkbar was a milk-plus mesto, and you may, O my brothers, have forgotten what these mestos were like, things changing so skorry these days and everybody very quick to forget, newspapers not being read much neither. Well, what they sold there was milk plus something else. They had no license for selling liquor, but there was no law yet against prodding some of the new vehshes which they used to put into the old moloko, so you could peet it with vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom or one or two other veshes which would give you a nice quiet horrorshow fifteen minutes admiring Bog and All His Holy Angels and Saints in your left shoe with lights bursting all over your mozg. Or you could peet milk with knives in it, as we used to say, and this would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of dirty twenty-to-one, and that was what we were peeting this evening I’m starting off the story with.

(A. Burgess, 1988, A Clockwork Orange, Harmondsworth, Penguin, p. 1)

An example of slang

‘What’s it going to be then, eh?’
There was me, that is Alex, and my three friends, that is Pete, Geordie, and Dim; Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our minds what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter night though dry. The Korova Milkbar was a milk-plus bar, and you may, O my brothers, have forgotten what these places were like, things changing so fast these days and everybody very quick to forget, newspapers not being read much neither. Well, what they sold there was milk plus something else. They had no license for selling liquor, but there was no law yet against mixing some of the new things which they used to put into the old milk, so you could drink it with vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom or one or two other things which would give you a nice quiet good time fifteen minutes admiring God and All His Holy Angels and Saints in your left shoe with lights bursting all over your brain. Or you could drink milk with knives in it, as we used to say, and this would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of dirty violence, and that was what we were drinking this evening I’m starting off the story with.

A clockwork orange

The novel by Anthony Burgess was published in 1962 and almost ten years later, in 1971, it was turned into a film by Stanley Kubrick. The title A clockwork orange is a very odd phrase referring to a rather disturbing concept: a hybrid creature half natural half mechanical.
Plot: The story is the gloomy account of a group of teenagers’ street gang violence which is narrated by the leader of the gang, Alex, in a strange language, only partly recognisable as English. Alex and his droogs (that is, friends) meet in the Korova Milkbar where they drink milk plus drugs to get ready for some bit of old “ultraviolence”. “What’s it going to be, eh?”, the question they ask each other when they meet in the bar before setting out to some act of thuggery, is the novel’s leitmotif pointing to dystopian ways of having fun.
After one of these brutal actions where an old lady is killed, the millicents (that is, policemen) take Alex to jail where the rehabilitation programme starts. This therapy consists in giving Alex a nausea-inducing drug while forcing him to watch extremely violent films. The association between violence and nausea eventually puts him off violence. In the final chapter, after meeting an old friend of his who has got married, Alex starts fantasising about starting his own family and realises that he has grown out of violence.
FOLLOW UP: Go to A Clockwork Orange on Docstoc.com and try to decipher this mysterious code.

Nadsat language

Nadsat is a secret language used by Alex to build a form of group identity and conceal his antisocial behaviour. In the author’s intentions, it was meant to:

  • Provide the youngsters with their own jargon
  • Distance readers from violent action
  • Suggest a parallel with the Soviet Union’s form of control and propaganda

Nadsat is characterised by the presence of many words of Slavic origin (e.g. gulliver; millicents; ptitsa), and English words whose meanings have been distorted (e.g. prodding; smecking; crasting; starry).

We can notice constant shifts in register: besides a colloquial register often characterised by slang (mirroring the dialogic exchanges between Alex and the other characters in the novel), grammatical inaccuracies and inarticulate sounds (for example grrr; rubadabdab), we notice the use of literary language with frequent metaphors (for example, Twenty-to-One meaning gang violence; Milk with knives in it suggesting the hallucinations induced by drugs) and archaic pronouns and expressions: Never worry about thy son and heir, O my father. Fear not; Thy little Alex. Wordplay is at its most varied and demands the readers’ intense commitment to decoding a hermetic and elusive language.

I materiali di supporto della lezione

References:

A. Burgess, 1988, A Clockwork Orange, 1962, Harmondsworth, Penguin.

H. Bussmann, 1996, Routledge Dictionary of Language and Linguistics, London, Routledge.

R. Carter, M. McCarthy, 2006, Cambridge Grammar of English. A Comprehensive Guide. Spoken and Written English Grammar and Usage, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

P. Trudgill, 1994, Dialects, London, Routledge.

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