It is almost public knowledge these days that the majority of people who study language for a living, namely linguists, spurn the notion that there is such a thing as proper English. It is blasphemy in the religion of linguistics to mention the word standard or proper when it comes to the English language.
There are NO rights and wrongs – any departure from accepted norms is interesting and “proper” in itself. Many linguists today would thus argue for a “descriptive” approach to the English language, which simply means that there is no such thing as a norm or standard – but custom and wide usage or practice.
This very generous approach to accepting deviations and departures into what was once a generally conservative and gentlemanly language can be due to the historical fact that the English language, unlike languages like French, Italian and Spanish, does not have an “official” governing body to govern its use. There is no official “academy” of English.
But of course, it is this feature of the language which has allowed it to become the global lingua franca that it is today – assimilating, adapting and absorbing different cultures and dialects into its embrace.
Anglophones like me cheer on the English language for her progress into once unchartered territories but we also bemoan the influence of the language professionals on much of what has become adulterated and bastardised English. Well-meaning organisations like the Queen’s English Society in the UK are often the targets of ridicule and mockery, accused of trying to bring the language back into the stone age. It is no wonder that many of the young in England today cannot write, let alone speak, a single sentence of decent English.
Contrary to the sentiments of the British people who seems to be alone in their narcissistic admiration of broken English, the majority of the anglophone world are perturbed by the strange sounds that come out of many of their celebrities and pop stars. Not only are their accents difficult to fathom, they butcher well-established English sounds and turn them into alien gibberish. Just listen to the way superstar Cheryl Cole speaks – sometimes I wonder if she is speaking English or Hindi or a mixture of both. Comedians like Russell Brand, Ricky Gervais and Ali G can’t seem to enunciate their t’s and l’s properly.
Call me a pedantic prick if you must, but really, it is not just me. Thousands of Americans think so too when they listen to Cheryl Cole on the first few days she was judge on the popular reality talent programme, The X Factor USA. It took a bit of straining on the ears to get used to her. Furthermore, it is a well known fact that apart from the inhabitants of the British Isles, almost every other citizen in the English-speaking world finds some of the regional accents in Britain profoundly straining to the ear.
Similarly, it seems that only Singaporeans are enamoured and in love with their self-concocted brand of English, endearingly termed Singlish, with all of its glorious brokenness. We might pay lip service to the glory of Singlish out of loyalty to the tribe, but when it comes down to international diplomacy, many still wish for the leaders to be able to converse IN PROPER ENGLISH to the wider world. Many are appalled if people like Tan Kin Lian becomes president. Why not ask PM Lee Hsien Loong to make speeches in our glorious Singlish accent?
It wouldn’t be a very pleasant auditory experience, I can assure you.
All of us, regardless of our position along the prescriptive-descriptive continuum, live our daily lives based on the assumption that there is such a thing as “standard English”. Otherwise communication will break down if anyone could write or speak in any way he wishes, which is logically what the linguists are trying to say. We write emails to clients and employers with certain “rules” in mind – we do not use textspeak or slang language. We give speeches with these self-same “rules” – we do not use slang and try to minimise filler words.
I admit that there are several “standards” of the English language, namely the British, American, Canadian, Australian or New Zealander. And each of these, although mainly identical, have differences that are unique and very distinct. Still, all serious users of English will want to abide by these standards, no matter what they are. National newspapers will have strict guidelines on writing style for their journalists and columnists, be it grammar or spelling.
It is therefore my contention that there IS such a thing as proper, standard English, and that is the English, spoken or written, that one uses to communicate effectively and efficiently to a global audience in an official capacity.