The Language Trap
John Honey- Language is Power, The Language Trap
John Honey argues in his books that Standard English, both written and spoken, is superior to dialect in many respects. These include range of vocabulary and therefore scope for self-expression, and flexibility, which means the ability of Standard English to absorb words from other languages. He advocates that Standard English should be taught in schools and that an organisation should be set up to regulate language change. He thinks those who do not speak Standard English have a much worse chance of becoming successful than those who do, and accuses linguists of attempting to subjugate the working classes by preventing them from learning Standard English. I tested people’s attitudes to spoken Standard English and dialect to see whether having a dialect affects a person’s chances of success, and therefore whether Honey has any grounds to accuse linguists of holding back the working classes by not teaching them Standard English. I also asked participants whether, in their opinion, a ‘best’ way to speak exists, to test the popularity of Honey’s view that Standard English should be taught in schools.
I researched this theory by presenting samples of Standard English speech and regional dialect and then asking interviewees questions about what they thought of the person speaking. I used four samples of speech. I asked my respondents what they thought about each speaker’s level of education, whether they would mind hearing them on the TV or radio, and whether a ‘best’ way to speak exists. My first three samples spoke with regional dialects, the last spoke Standard English with RP pronunciation. If Honey’s theory is correct, my interviewees should have prejudice against the speakers of dialect and show preference towards the Standard English speaker.
Comments about the speaker of a London dialect included that she had ‘poor diction’ and that she was ‘difficult to listen to’. One respondent thought that she was Afro-Caribbean, showing how this dialect has become representative of Afro- Caribbean communities in places such as Brixton. One respondent, when asked if she was degree educated, stated that she could be ‘doing a degree that’s not relevant to English’, showing how people perceive Standard English to be necessary for English students.
Many respondents struggled to understand the speakers of Geordie and Lancashire dialect. Both of these northern dialects had very thick accents and used a lot of dialect features. For example, the Lancashire dialect speaker used ‘thou’ and ‘thy’ instead of ‘you’ and ‘your’. Both of these speakers were judged by many to be less likely to have a professional job than the Standard English speaker. The Standard English speaker was judged unanimously to be ‘more educated’ than all of the accented speakers. His speech was described as ‘the Queen’s English’, and one respondent said he ‘sounded quite clever’, suggesting that there is a link between dialect and judgements about intelligence.
When I asked my respondents whether they would mind hearing any of the voices on TV or radio or from someone in a position of power, such as a politician, answers were heavily weighted towards ‘no’. Most said that as long as the person could speak fluently and could be understood, their accent was unimportant. However, one person did say that they would be irritated by the Lancashire and North Eastern voices as they found them ‘difficult to understand’. This suggests that Honey’s theory that non-speakers of Standard English are at a disadvantage when it comes to communication has some basis in truth. When asked if there was a ‘best’ or ‘correct’ way to speak, all respondents said ‘no’, asserting that accents and dialects form part of peoples’ character, and that speaking naturally was the best method of communication. Some respondents also felt very strongly that the ‘disposing of regional accents’ was wrong and that many people spoke with a ‘put on’ RP accent in order to sound more intelligent. All of the people that I asked claimed that they did not judge peoples’ intelligence on grounds of their accent, although when asked if this is a common judgement made by other people, many said ‘yes’. One person said that ‘poshness sounds more intelligent’, although denied that they themselves felt that there was any link between accent and intelligence.
Honey’s theory claims that Standard English should be taught to those who do not speak it in order to prevent them from being held back. My research to some extent indicates that he is right. The people whom I spoke to showed preference towards the speaker of Standard English, describing him as ‘better educated’ and ‘easier to understand’; although they denied that they employed active discrimination against dialect speakers. They also indicated that the dialect speakers were difficult to understand, highlighting the divisions and difficulties in communication that can arise between dialect and non-dialect speakers, creating problems for the minority dialect speakers. The comment that the London dialect speaker ‘could be doing a degree that’s not relevant to English’ also highlights the view that spoken and written dialect are inextricably linked and that those who speak in a dialect are bound to have trouble with written Standard English.
Many peoples’ reactions to the dialect speakers suggest that there is an almost unconscious prejudice against dialect speakers, or that people are afraid to admit a preference for Standard English, as assumptions about the profession and background of the dialect speakers were often made. For example, the Lancashire dialect speaker was described as sounding like ‘a farmer’ and when asked if it was likely that he had a degree, the vast majority of people said ‘no’. The assertion that RP pronunciation sounds ‘posh’ and therefore ‘more intelligent’ was also a fairly common one.
The response to the question about whether there is a ‘best’ way to speak suggested that Honey’s preference for an organisation to regulate language change, and his support for the teaching of Standard English in schools would not be widely popular, as many people think that the loss of regional dialects is a shame for the identity and diversity of the country. Honey’s measures would involve the phasing out of regional dialects, and many respondents expressed opposition to the loss of dialects.
Honey’s theory that those who do not speak Standard English are at a disadvantage could to some extent be true, especially when it comes to speakers of extremely thick dialects, such as the Lancashire dialect. However, the response to my survey indicated that there is not widespread conscious discrimination against dialect speakers, and therefore that Honey’s measures would perhaps be a little heavy-handed. In fact, they would probably meet widespread condemnation, as the loss of dialects is a point of contention for many of my respondents, who feel that the ‘putting on’ of RP pronunciation and Standard English should not be encouraged.