Children can’t speak or write properly any more – James Milroy
Milroy’s main point is that the claim that children can’t speak or write properly any more is not true and there has never been a standard of written English that wasn’t complained about. Complaints about speech are not about the child’s ability to speak English, despite being labelled as such, but about the variety of English they speak due to prejudice against any speech that is not upper or upper-middle class, as that is what is considered “standard” speech, even though it is only a minority of the population who speak it.
He argues for the fact that children can speak the language just as well as previous generations, and read and write it better, on average, and against the idea that there was some kind of literary Golden Age that we should aspire to achieve again.
Milroy uses evidence contrary to the idea that literacy standards have declined. For example, in 1850 in England and Wales, 31% of bridegrooms and 46% of brides could not write their names in the marriage register, and these figures had declined to 3% by 1900, probably mainly due to the 1870 Education Act, showing that more people were becoming literate, so doesn’t that show that standards were improving?
Another of his arguments is about the unreliability of prescriptivists. The following were listed as grammatical errors in an article in the Independent:
- “She come to my house.”
- “We was going to the shops.”
- “I threw it out the window.”
- “The government think they can do what they like.”
The last one is actually standard British English and this shows, according to Milroy, “the general incompetence of language prescriptivists”.
Milroy could refer to Jean Aitchison’s argument against the “crumbling castle” view, as this also disagrees with the suggestion that there was ever a Golden Age when the “castle” was perfect. Aitchison says that “no year can be found when language achieved some peak of perfection”.
- “For centuries now there have been recurrent complaints about language change.” This is suggesting that what people are claiming about there once having been some point when our language was perfect cannot be true as if people have always been complaining about it, there must have always been a problem with it.
- “Certain sections of society are normally held responsible for this decline, and one form that the complaint tradition can take is to associate linguistic decline with the use of language by the younger generation.”
This suggests that although prescriptivists are convinced that language change is a big problem, they are unwilling to blame it on people of their own generation and decided to blame young people as they are the group that use most slang and have most to do with the introduction of new words. Prescriptivists see this language as a worsened form of that which it used to be in “the good old days”.
- “This myth of moral and linguistic decline.”
This rejects the idea that moral standards have been declining along with literary standards over recent years, mainly due to the younger generation. Not only does he set aside the idea that our language is “crumbling”, but also rejects the idea that it is in some way caused by slipping moral standards.
- “There was no Golden Age.”
This bluntly dismisses the myth, and is trying to convince the reader that they shouldn’t waste their time buying into the stories about a time when English was perfect because it just never existed.
- “What is at issue is not the child’s competence in speaking English, but his/her competence in speaking a variety known as Standard English.”
This implies that although there is no “correct” way of speaking, people are judged on their accent or regional dialect and that there are some which are considered superior to others. It suggests that it is unfair to say that children can’t speak properly any more, as the correctness of speech is often judged by what is correct in written English but the rules of speech of very different the those of writing, and judgements are made based very strongly on social opinion.
- “In an age when discrimination in terms of race, colour, religion or gender is not publicly acceptable, the last bastion of overt social discrimination will continue to be a person’s use of language.”
This shows the reader that people are unfairly using language as a way to judge and discriminate.
Overall, I do agree with what Milroy is saying as I don’t believe that there has ever been a time when English was perfect. It also suggests that language change is a bad thing, which I also don’t agree with because new words need to be developed in order for our language to move forward. Prescriptivists may use examples of non-Standard grammar as evidence against Milroy, but it is a question of how important saying “she come” or “we was” actually is. Evidence for Milroy could be Aitchison’s argument that language needs to change “so it can cope with changing social circumstances” and although it is children and young people that these normally relate to, that doesn’t mean that they can’t speak or write properly any more.