Our Position Statement

Introduction

As we (the Anti-Queen’s English Society: A-QES) justify our orientations to English through our claimed understanding of language and its functions, we will begin with an account of language that presupposes the fallacies inherent within assertions that put defecit perceptions of certain linguistic usages, such as the English of the ‘yob’ or ‘gutter-snipe’ (yes, wording of the Queen’s English Society’s [QES] website). As extensive research and theory contradicts the linguistically deterministic position of QES (their narrow mindedness), this post sets forth the linguistic principles of A-QES, but does so as an introduction rather than a source of great depth and rigour (we hope that the site will develop organically with the help of members’ views, reviews, topic expansions, links and comments). We set out our position here in relation to what we perceive as the key aspects of language that the QES misunderstand – the nature of language, language and identity and language spread.

The Nature of Language

Many of the debates surrounding English relate to concerns over falling standards associated with regional, ‘lower register’ (or ‘low English’, as the QES call it) and international English forms, which tend to be juxtaposed with notions of inferior culture, education and general intelligence. Deficit perceptions of cultures and languages have been around for centuries. Links between the English language and ‘sophisticated thinking’, ‘authentic identity’ and ‘higher culture’ mirror the ethos that characterised the age of slavery and empire, and give leverage to arguments that we are in an age of linguistic imperialism or hegemony. Debates over English standards within the UK and US have been encapsulated in the monolithic conception of ‘standard English’, a concept which has no empirical grounding (or, should we say, is unempirical in nature) and gets reified through continuous debate. Narrow prescriptions of a universal ‘standard British English’, ‘received pronunciation’ and ‘BBC English’ have only served to disadvantage certain cultural groups and classes, both in high-stakes domains such as assessment, citizenship and employment and in levels of community and political inclusion/exclusion. We seek to highlight that when the terms ‘proper English’, ‘standard English’ and any related variants are used, social judgements are covertly, and overtly by the QES, placed on the language of those deemed ‘improper’, ‘non-standard’ or ‘deviant’. We see it as our duty to emphasise the socio-cultural nature of such judgements, and how far these fall from majority perspectives in linguistics (and other areas).

Many would argue that we have grammar books and dictionaries that tell us quite clearly the rules of English. Linguists have been expanding upon the nature of these ‘rules’ that are perceived to make a language a language for a long time. More recently, Alastair Pennycook expresses his objection very effectively: “Accounts of underlying sameness… mistakenly attribute structure/sameness to underlying rules instead of the effects of repetition (2010: 46).” By this he means that language takes its forms from repeated language performances among particular people in particular domains rather than from a language system consisting of underlying, controlling rules to which people adhere. This explains why educational policies that have sought to ‘fix’ the idiosyncrasies of certain groups and regions English (and other languages) have always been destined to fail, because language performances within their domains and purposes of use settle on different, but equally meaningful, expressive and logical forms. This is not to say that prescriptive forces do not affect a language, but rather that the perceived value of prescription is often overstated, with the most significant effects being to alienate, exclude, undermine and demean certain socio-cultural groupings. Such prescriptive policies have fallen far from the popular educational rhetoric of logic and inclusion that tend to accompany prescriptive policies, and which in turn lead to popular but misleading concepts of language. A-QES accept that language is a complex activity rather than a bound entity that can be examined outside the social (human) domains of its use – and so can consider the social significance of different forms of English production (below).

Language, Spread and Identity

Language does not take to being used across/between regions, demographic groups or domains of use without being utilised in different ways. As Henry Widdowson states, “(language) does not travel well because it is fundamentally unstable. It is not well adapted to control because it is itself adaptable (1997: 136).” Christopher Brumfit clarified this point by highlighting that whenever the users of and purposes for using a language change, so does the language: “Whenever there is social differentiation, language will reflect it (2001: 9).”

Indeed, it is the instability and flexibility of language that is central to one of its most important social functions: identification. Like language, identities are multiple, complex and contextually performed (both identity and context are meant in the fluid/dynamic/performative sense). It is no coincidence that the ways in which we speak and write vary according to our past experiences, social positioning, roles and relationships with (including intended impact upon) our audiences. Language is a key medium through which we assign, enact, assert, reject and compete for identification. It is how we gain in-group membership and status, and also how we exclude ‘others’ from exclusive domains. The centrality of identity to language really cannot be understated. As Joseph states, “identity is itself at the very heart of what language is about, how it operates, why and how it came into existence and evolved as it did, how it is learned and how it is used, every day, by every user, every time it is used (2004: 224).” This social nature of language presents the need for linguists to offer a richer understanding of socio-cultural representations of individuals, cultures and societies through language (alongside other semiotic means), and to wholeheartedly resist elitist groups like QES in their quest to promote and prescribe “the language of the educated classes” (quoted from QES website) for others. Their practices of labelling and shaming idiomatic and regional varieties of language, aternatively known as language that does not reflect their social group’s norms, along with attacking those who resist their views along similar lines, should be exposed as the simple prejudice that it is; again, see their website for disparaging accounts of objectors – to which we hope to be added soon 😉

