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Chapter 8. VARIETIES OF THE ENGLISH LEXICON




“… like other local differences of food, dress, and customs, dialects are often a nuisance. Yet they lend picturesque variety to language, and variety is the spice of life”.

— M. Pei. The Study of Language, 1965.

 

Dialect vs. language. Standard norm. Dialectology. Regional, social and stylistic varieties. Territorial variety of the English language. Variants of English. British variant of the English language. American variant of the English language

 

 

Language change and variation is an inevitable, regular and continuous process. Besides temporal variations that the English lexicon has undergone throughout the centuries, the results of which were discussed in Chapter 3, there are also regional, social, personal, spoken and written variations, that attract the interest of professional linguists. From the linguistic point of view none of them are better or worse, inferior or superior, each of them serves a certain purpose and performs a certain task, and all of them serve as a material for linguistic investigation.

 

 

Dialect vs. language. Standard norm. Dialectology

Each person in a certain language community speaks in a different way. The language used by a person is distinct in pronunciation, in preferences for certain words and even grammatical patterns. The language pattern of one’s individual speech at a certain period of his life is called an idiolect. The systematic use of common patterns in grammar, vocabulary stock and pronunciation by people of a certain locality or a socially limited group makes up a dialect. Several dialects with a literary norm as their centralizing core may be viewed as onelanguage.

The distinction between language and dialect is not clear cut. Sometimes for historical and political reasons two or more dialects may be referred to as different languages, like Swedish, Danish and Norwegian, for example. Or vice versa, some completely different dialects may be called one language. This situation occurs in China, where speakers of different dialects may be almost unintelligible to each other but they share the same written language tradition based on ideographic characters, and on this written basis they may communicate with each other and believe they speak the same Chinese language.

The mostprestigiousdialectis usually chosen as the standard,or standard normof the language.It differs from other dialects, because it is not regional.Educated people usually use a standard norm although they live in different parts of the country and come from different social strata.

 

Besides differences in idiolects, accents and dialects, there are essential differences between written and oral forms of a language, and each of these forms has its own standard norm.

 

So, all languages exist in numerous variations. English is especially varied because of the great number of its speakers, of its use on vast and distant territories, and of a large range of functions it performs.

 

 

Regional, social and stylistic varieties

Different branches of linguistics (lexicology, stylistics, sociolinguistics, and developmental theories) study different variations of a language.

 

Dialectology traditionally studied geographical phonetic, grammar and lexical varieties of a language used on a certain territory, or regional dialects. Its subjects were mostly elderly uneducated people from rural areas who had not moved throughout the country. The major aim of the study was to reconstruct the historical processes of the languages’ spread and relations.

 

The principal method of investigation has always been a questionnaire on some features of domestic, rural or farming life involving the most stable strata of a language. Such questionnaires help to get information about phonological, lexical, morphological, and syntactic features of lexical units. Language atlases are developed on the basis of the data collected.

 

It is necessary to emphasize that dialects are not purely regional. Different factors, such as social or ethnic contexts, combine and intersect to form dialects.

 

Recently there has been a shift in dialect studies. They have moved from the country to the city, and dialectologists have been paying more attention to social rather than geographical space. Characteristic forms of social groups’ language are usually referred to as sociolects. Sociolects arise within social groups and are determined by such factors as 1)geography, 2)socioeconomic status, 3)ethnicity/race, 4)age, 5)occupation, and 6)gender.

 

Intriguing, though very controversial, are studies of the relationship between the social classandlanguage.

 

It is well known that speakers of the highest social class in Great Britain, for example, are supposed to speak Standard English. So-called Standard English is a social dialect used by well-educated English speakers in different localities. It presupposes very little regional, ethnic or gender variation. One of its most obvious characteristics is RP – received, or accepted pronunciation among the best-educated members of the society. Though only about three percent of the English population speaks RP (see /Hughes and Trudgill 1979:3/), this accent is taught to foreign learners due to its high social prestige. It gives foreigners the best chance of being understood. It is widely used on radio and television and is familiar to all the people. It is also the most thoroughly described British accent.

 

The lowest social class displays a wide range oflocal accents and dialects of English.

 

Some examples of opposition of upper-class (U) and other kinds of English word usage (non-U) are proposed by A.S.C. Ross in his article Linguistic class-indicators in present-day English (1954):

 

Unon-U

 

Have a bath take a bath

Sick ill

Looking-glass mirror

Rich wealthy

Table-napkin serviette

Vegetables greens

England Britain

Scotch Scottish

Sitting-room lounge

Lavatory toilet

A preference for different vocabulary by different social groups seems to be easily identifiable and this problem fascinates people. But vocabulary clues are superficial and not reliable factors of class identity because barriers between groups are fluid.

 

In America class affiliation characteristics are even less rigid than in Great Britain as the transition from one social class to another is easier. That is why studies of the interaction of social identity and vocabulary, initiated by William Labov’s famous book The Social Stratification of English in New York City (1966), are still more controversial and less reliable. Their results are a matter of hot debates and disagreements.

 

Ethnic language varieties have become the subject matter of linguistic studies and discussions. In the US there are three populous and often separate ethnic groups: African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and European Americans. The speech of each group differs from the other. The speech of African Americans, or Ebonics, and the speech of Hispanic Americans, or Caló, Tex-Mex, are good examples of ethnically based varieties, though it should be noted that not all people of these ethnic groups speak them.

 

Age is also linked to dialect. It is well known that for each age period there are relevant forms and norms of the language. Some stages of vocabulary development, like the earliest stage of first words, or special vocabularies of teenagers are quite thoroughly described by scholars. But we are still without real knowledge of vocabulary development throughout the human lifespan.

