This article was originally published in the 2011-2012 academic year.
A couple of weeks ago, I happened to stumble upon a news story that I simply had to write this feature on. It made me laugh, it made me cry, and it made me question modern society like never before. What was it about, I hear you ask? Well, if I were to describe it as being like someone trying to remake My Fair Lady for the present day and setting it in Essex, that wouldn’t be far off.
The story told of how a primary school in Basildon (where else, eh?) has started to give its pupils elocution lessons – yes, you read that right, elocution lessons – in order to help them learn how to speak ‘properly’ rather than using their Essex accents. Frankly, I don’t quite know where to begin with this, but as an Essex boy myself (and one that’s studying Linguistics, at that), I can’t resist sinking my teeth into the debate that this story will no doubt cause. It raises so many questions about the state of the English language and, more specifically, our contemporary perceptions of it.
Let’s not beat around the bush here, articles about the so-called decline of the English language are more common than a Pidgey in the first few areas of Pokémon Red & Blue. We’ve all heard about how the younger generations are ruining English thanks to modern technology like texting as well as a general lack of respect for the rules of grammar, so why is this feature not just going to be a run-of-the-mill rant? Well, because although I am ultimately for the idea of people being taught correct language usage, it is for very different reasons.
Perhaps ‘correct’ is the wrong word to use there, though. ‘Appropriate’ would be more, well, appropriate. Think what you may, but there is technically no such thing as a right way of using language. As one of my lecturers nicely put it recently: “there is no such thing as bad language, only inappropriate language”. We all seem to have this pre-determined belief ingrained into our minds that Standard English is the only correct form, but that’s complete and utter poppycock.
While Standard English is undoubtedly the most accepted variety of our language, that’s not to say it’s superior to any others.. or is it? Well, in linguistic terms, no. But Standard English has historically been the language of prestige, having been used and codified through literature and education, and this value remains held by the majority of society to this day. The harsh reality is, if you can’t speak or write ‘properly’ you’re going to be left with rather low career prospects, as the standard variety is regarded as the ‘appropriate’ form for most formal professional purposes. Especially when you consider instances like one cited in the original news story where “sport” is being written as “sbort” by some pupils because of how they pronounce it (which there’s perfectly valid linguistic reasoning for, but I shan’t bore you with details on the voicing of bilabial plosive sounds), you can’t help but think the elocution lessons are for the best.
On the other hand though, these elocution lessons represent the traditional, almost ‘fuddy-duddy’-esque standpoint that the English language is deteriorating, which in reality it is not. It is changing, certainly, but not necessarily for the worst. I feel like a hypocrite saying this because I tend to hold these old-fashioned opinions myself, but those of us who try to uphold a ‘golden age’ of English are merely banging our heads against a brick wall. Language change is inevitable. Try as you might, but you’ll only succeed in slowing it down, not stopping it completely.
And yet, despite this fact, I still find myself supporting the new scheme being introduced by the school. One cannot deny the significance that Standard English has in everyday life and given the current situation regarding the job market, it’s essential that schoolchildren are as best prepared as they can be for the big wide world ahead of them. Even though the notion of giving school kids elocution lessons sounds ridiculous and will likely be a lost cause in the greater struggle against language change, I do not stand opposed – for the pupils’ sake, not for English’s.
Terri Chudleigh, the person who thought the idea up in the first place has the same reasoning, too. It’s not a case of being ashamed of your accent and disguising the inevitable cries of “innit”, “reem” and “jel” that you’ll hear around Essex (if TOWIE is anything to go by anyway). It’s to provide the best possible education for the best possible future – and let’s face it, who could argue against that?