English as she is spoke

:: language

I sometimes make the mistake of reading the letters pages of newspapers.

They are a sort of mid–20th-century version of reddit with slightly less overt bigotry but a much greater sense of entitlement. And, in 2016, you can still find people writing things like this:

What is driving me crazy is that nowadays everybody, including professionals all over the BBC and other channels, says “ay” all the time, instead of the correct short “a”.

The right questions to ask about statements like this are ‘who decided that short “a”1 was correct, and what authority did they have so to do?’ The answers are ‘it doesn’t matter’ and ‘none’.

English2 is a natural language: it is not defined by a self-appointed standards body but instead is an evolving collection of closely-related languages3 which is defined by its users – by the people who speak it, with the written form (which is often not particularly closely related to the spoken form) defined by the people who write it.

If enough speakers of English decide to pronounce a word one way rather than another then that is the correct pronunciation of that word in the language they speak. I may not like it and you may not like it, but we don’t get to decide how they speak. We may even belong to a community which pronounces the word a different way, and our English is then just another member of the family of Englishes: one which may flourish or may die out.

It is very easy to see that this is true: consider the languages of Shakespeare and of Chaucer, both of which can be called English. The written language of Shakespeare is largely, but far from completely, comprehensible to a modern English speaker: the spoken language probably would not be. The written language of Chaucer is largely *in*comprehensible to a modern English speaker, and the spoken language certainly would be incomprehensible. Are their Englishes correct, while ours are wrong? No, they are different, because the language has changed, and continues to change today. Go and listen to BBC announcers from the 1940s if you doubt this: yes, that really is how (some) people spoke then.


  1. ‘Short “a”’ is really is what a linguist would call ə — schwa — I think. 

  2. As she is spoke

  3. We like to call the members of the language family ‘dialects’ so we can privilege one member as being ‘standard English’ and pretend to ourselves that it is the language of which the others are merely dialects so we can look down on people who speak them: those who speak ‘black English’ or ‘with a regional accent’. This is not, of course, bigoted: those people — some of whom look suspiciously, well, foreign, if you know what I mean — just need to learn to speak proper English like I do.