 

Occupational groups have their own characteristic vocabulary. Legal discourse, or legalese, and medical discourse, or medicalese, are good examples of occupational sociolects.

 

The relation between languageand sex,orgender,has attracted considerable attention in recent years.

 

In some African, Asian and Native American language communities, like Koasati – a Muskogean language spoken in Louisiana, there are significant differences between words or their grammatical forms proscribed to men and to women when addressing each other or naming the same concept. (Something similar takes place in inflectional languages, like Russian, on the grammatical level, when verbs use different grammatical forms depending on whether the same action was performed by a female or male: он (‘he’)шёл (‘walked’) but она (‘she’) шла (‘walked’). These two Russian forms of the verb are equivalent to one in English: he/she walked).

 

It should be noted that though much research has been done in this area, few data have been found to prove that female and male English speakers employ different vocabulary systems. Recent research, however, has proven that women speak closer to the prestige standard. Women tend to use more phrases expressing hesitation like maybe, perhaps, in my opinion or a kind of, appreciative adjectives like delightful, charming, cute, precious, darling, nice, great,lovely, and politeness formulae like Would you please open the door?

 

But men very often use politeness formulae when they want to sound friendly and cooperative. In contrast to some African, Asian and Native American languages, in English there are no lexical units that are exclusively generated and used by either women or men.

 

Nevertheless, English reflects social relations between men and women. Some feminist scholars, especially in the USA, point out to the subordinate status of women in the so-called ‘developed countries’ and they view the differences mentioned above as an indication of the second-class status of women reflected in the language, as a sign of a women’s social status, who being members of a subordinate group must be polite.

 

Many social activists in the US have worked to change language norms that marginalize disenfranchised groups. In the 80‘s such efforts were called ‘political correctness’ (PC) but recently opponents of this movement have redefined political correctness so that it is now often understood as meaning “a totalitarian” attitude or process. In any event, the original aims of advocates of political correctness included ‘writing women back into history and fighting against inequality, security, equal opportunities for all Americans regardless their race, ethnicity, class, gender, physical abilities, sexual orientation, age, and religious beliefs. They hoped to eliminate from the English vocabulary and syntactical structures that perpetuated biases. They argued that these linguistic changes would participate in creating a more equitable, caring society.

 

There are different ways to exercise ‘political correctness’, here meaning “showing respect”. Lots of euphemisms built according to various patterns help us to avoid words which are regarded to be offensive and have negative connotations. Thus, senior citizens is often used for elderly people, living with AIDS is preferred to dying of AIDS, engineer-custodian for janitor, wheelchair user for wheelchair-bound.

 

In the US Modern Language Association (MLA) guidelines currently mandate nonsexist grammar, vocabulary, syntax, and style. For example, the semifree suffix –man should be used alongside with – woman when the refernt is female. Alternately, a gender neutral term should be substituted for a gender specific term, for example, firefighter rather than fireman and first-year student instead of freshman, when it refers to women and men. Using the masculine pronouns he and his as the universal norm is now considered incorrect. He/she and his/her are viable substitutes for the purpose of avoiding sexist language.

 

Some of the new names have become relatively widely used, especially for commercial purposes. But hundreds of new euphemisms that the supporters of the ‘liberation movement’ and ‘political correctness’ offer, like herstory for history,chemically inconvenienced for drunk,pharmacologically dependent for drug addict, etc., are unlikely to be adopted. One of the reasons for that is that many words should mean what they mean, otherwise they may distract and disorientate people, as the use of client for student, success and accomplishment for learning. And then, this kind of ‘newspeak’ including a stock of words deprived of negative connotations is not possible for a human language. Ironically, many of the newly offered terms seem to cause even more derogatory associations than the standard ones.

 

The problems of ‘language and gender’, ‘political correctness’ do not seem to be a lexicological problem of vocabulary varieties existing in a language at a certain period. Rather they are social problems of gender relations and sociolinguistic problems of language policy, though all these aspects of language study are interesting, are related to words and contribute to an understanding of what vocabulary is, and of forces driving its development.

 

It is interesting to note that “in recent years, particularly among employed women, the difference between men’s and women’s speech appears to be diminishing” /Aitchison 1992:117/.

 

Vocabulary choice may also differ according to the situation, as it should be appropriate to all the occasions. Even the same person speaks differently when talking to his boss or subordinate or to somebody who is senior or younger. Place alsi affects vocabulary choice. The same person speaks differently at the official reception or in a pub. These different stylistic varieties are called registers.

 

The two major registers are written and spoken English. Nowadays the pendulum has swung from written to spoken register in practically all spheres of life. This variant of English, long neglected by writers and lexicographers, is now much more often used in all kinds of communication.

 

Though the written variant remains to be a great stabilizer of the language, it changes under the influence of the spoken register: in modern written speech sentences become shorter, grammar, spelling and punctuation are being simplified, and dialectal, slang and even rude words have come into common use.

 

So, a person easily switches from one stylistic varietyof a language,orstylistic register, to another depending on the language activity: whether he is talking or writing, speaking at work or at home, in church or at market, with his employer or his employee, with a senior person or a child, away from the place of his native dialect or within it. The stylistic potential of language, including lexical resources, is exclusively diverse and can’t be predicted. Scholars investigating and describing different speech acts try to take into account the largest possible number of parameters, yet modelling them is still problematic.

 

On the whole, modern methodology does not yet allow us to make categorical statements about language variation and social class because many other influential factors are involved in the process of language production such as gender, age, ethnicity, local dialect, occupation and even the speaker’s intention.

 

So far, only territorial, or regional varieties of English remain to be investigated by means of reliable methods. Some of this research is presented in the following section.

 

 





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