All Posts / Revision

Revision: Standard and Non-Standard English


Happy exam-eve! To celebrate, we’re treating you with TWO revision posts in one day. Just how will you contain your excitement… For other posts on component one check out language acquisition and language and politeness.

Accent vs Dialect

One of the key areas of this topic is the distinction between accent and dialect. Accent is the way that the words are pronounced. For example, someone from Scotland may speak with many glottal stops. An example of a highly regarded accent is received pronunciation,  which used to be the classic TV accent. Only around 3% of the population actually speak with this accent, but it is still associated strongly with higher classes.

Dialect is the actual words themselves. For example, someone from Yorkshire might say “it were over there”, which is non-standard grammar but a common part of northern dialects. Standard English is actually also a dialect, and is considered by some to be the “correct” form of English.

Descriptivism vs Prescriptivism

There are two distinct viewpoints when it comes to non-standard English. Prescriptivists believe that anything other than standard English is incorrect. This is an approach commonly applied in schools, as exams often mark on use of standard English. People also tend to take this approach more when it comes to written English.

Descriptivists believe that there is no “right” or “wrong” language, only “appropriate” and “inappropriate”. This acknowledges the many different forms of English, and accepts them as valid in the right context.


Language users can gain prestige based on how they speak or write. Overt prestige can be gained by speaking in a way that is associated with higher classes, in standard English with a well-regarded accent. This can be useful in formal contexts, for example to seem worthy of a job in an interview.

Covert prestige is gained by speaking in a less well-regarded way. In formal contexts, this can be threatening or endearing to other parties, whereas in informal contexts this can help fit in. Another example of covert prestige is eye dialect, in which words are written so that, when read out phonetically, they resemble a specific accent or dialect, for example using the word “cannae” to resemble the Scottish accent.


A pidgin is a variation of a language spoken by a community within that culture. When that language begins to be taught as a first language, it becomes a creole. An example of a creole is patois, or Britsh Black English.

Social Stratification

A lot of the research around standard and non-standard English focuses around social stratification, or grouping people by class (see below). However, in 1980, Milroy acknowledged that this wasn’t always the most accurate way to group people, and instead focused on social networks. Milroy said that when someone’s contacts tend to know each other, they belong to a closed network, whereas someone whose contacts tend not to know each other belongs to an open network.

Her Belfast study found that the higher the density of a closed network (the more “closed” it was, so to speak) the more non-standard English is used in that group. Milroy said that this showed that different social networks have different social pressures, and therefore have different expectations of their members.

Research and Key Figures

In 1974, the Plain English Campaign began to spread the dangers of using too much jargon in materials aimed at the general public. As a result, in 1999 legal language was changed to closer resemble English.

Giles’ Accommodation theory suggested that speakers adjust their speech to fit in with (or differentiate from) other speakers. They can converge to fit in with other speakers or diverge to highlight differences. Convergence comes in two forms: Upward convergence (to fit in with a highly regarded speaker) or downward convergence (to fit in with a lower regarded one). When both speakers converge, this is called mutual convergence.

Giles also conducted a Capital Punishment Experiment, which had speakers read out the same text about capital punishment. The audience found that regional accents were more persuasive.

Trudgill found in his Norwich Experiment that lower classes speak with more non-standard pronunciation.

Good luck! More revision for this subject can be found on my Memrise course.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s