David Crystal, The Stories of English, p. 520 – 529 (Penguin Books, 2005)

(Taken from the concluding chapter (20): Times a-changin’, p. 514 –534)

………(bottom paragraph of p. 519>) There are plainly considerable differences between the kind of language used on the Internet - Netspeak, as I have elsewhere called it91) - and those used in other forms of speech and writing. Indeed, the extent of the difference is so great that it amounts to the arrival of a new medium - often called computer-mediated communication - which blends properties of traditional spoken and written language. Netspeak is, firstly, not like traditional speech. It lacks the simultaneous feedback which is an essential part of face-to-face conversation. It permits the carrying on of several conversations simultaneously in chat-rooms, where it is possible to attend to many interlocutors at once, and to respond to as many as taste and typing speed permit. And it is unable to communicate the dynamic aspects of speech, such as intonation and tone of voice - notwithstanding the primitive attempts to do so, in the form of emoticons, or 'smileys',
(p.520>) such as :-) and :-(. Nor is Netspeak like traditional writing. It permits people to do things routinely to the written language which were not possible before, such as to interpolate responses into a message (as in emails) or to cut and paste from one document to another without the results clashing graphically. And it offers new dimensions of contrast which were not previously available, notably in animated graphic presentation.

          In addition to its roles in fostering variety and facilitating change, the Internet is performing a third function, and it is in this respect that its impact on the future of the English language is likely to be most dramatic. It offers an unprecedented degree of written public presence to individuals and small-scale community groups, and thus a vast potential for representing personal and local identities. Minority languages have already benefited. Although an exclusively English-language medium at the outset, because of its origins in the USA, the Internet has steadily developed a multilingual identity, so much so that in 2003 estimates suggest that less than 50 per cent of cyberspace was occupied by English. At least a quarter of the world's languages have an Internet presence now,10 and many of these are minority and endangered languages. For a small speech community, the Internet therefore offers a linguistic lifeline, enabling its scattered members to keep in touch with each other through emails and chat-rooms, and through Web sites giving their language a world presence which it would have been impossible to achieve using traditional media, such as broadcasting or the press. And the Internet privileges individuals, too, allowing anyone with access to the medium to present a personal diary-type statement to the world, in the form of a blog, or 'Web log' - one of the most proliferating functions of the Web in the early 2000s.

          But the emergent multilingual character of the Internet must not blind us to the impact that the medium is also having on English. The majority of Web pages in English are in British or American Standard English, as we would expect, given that the Web holds a mirror up to the linguistic proportions found in the 'real' world; however, other varieties are growing. Any intranational regional dialect which has a history of enthusiastic support will have its Web pages now. A search for sources on Newcastle English ('Geordie'), for example, produced over a hundred sites, including several which offered transcriptions of dialect usage and sound-recordings in support. And at an international level, the 'New Englishes' in the world (p. 502.) now have available a written electronic identity which previously it was possible to achieve only through conventional creative literature (Chapter 19). I do not know of any studies of the way the processes of accommodation (p. 83) operate on the Internet; but it seems likely that, with a much greater frequency of informal written interaction taking place than at any previous stage in the history of the language, we will see the rapid emergence and consolidation of local group norms of usage - several of which (p. 521>) will privilege nonstandard forms (see panel 20.2*). These new varieties are bound to achieve a more developed written representation than would ever have been possible before, and through the global reach of the Internet they may well extend their influence beyond their country of origin.

[*20.2 New online Englishes

It does not take long for nonstandard expressions to achieve a normative status in a chat-room interaction. Each group has a collective memory of usage arising out of repeated online contacts, and new members of the group are expected to conform. Some of the conventional nonstandardisms in a chat-room include:

• unusual symbol combinations, as in personal nicknames which use upper-and lower-case letters unpredictably: daViD, aLoHA

• omission of capitalization within sentences, even including i for I

• omission of internal sentence punctuation and full stops (though question marks and exclamation marks are usually kept)

• abbreviations, often involving rebuses (as in text-messaging), such as sat for Saturday, C U 'see you', l8 'late'

• emotive punctuation sequences, such as yes!!!!!!!! ,Jim??!!??

