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Why There Are No Native Speakers of Standard English

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter: @farooqkperogi My column from three weeks ago provoked a conversation at a scholarly online for...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

My column from three weeks ago provoked a conversation at a scholarly online forum about the meaning, history, and utility of Standard English and about why we should continue to use English as our language of instruction at all levels of education in Nigeria. I will expound on Standard English this week and devote next week to discussing the benefits and drawbacks of instruction in our native languages.

So what exactly is “Standard English”? Well, Standard English is the English that is taught in schools, that is codified in grammar books (starting from about the 18th century, as I will explain further), that is "curated" in dictionaries, and that is privileged in and popularized by mainstream media.

Being a "native English speaker" isn't the same thing as being a speaker of Standard English. They are different. Many native speakers don't speak Standard English; they speak their regional varieties, which are not necessarily compatible with Standard English. With formal education, exposure to mainstream media, and circulation within educated circles they learn Standard English. There is, therefore, strictly speaking, no native speaker of Standard English. It's a consciously learned variety of English, although it is true that it is made up of parts that are drawn from different native regional varieties.

Nothing that is as elaborately systematized, formalized, and methodically learned as Standard English can be truly "native" to anybody. What is truly "native" is rarely formally learned; it is often effortlessly acquired. That is why "nativity" isn't always a guarantee of proficiency in Standard English--which is basically, as I pointed out earlier, a mishmash of a multiplicity of regional dialects with a dash of Latin-inspired grammar rules.

That is also why many native English speakers who aren't self-conscious, methodical learners of the language do poorly in English grammar tests, and why non-native speakers who study English grammar systematically can--and do--teach native English speakers "their" own language. Plus, there is a plurality of standard varieties of English (such as British, American, Australian, Indian, etc.), even though there is a notional international standard variety, which is perpetually dynamic.

Nor is this unique to English. Modern Standard Arabic, for instance, is (in)famous for its lack of "native speakers." Like Standard English, it's an amalgam of several regional Arabic dialects. It is formally taught in schools and is used in the mass media, but no one speaks it outside formal contexts in the Arab world.

Shakespeare didn’t speak or write Standard English
Standard English is a relatively recent phenomenon. William Shakespeare, reputed to be the greatest writer in the English language, didn’t speak or write Standard English. I know this sounds counter-intuitive on the surface. How can the greatest writer in and of a language be said to not speak or write the standard variety of the language? Here is why.

There was no "standard" English in Elizabethan times when Shakespeare lived. There were several regional dialects of the language, as there are now, but none was purposively privileged and codified as the "standard."

Shakespeare wrote in the London dialect, although his grammar and orthography, like those of his contemporaries, weren't always consistent since there was no conscious codification of grammar and spelling at the time. He didn't even spell his name in a consistent manner. He variously spelled it as "Shakspe," "Shakspere," Shaksper," "Shakspeare," and "Shakespeare." Eighteenth-century grammarians and printers preferred the last one, and that's what we know today.

The idea of a "standard English," that is, the overt codification of the language through grammar books and dictionaries, inspired largely by Latin, didn't start until the 18th century, although the term "standard English" didn't emerge until the 19th century. In other words, Shakespeare antedated Standard English by at least a century.

 For an idea of how contemporary Standard English differs radically from the English Shakespeare spoke and wrote, read my August 9, 2015 column titled, “Shakespearean Expressions that Sound Illiterate by Today‘s Standards.”

Here is a sample of what I wrote in the column: “Double negatives. Use of double negatives (such as ‘I don’t know nothing’ or ‘I don’t like nobody’ or ‘I don’t need no grammar lesson’) is one of the biggest grammatical taboos of contemporary Standard English. We are taught that two negatives cancel each other out to produce a positive, so that ‘I don’t know nothing’ would mean ‘I know something,’ ‘I don’t like nobody’ would mean ‘I like somebody,’ and  ‘I don’t need no grammar lesson’ would mean ‘I need a grammar lesson.’

“But double negatives were used for emphasis and intensification of meaning [in Shakespeare’s time], and that tradition survives in nonstandard, low-prestige English varieties (such as Appalachian English, African-American Vernacular English also called Ebonics, Cockney, etc.) and in pop music.

“Like other English users of his time, Shakespeare used double negatives for emphasis. In Henry IV Part I, he wrote: ‘Nor never could the noble Mortimer/Receive so many, and all willingly.’ And in Richard III, he wrote: ‘You may deny that you were not the mean/Of my Lord Hastings' late imprisonment.’ If he lived now, he would most certainly have written, ‘You may deny that you were the mean/ Of my Lord Hastings' late imprisonment.’

“5. Double comparatives and double superlatives. As I wrote in my July 19, 2015 article [titled ‘Response to the Critique of my Critique of Buhari’s Inaugural Speech,’] in modern grammar, it’s taboo to modify an adjective using ‘more’ and the ‘er’ suffix simultaneously, such as ‘more taller.’ That is called the error of double comparatives. It’s also taboo to modify an adjective using ‘most’ and the ‘est’ suffix simultaneously, such as ‘most tallest.’ That’s called the error of double superlatives.

“As Kenneth G. Wilson points out in The Columbia Guide to Standard American English, ‘Shakespeare … and other Renaissance writers used double comparison to add vigor, enthusiasm, and emphasis, and so do young children and other unwary speakers of Nonstandard English today, but the eighteenth-century grammarians seem to have prevailed, and one comparison per adjective is all today’s Standard English will allow.’

“Apart from the ‘most unkindest cut of all’ that I mentioned in my article of July 19, several examples can be found in other Shakespearean works. For example, in The Tempest, Shakespeare wrote: ‘And his more braver daughter could control thee.’ In Julius Caesar, he wrote: ‘With the most boldest and best hearts of Rome.’”

What came to be known as "standard" English, from the 19th century on, is, of course, no more than the arbitrary social dialect of the dominant class. That's the Marxist in me talking. Of course, many linguists have pointed to this fact years ago. But the pragmatist in me also sees the utility in having some form of uniform standards of usage, spelling, and grammar to aid mutual intelligibility across vast swathes of the world, especially given English’s emergence as the world’s de facto lingua franca.

 The various dialects of a common language can become mutually unintelligible over time, so a "standard" version of the language in the service of broad communicative inclusivity often helps.

But standards aren't fixed in time and space; they perpetually evolve, and will continue to do so. A language that does not evolve sooner or later dies. That's a universal linguistic truth.

 But this fact is no reason for linguistic anarchy, in my opinion. At any point in time, for purely communicative reasons, we need a set of formal rules to guide usage, at least for formal contexts. These formal rules of usage have no native speakers. We are all learners.

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