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Standardized spoken English?

From the WordSpin vault, we bring you a brief history of spoken English. Is there a proper way to speak it?

Today, standardized writing styles, spelling and word choice are as vital to successful companies as having the exact same tone of red in every logo. But whereas the process of standardizing written English has gradually become more and more developed throughout time, attempts to standardize spoken English have had a much more turbulent history.

United by the written word

By the latter part of the eighteenth century, written English had been tamed. Thanks to Caxton and his printing press (and those who followed him), written English was now more or less one standardized language. But the people who wrote and read this one language still spoke with a huge variety of dialects and accents. English-speaking society was unified only by the written word.

Seen and then heard

It was around this same time that the course of the language took an unusual u-turn. Written English, (the product of a spoken tongue) actually started to dictate and influence how English was spoken. It was supposed that the best spoken English should sound like the best written English – but who decided what that was? Scholars, linguists and not least snobs and socialites all had a hand in trying to define the answer to this question – and the discussion continues today.

The “proper” way

Called Received Pronunciation (RP) (not, as many believe, “Queen’s English”), it means the “assumed” most correct way to speak English. Thanks to the powerful social influence of correct pronunciation ideals of eighteenth-century social climbers, RP has been dominant in the upper classes and public institutions ever since. Even in other English-speaking nations, such as the United States and Australia, RP is still the pronunciation closest to “educated” British English. Thankfully, the less-oppressive class systems of these countries mean that dialects and accents were less restricted here.

New tones

In the 21st century, regional, national and even foreign accents, once shunned by the predominant RP consensus, are no longer discouraged or “corrected” with elocution lessons. The My Fair Lady days of being rapped over the knuckles for a flat vowel or a dropped ”h” are long over. After several hundred years, the diversity of the English language is again being embraced. Accents and dialects once seen as low-status, today stand on an equal footing with “the correct way to speak.”

Untamable?

This brief look at the history of the spoken language teaches us that English is too smart to be artificially molded and constrained. Perhaps the lesson we can learn is that English is a living, growing thing. And like all living things, it has an instinct to resist being tamed.

 

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