• spellings, such as outta 'out of', wanna, 'want to', cee ja 'see you', seemz 'seems'

• grammatical constructions, such as omitting a verb (he lovely), or breaking a concord rule (me am feeling better)

• eye-dialect forms (p. 486), such as it wuz lotsa lafs, i got enuf

• nonce formations, such as running words together (igottanewcar) or abnor­mal hyphenation (what-a-helluva-mess)

• misspellings or lexical substitutions which achieve a fashionable privileged status in a particular group, such as the deliberate spelling of computer as comptuer (originating in an individual error which caught the group's fancy)

As New Englishes come increasingly online, regional nonstandard variations are bound to proliferate. An example of this already happening is from Hong Kong, where a sample of internet chat (via ICQ, 'I Seek You') between two university students produced the following exchange:

Philip: will u go to library on fri?

Gary: i'm not sure. haven't decided yet but probably coz i have bought the text book of econ 112. i need to borrow the 2-hr reserve as a reference.

Philip: see u on lib on fri ar? ok? as my friend will not stay ma . . . find sb to study la ... to push me up ar.

Gary: so do i.11

The exchange contains several international nonstandardisms and abbreviations: u 'you', fri 'Friday', i'm, coz 'because', i, hr 'hour'

(p. 522>) and some abbreviations evidently in regular use among these students: lib 'library', sb 'someone'

But it is also characterized by the use of three Cantonese particles: ar has an assertive force ('then', 'in short'); ma has an explanatory nuance ('as you know'); and la has an affirmative force ('so you see'). Other dialogues can contain even more code-mixing, so that it is difficult at times to know whether the language is English or Chinese. In such cases, of course, we may be seeing the birth of a new language, as yet without a name. (end of 'panel')]

The newest New Englishes - as opposed to the older new Englishes, such as Indian English or South African English (Chapter 17) - are often identified by blend names, reflecting their mixed-language character, as with Singlish ('Singaporean English' - chiefly a mix of English and Chinese), Tex-Mex (Eng­lish and Mexican Spanish in the south-western USA), and Taglish (in the Philippines, a mix of English and Tagalog).12 Introducing words and phrases into one language from another is a perfectly normal feature of linguistic history, as we have often seen in this book; and switching between two (or more) languages is no less normal when people from different linguistic backgrounds come into regular contact with each other. These 'hybrid languages' seem to be on the increase, as English extends its global presence, and they will undoubtedly become more noticeable on the Internet as their speakers develop greater confidence in manipulating the new medium to express themselves. A whole new range of Internet-mediated regional written standards is the likely outcome. And as the amount of written language on the Internet will eventually far exceed that available in traditional print form, a new type of relationship between nonstandard varieties and Standard English will one day emerge.

          Or perhaps I should call it a new manifestation of an old relationship. Once upon a time, England was a triglossic and then a diglossic nation (Chapter 6), and the consequences of that continued in the distinction between 'high' and 'low' varieties of English throughout Middle English, and still reverberate in the contrast between standard and nonstandard today. In such parts of the world as Singapore, where we find Standard English now coexisting with a local variety (Singlish), new forms of diglossia seem to be appearing, and functioning along with other languages to express complex sets of multi-ethnic cultural relationships. The way the Internet will help to shape these emergent diglossias is as yet unclear, but it is bound to play a dominant role. Several Internet varieties are inherently informal in character, and the more these are given written expression, the more the medium heightens the contrast with Standard English, which as we have seen (p. 224) is essentially a manifestation (p. 523>) of language in its written form. It is a volatile, unprecedented, unpredictable, and altogether fascinating linguistic situation.

A period of transition

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the relationship between standard and nonstandard language is, evidently, still an uncertain one. We are at a transitional point between two eras. We seem to be leaving an era when the rules of Standard English, as selected and defined by prescriptive grammarians, totally conditioned our sense of acceptable usage, so that all other usages and varieties were considered to be inferior or corrupt, and excluded from serious consideration. And we seem to be approaching an era when nonstandard usages and varieties, previously denigrated or ignored, are achieving a new presence and respectability within society, reminiscent of that found in Middle English, when dialect variation in literature was widespread and uncontentious (Chapter 9). But we are not there yet. The rise of Standard English has resulted in a confrontation between the standard and nonstandard dimensions of the language which has lasted for over 200 years, and this has had traumatic consequences which will take some years to eliminate. Once people have been given an inferiority complex about the way they speak or write, they find it difficult to shake off.

