Standardisation of languages – life or death?

Hello and happy summer! (And happy winter to those of you in the Southern Hemisphere!)

In previous posts we’ve thrown around the term ‘standard’, as in Standard English, but we haven’t really gone into what that means. It may seem intuitive to some, but this is actually quite a technical term that is earned through a lengthy process and, as is often the case, it is not awarded easily or to just any variety of a language. Today, I will briefly describe the process of standardising a variety and give you a few thoughts for discussion1. I want to stress that though we will discuss the question, I don’t necessarily think we need to find an answer to whether standardisation is “good” or “bad” – I don’t think either conclusion would be very productive. Still, it’s always good to tug a little bit at the tight boundaries we often put around the thought space reserved for linguistic concepts.

The language bohemian, at it again.

There are four processes usually involved in the standardisation of a language: selection, elaboration, codification, and acceptance.

Selection

It sure doesn’t start easy. Selection is arguably the most controversial of the processes as this is the step that involves choosing which varieties and forms the standard will be based on. Often in history we find a standard being selected from a prestigious variety, such as the one spoken by the nobility. In modern times this is less comme il faut as nobility don’t have monopoly on literacy and wider communication anymore (thankfully). This can make selection even trickier, though: as the choice of a standard variety becomes more open there is a higher need for sensitivity regarding who is represented by that standard and who isn’t. Selection may still favour an elite group of speakers, even if they may no longer be as clear-cut as a noble class. For example, a standard is often based on the variety spoken in the capital, or the cultural centre, of a nation. The selection of standard forms entails non-selection of others, and these forms are then easily perceived as worse, which affects the speakers of these non-standard forms negatively – this particularly becomes an issue when the standard is selected from a prestigious variety.

In my post about Scots , I briefly mentioned the problem of selection we would face in a standardisation of Scots as a variety which has great variation both within individual speakers and among different speakers (e.g. in terms of lects). Battling this same tricky problem, Standard Basque was mostly constructed from three Basque varieties, mixed with features of others. This standard was initially used mainly by the media and in formal writing with no “real” speakers. However, as more and more previously non-Basque-speaking people in the Basque country started to learn the language, they acquired the standard variety, with the result that this group and their children now speak a variety of Basque which is very similar to the standard.

Elaboration

Standardisation isn’t all a prestigious minefield. A quite fun and creative process of standardisation is elaboration, which involves expanding the language to be appropriate for use in all necessary contexts. This can be done by either adapting or adopting words from other varieties (i.e. other languages or nonstandard lects), by constructing new words using tools (like morphology) from within the variety that’s becoming a standard, or by looking into archaic words from the history of the variety and putting them back into use.

When French was losing its prestige in medieval England, influenced no doubt by the Hundred Years’ War, an effort was initiated to elaborate English. During the Norman Conquest, French had become the language used for formal purposes in England, while English survived as spoken by the common people. This elaboration a few hundred years later involved heavy borrowing of words from French (e.g. ‘government’ and ‘royal’) for use in legal, political, and royal contexts (and from Latin, mainly in medical contexts) – the result was that English could now be used in those situations it previously didn’t have appropriate words for (or where such words had not been in use for centuries)2.

source

Codification

Once selection and elaboration have (mostly) taken place, the process of codification cements the selected standard forms, through, for example, the compilation of dictionaries and grammars. This does not always involve pronunciation, although it can, as it famously does in the British Received Pronunciation (usually just called RP), a modern form of which is still encouraged for use by teachers and other public professions. Codification is the process that ultimately establishes what is correct and what isn’t within the standard – this makes codification the sword of the prescriptivist, meaning that codification is used to argue what the right way to use the language is (y’all know by know what the HLC thinks of prescriptivism).

When forms are codified they are not easily changed, which is why we still see some bizarre spellings in English today.  There are of course not only limitations to codification (as with the spelling example)– there is obvious benefit for communication if we all spell certain things the same way or don’t vary our word choices too much for the same thing or concept. Another benefit, and a big one at that, is that codified varieties are perceived more as real, and this is very important for speakers’ sense of value and identity.


Codification does not a standard make – most of you will know that many varieties have dictionaries without having a standard, Scots being one example. Urban Dictionary is another very good example of codification of non-standard forms.

Acceptance

The final process is surely the lengthiest and perhaps the most difficult to achieve: acceptance. It is crucial that a standard variety receives recognition as such, more especially by officials or other influential speakers but also by the general public. Speakers need to see that there is a use for the standard and that there is a benefit to using it (such as benefiting in social standing or in a career). Generally though, people don’t respond very well to being prescribed language norms, which we have discussed previously, so when standard forms have been selected and codified it does not necessarily lead to people using these forms in their speech (as was initially the case with Standard Basque). Further, if the selection process is done without sensitivity, some groups may feel they have no connection to the standard, sometimes for social or political reasons, and may actively choose to not use it. Again, we find that a sense of identity is significant to us when it comes to language; it is important for us to feel represented by our standard variety.

What’s the use?

Ideally, a standard language could be seen as a way to promote communication within a nation or across several nations. Despite the different varieties of Arabic, for example, Arabic speakers are able to switch to a standard when communicating with each other even if they are from different countries far apart. Likewise, a Scottish person can use Standard English when talking to someone from Australia, while if the same speakers switched back to their local English (or Scots) varieties, they wouldn’t necessarily understand each other. Standardisation certainly eases communication within a country also, and a shared standard variety can provide a sense of shared nationality and culture. There is definitely a point in having a written standard used for our laws, education, politics, and other official purposes which is accessible for everyone. On the other side of this, however, we find a counterforce with speaker communities wanting to preserve their lects and actively opposing using a standard if they can’t identify with it.

So, a thought for discussion I want to leave with you today: Do you think the process of standardisation essentially kills language, or does it it keep it alive? An argument for the first point is that standardisation limits variation3 – this means that when a standard has been established and accepted, the varieties of that standard will naturally start pulling towards the standard as its prestige and use increases. However, standardising is also a way to officially recognise minority varieties, which gives speakers an incentive to keep their language alive. It is also a way to ease understanding between speakers (as explained earlier), and in some cases (like Basque), standardisation gives birth to a new variety acquired as a first language. As I said from the start, maybe we won’t find an answer to this, and maybe we shouldn’t, but it’s worth thinking about these matters in a more critical way.

Footnotes

1 I’ve used the contents of several courses, lectures, and literatures as sources for this post. The four processes of standardisation are credited to Haugen (1996): ‘Dialect, language, nation’.

2 In fact, a large bulk of French borrowings into English comes from this elaboration, rather than from language contact during the Norman Conquest.

On a very HLC note, historical standardisation makes research into dialectal variation and language change quite difficult. The standard written form of Old English is based on the West Saxon variety, and there are far fewer documents to be found written in Northumbrian, which was a quite different variety and has played a huge part in the development of the English we know today.

 

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