Another contention put forward by critics of descriptivist notions of language is that the English language will break up and become mutually unintelligible if rules and guidelines are flouted. Looking at the nature of language immediately brings such proposals into question. In spontaneous English use, all English speakers make use of idiosyncratic and ungrammatical forms to communicate intentions, positioning and to cooperatively construct meaning (underlining the flawed notion of ‘standard English’). All varieties of English, along with discourse-specific forms and structures, are enabled by and exist through shared and negotiated identification and meaning construction. With language existing for the purposes of communication and identification, the increasingly global nature of English discourses is seemingly unlikely, from a pragmatic view, to destroy the language that people are using. As Intelligibility, as Barbara Seidlhofer states, “has less to do with accuracy and precision of sounds and everything to do with interlocutors’ perceptions of each other (2007: 99).” Therefore the language may change, but we’ll still be using it to meet our goals, and for it will always be appropriate for our purposes – such shared language always is… accept for those who fail to change.

A concern of ours comes in the form of fierce reactions to the language of ‘youth culture’ and the literacies of new media forms, i.e. the language of texting, multimedia platforms and the internet. These have been particularly visible in the popular press, from politicians and various organisations (take David Cameron’s attack on the position taken by John Wells on spelling, for a recent example http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/wells/blog0810a.htm and, again, take the QES website for a consistent example). Various scholars and researchers have demonstrated the exaggerated nature of such fears, from overstating the number of spelling mistakes online communication – many of which are legitimate spelling options or abbreviations – to the negative effects on literacy. Perhaps the most futile position taken by those criticising the English of the web / text message is their feeling of being able to control such developments. As Crystal states, “(users) vote with their fingers… (so) it is unclear what will happen. On the one hand, the internet is increasing the amount of variation. On the other (it is) exposing us all to… variation. We can take comfort from the fact that at least three quarters of the words in English display no variation, even on the internet. That situation is immensely better than it was in the age of Shakespeare (2007: 169).” In short, while people choose to perform linguistically using new platforms, their language will reflect their new forms of literacy. As long as social divisions exist between/among groups of people, language will reflect it. Systematically attacking ‘non-standard’ English simply serves to display deep ignorance of the nature of language and a lack of awareness of the reasons that a person uses certain language forms (see the post ‘What’s wrong with the Queen’s English’ for more critique of the QES’s definitions of ‘standard’ and ‘non-standard’ English).

Summary

We propose that the QES are archaic perpetuators of linguistic prejudice, as they make a clear attempt to assert socio-cultural dominance through language and debase the ‘cultural other’ through analysis and mockery of their linguacultural norms (‘linguacultural’ being a term that expresses the strong links between language and culture to the point where they ought not be distinguished). Having established the underlying nature of language (in short and for our purposes here), we can see that only those who align culturally with upper class groups would seek to speak like the Queen (who more often than not is reading speeches when we see her speak). There are not many people like that in Britain and their presence has dwindled since the World Wars, which served to unify the UK and take power away the ruling aristocracy (those who remained in the final hours of the British Empire anyway). Indeed we can see that the Queen is about the only person who carries a similar identity and purpose into most of her interactions. We would love to see the QES recognise that they are not the Queen, and furthermore that very few people are! Having recognised that small point, hopefully they will give people who are not the Queen the right to use English in ways that are contextually appropriate and effective. Perhaps we should not be reifying the Queen’s English at all – even (especially) she can make her own choices about representing herself through language as she sees fit. She might want to accommodate with her son, the Prince of Wales! So join us in rejecting and resisting the intolerance of the likes of the QES, so we can all accept the variety in the language that has always existed for very good reasons. Below are references to the works quoted, but we will expand our conversation to many other relevant areas of research with your help.

By Robert Baird

Crystal, D. (2007), The Fight for English, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Joseph, J. E. (2004), Language and Identity: National, Ethnic, Religious, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pennycook, A. (2010), Language as a Local Practice, Basingstoke: Routledge.

Seidlhofer, B. (2007), Comment, Journal of World Englishes, Vol. 26, No. 1, pp. 99-100.

Widdowson, H. G. (1997), EIL, ESL, EFL: global issues and local interests, World Englishes, Vol. 16, No. 1, 135-146.

Comments
2 Responses to “Our Position Statement”
  1. G. Uttersnipe says:

    Quite right.
    Is the e-mail address you posted right? (That which is written on the page “About”.)
    My message bounced back.
    Thanks for all you do! SWALK TXTSPK LMAO

  2. Thanks for your email. You were quite right – the email address has now been changed on our information page (now antiqueensenglishsociety@hotmail.co.uk). Your detective work was admirable – thank you again!

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