However, it is only a matter of time. Institutionalized prescriptivism began to come to an end in the later decades of the twentieth century. Primarily, this meant a change in educational practice, for it was only through the school system that prescriptivism had been able to propagate itself (p. 396). In the UK, from the 1970s, changes in school syllabuses and examination systems heralded a new dispensation, with an unthinking adherence to mechanical sentence analysis and old-style canons of correctness gradually being replaced by a broad-based investigation of the forms and functions of language in all their social manifestations. By the 1990s, in the new National Curriculum, as well as in the syllabuses which were being devised for higher examinations, there was a complete change in emphasis. Similar educational changes took place, also, in other parts of the English-speaking world, with Australia and Canada early innovators.

          In this new dispensation, exam papers no longer asked students to parse sentences or to make decisions about correctness in relation to such issues as end-placed prepositions and split infinitives. Instead, the questions began to make students explain what happens when language is used - to go beyond the mere identifying of a linguistic feature (an infinitive, a metaphor, a piece of
(p. 524>) alliteration) to a mode of inquiry in which they explored the reasons lying behind the choices of words in such contexts as a scientific report, a news broadcast, or an advertising slogan. It was no longer enough to say, 'I see a passive verb in that science report.' The interesting question - and the one which gained the marks in an exam - was to be able to say why it was there. Only in that way, it was reasoned, would students be able to develop a sense of the consequences of choosing one kind of language rather than another (such as formal vs informal), when it came to using language themselves or evaluating the effect of a language choice upon other people. The aim, in short, was to promote a more responsive and responsible approach to language, in which students would come to understand why people use language in the way they do, and would put this knowledge to active use to become more able to control language for themselves.

There is no agreed term to summarize this change in emphasis. It is not a matter of a 'prescriptive' approach being replaced by a 'descriptive' one, as has sometimes been suggested, for this pedagogy goes well beyond description into a world of explanation and evaluation. A better term would be 'pragmatic' (as opposed to 'dogmatic'), with all that this implies - an ability to adapt knowledge to meet the needs of differing circumstances and a readiness to judge cases on their merits. From the viewpoint of the present book, the pragmatic approach instils an awareness that variation and change are normal features of linguistic life, demanding recognition and respect. And it carries with it the corollary that those who make use of this variation must themselves be recognized and respected. In its strongest and most positive manifestation, the pragmatic approach replaces the concept of 'eternal vigilance' (beloved of prescriptivists and purists) by one of 'eternal tolerance'.

          Although the educational perspective is crucial, in moving away from an institutionalized prescriptivism towards a more egalitarian linguistic era, it cannot operate alone. Other social institutions need to be involved. Indeed, without a sense of linguistic disquiet within society as a whole, it is unlikely that any change in educational practice would have taken place at all. What is interesting about the later decades of the twentieth century is the way that different social trends began to reinforce pragmatic educational linguistic thinking. To take just a few examples from the UK. Leading media organizations such as the BBC opened their doors to regional speech, partly as a result of the emergence of local radio and television stations (p. 474). Business management recognized the importance of speech variation in interacting with clients: the accents of a new linguistic order may be heard now at the end of a telephone in many a call-centre (p. 472). Organizations such as the Plain English Campaign began to demand a rethink in the way governmental, legal, and medical institutions operated linguistically. Political correctness, in the best sense, fostered (p. 525>) notions of gender and racial equality. And there was a fresh awareness of the nature of regional and ethnic identity, which led to a greater valuing of linguistic diversity. These trends had their parallels in other English-speaking countries.

But changes in linguistic attitudes and practices do not come to be accepted overnight, or even overdecade. The cumulative effects of ten generations of prescriptive teaching are still around us. Organizations which were set up to 'safeguard' the English language, founded in the prescriptive era, continue to exist and to attract members. Usage manuals presenting a vision of Standard English as a uniform, unchanging, and universal norm of correctness continue to be published. And senior managers today, whether in government, law, medicine, business, education, or the media, cannot rid themselves entirely of prescriptive thinking, because they are the last generation to have experienced this approach in their schooling. Their influence is considerable, because they unconsciously pass on their linguistic anxieties and preoccupations, often half remembered and poorly understood, to subordinates who, in the absence of linguistic knowledge of their own, accept their opinions as dictates. In a few years' time, the new generation of schoolchildren, well grounded in pragmatic principles, will be out there in society, able to counter unthinking prescriptive attitudes; and once they are in senior positions, the confrontation will be over. Criticism of split infinitives will be gone for ever. But in the meantime, innumerable schoolchildren and adults have developed feelings of inadequacy and inferiority about their natural way of speaking, or about certain features of their writing, being led to believe that their practice is in some way 'ugly' or 'incorrect'. We are coming towards the close of a linguistically intolerant era, but - as happens in last-ditch situations - conservative reaction can be especially strong.

One reason for the strength of feeling is that there is still a widespread belief that the closest of connections exists between linguistics and morality. This belief came to the fore in the nineteenth century. The Anglican theologian and archbishop, Richard Chenevix Trench, was one of the most outspoken about the matter:

How deep an insight into the failings of the human heart lies at the root of many words; and if only we would attend to them, what valuable warnings many contain against subtle temptations and sins!13

Trench was making his point with reference to the meaning of words; but the age saw the whole of language as a mirror of community standards, ethics, and behaviour. In particular, grammar (which is at the heart of Standard English, p. 393) came to be seen as the mouthpiece of propriety and was linked to right living. It therefore followed that a failure to enforce grammatical rules would lead to a breakdown of the social order. The sentiment was reiterated throughout (p. 526>) the nineteenth century and continued to be affirmed in the twentieth. In recent times, we find it expressed by a headteacher in a 1981 newspaper article, regretting the demise of old-style grammatical analysis in schools:

As nice points of grammar were mockingly dismissed as pedantic and irrelevant, so was punctiliousness in such matters as honesty, responsibility, property, gratitude, apology and so on.14

The suggestion here is that the relationship is one of cause and effect. And his point was echoed by the politician Norman Tebbit in a 1985 broadcast on BBC Radio 4. To lose standards in English, he argued, 'cause[s] people to have no standards at all, and once you lose standards then there's no imperative to stay out of crime'. [panel 20.3 (on p. 527), which follows here, has been left out!]

It is indeed a long jump from not splitting infinitives to not splitting skulls; but, as we have seen before (p. 371), people do attribute huge amounts of significance to points of grammatical usage. It therefore has to be firmly stated: there is no simple or direct relationship between grammar and behaviour. Some of the most respectable people I know speak nonstandard grammar; and conversely, there are several villains around whose standard grammar is impeccable. Vocabulary is a different matter. There is a relationship between language and behaviour in the use of vocabulary - the use of insulting words (such as racist names), gender-biased terms, antagonistic obscenities, and other such denigrating lexical choices is clearly related to a person's temperament and belief. But even here, there is no simple link between linguistic cause and social effect. Racist words do not cause racist beliefs. It is the other way round. And in any case, as we have seen (p. 480), lexical choice is not a matter of Standard English.

Of course, it also has to be firmly stated that certain standards do need to be maintained in linguistic schooling. It is important for students to be able to write and speak clearly, to avoid ambiguity, to be precise, to develop a consistent style, to spell properly, to suit their language to the needs of the situation, and to bear in mind the needs of their listeners and readers. Everyone needs help to shape their own personal style and to develop their ability to appreciate style in others, and the role of teachers and of good linguistic models (the 'best authors') is crucial. The more people read widely, acquire some analytical terminology, adopt a critical perspective, and try their hands (and mouths) at different genres, the more they will end up as linguistically well-rounded individuals. But none of this has anything to do with the perceptions that were inculcated by the prescriptivist account of Standard English. There is no problem of intelligibility if I say to boldly go instead of to go boldly, or between you and me instead of between you and I. Nor is there a difference in clarity between The time went really quickly and The time went really quick. Nor is there any (p. 527>) ambiguity between There's lots of apples in the box and There are lots of apples in the box. Training someone to avoid split infinitives is not going to improve a child's communicative abilities one jot. There are better ways of using the time in a classroom than worrying about how to maintain a 200-year-old conception of grammatical correctness, condemning nonstandard English, and complaining about linguistic variation and change.

          The 'complaint tradition', in particular, is something we need to consign (p. 528>) to history. It is something which seems to have grown up with the standard language (see Interlude 10), and especially in relation to the prescriptive approach, manifesting itself in each generation since the eighteenth century, and focusing on the same points of grammar, lexicon, orthography, and pronun-ciation.15 The complaints are made to the press, to the BBC, or to anyone who the complainant thinks is likely to listen. Some issues attract more complaints than others because by their nature they occur more often in the language. The varying stress pattern in polysyllabic words is a case in point. Because stress see-saws backwards and forwards over time within many words in English - such as dispute vs dispute, controversy vs controversy (p. 466) - it is often noticed, and people who do not like this change therefore find themselves with many opportunities to complain about it. But even infrequent points of usage can attract a great deal of emotion - as is typically the case with grammatical issues. None of the top 'ten' grammatical complaints to the BBC in the 1980s - citing such constructions as to boldly go and between you and me - in fact turn up very often, in speech or writing; but they evoked great strength of feeling none the less.16 The complaints are generally made with a single-mindedness of purpose and passionate concern that forces admiration: one complainant to my Radio 4 series English Now in the 1980s tabulated all split infinitives heard on that channel for a week, and, judging by the dozen or so pages of neat handwriting he submitted, he had spotted most of them. Regrettably, such enthusiasm is generally accompanied by a harmful narrowness of vision. In its worst excesses, when it focuses on the usage of particular minority groups, it amounts to ethnolinguistic cleansing. It is intolerance masquerading as vigilance.

          The complainants are the legatees of the eighteenth-century prescriptivists, sometimes writing in anger, but more often in anxiety - concerned and confused about what they perceive to be their own linguistic inadequacies. The intellectual achievement of the prescriptive writers of the eighteenth century was to give definition to the future character of the standard (Chapter 15); but their emotional legacy was to instil in everyone a great deal of guilt about everyday usage, and a fear of 'breaking the rules' which can reach paranoid proportions. It was they, and they alone, who chose which features of grammar were to be the sign of an educated writer, and their prescriptions were sufficiently powerful to persuade generations of writers how to behave, right up to the present. Their success - if that is what it can be called - is evident on every page of this book. The third sentence of this paragraph might just as clearly have begun: 'It was them, and them alone, that chose ...'. There is no difference in clarity of expression, but a world of difference in grammatical acceptability in the eyes of society, and those whose role it is to monitor prevailing standards on behalf of society, such as teachers and copy-editors, would not tolerate it. Only in certain kinds of fiction (Chapter 19) might it be allowed to stand. In these (p. 529>) respects, we would have to acknowledge that the prescriptive aim was successful, and recognize that we have all been turned into linguistic automata (OED definition 5: 'a human being acting mechanically or without active intelligence in a monotonous routine'). Nor are we alone. The same prescriptive climate affected language writers in all the leading countries in eighteenth-century Western Europe. Nations voluntarily placed themselves into a linguistic prison-house from which, in the English-speaking world, we are just beginning to escape.

There is actually only one escape-route: we have to maintain the literary momentum of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and develop a more accepting frame of reference for handling nonstandard English. And this means that at the same time we have to develop a fresh conception of Standard English - one which gets away from its prescriptive preoccupations, occupying as they do only a tiny proportion of grammatical 'space', and allows us to concentrate on the core areas of grammatical structure that actually govern the way we express and respond to meaning and style. In a typical reference grammar of 1,500 pages, only a dozen or so will be taken up with the issues that so worried the prescriptive grammarians. It is time to focus on the topics covered by the remaining pages - topics which turn out to be much more closely bound up with questions of intelligibility, clarity, precision, and elegance of expression than could ever be found in the pages of a prescriptive grammar.

1) footnotes, annotations in brackets (etc.) as in the original text!