Patterns of Spoken English
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Patterns of Spoken English

An Introduction to English Phonetics

Gerald Knowles

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eBook - ePub

Patterns of Spoken English

An Introduction to English Phonetics

Gerald Knowles

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About This Book

First published in 1987. Most introductory textbooks in phonetics are designed to turn the people who use them into phoneticians. People who take phonetics courses, on the other hand, do not in general wish to become specialists, but rather need to know what the study of phonetics has to offer in some other field. This book is intended for those involved in any way with the study of the English language: for students of linguistics or literature, teachers of English, and those involved with the study of literacy, or the analysis of dis course or conversation.

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Spoken and Written English

If you have never studied phonetics before, it is likely that your view of the spoken language is partly conditioned by your experience of the written language. Written language has the advantage that it is permanent, so that it can be studied conveniently and at leisure. Spoken language, however familiar it might be, is more elusive. Until the invention of the record player – or perhaps more importantly the tape recorder – speech was uttered and gone for ever. So, although you will have developed an understanding of the workings of the written language in the course of your education, you are less likely to have a corresponding awareness of speech. For this reason I shall take as little as possible for granted about the nature of speech, and where appropriate relate spoken language to the more familiar written form.
The kind of English most often studied at school is also special in two other respects: it is literary, and it is standard English. We shall be paying particular attention to literary language, but I shall also be relating it to non-literary language. The relationship between standard and non-standard English is another important question, and I shall deal with this immediately.
1.1 Standard English and dialects
The development of a standard language is of enormous advantage to English speakers. The standard form of the language has considerable prestige, and non-standard varieties are downgraded accordingly. It is quite understandable that people have jumped from ‘prestige’ to ‘correctness’, and have assumed that the standard form is correct, and all others incorrect.
A large number of books have appeared over the last two hundred and fifty years or so, attempting to lay down what is ‘correct’ in English, and what is not. The best of these contain some excellent common sense, e.g. Sir Ernest Gowers’s The Complete Plain Words. Others merely retail misconceptions and unfounded assertions picked up from other books e.g. that there is something wrong with the sentence It is me, or that a sentence should not end with a preposition. The allegedly ‘correct’ forms confuse the structure of English with the structure of Latin. Where an Anglo-Saxon would have said Hit eom ic ‘it am I’ we now say it is me: the form it is I has never been commonly used except by people attempting what they imagine to be correct English. Although a Latin sentence could not end in a preposition, this does happen in English, e.g. in the question What are you looking at?: far from being ‘correct’, At what are you looking is just not something speakers of English would naturally say at all. Despite the absurdity of some of these ‘rules of correctness’, they have achieved wide currency, probably because few people know where they come from, and are not in a position to challenge them.
Linguists in the present century have reacted sharply against this PRESCRIPTIVE approach to language, and insisted that the job of the linguist is purely DESCRIPTIVE, to describe the language as it is, and not as some people might think it ought to be. In some cases the pendulum swung too far, and the impression was given that ‘anything goes in language’, that there was no such thing as incorrect language, and that anyone’s language was every bit as good as anyone else’s. But the student of literature might rightly find it hard to believe that every backstreet urchin or rural swain is an unrecognized Shakespeare.
The point is that we must make a clear distinction between the scientific study of the forms of language, and our personal feeling about varieties of English. You may find a Devon accent delightfully quaint and rustic, you may warm to the mid-Atlantic accent of a radio disc jockey or you may regard a Glaswegian accent as the ugliest accent in the world. We all have such personal feelings about language, and you are quite entitled to yours. But we must not confuse these subjective reactions with objective descriptions of language. If we take this more reasonable approach, non-standard forms can be seen as simply nonstandard: there is no reason to infer that they are also substandard.
What we now regard as standard English can be traced back to about the time of Chaucer. Before that, the prestige of the different dialects of English changed with the political fortunes of the region in which they were spoken. The dialect of Wessex is the variety of Old English generally studied as ‘Anglo-Saxon’, but after the transfer of the political capital of England to London, the dialects of the South East grew in prestige and were to form the basis of the standard language. Meanwhile, as the political importance of the West Country declined, the prestige of West Country dialects declined with it.
Standard English was for a long time essentially a written form of the language, but it did influence the use of grammar and vocabulary in speech, and even pronunciation. In all parts of the country, local forms and usages have been subject to displacement; as fashions have changed, new forms have been accepted in the standard language and have gradually spread to local dialects. The popular assumption that local dialects somehow ‘corrupt’ the pure standard language could not be further from the truth: in reality they tend to preserve older forms of the language. Dialects have of course also been open to nonstandard developments; but for the mass of English speakers non-standard usages are much more likely to be preserved archaisms.
The standardization of pronunciation really began in the late eighteenth century. Faced with various pronunciations of the same word, elocutionists and orthoepists (‘those concerned with correct pronunciation’) recommended their own pronunciation as the correct one, and condemned others as incorrect. This continues today: there are still people who argue about whether the first syllable of either and neither ought to rhyme with by or be, on the false assumption that there is one correct answer. Agreement in matters of pronunciation seems to have developed in the nineteenth century, especially in the public schools of the south of England. This has led to a widespread acceptance in England of one variety of pronunciation as a standard, and this is the type that was adopted in the 1920s for broadcasting by the BBC. It is known as RECEIVED PRONUNCIATION, or more commonly as RP. (The word received is here used in the older sense ‘generally accepted’.) An RP speaker is somebody whose speech belongs to England, but cannot be pinned down to any region of England. RP has had a powerful influence on all regional varieties, but relatively few people actually speak it.
The vast majority of English speakers today have a standardized variety of English. In England their pronunciation is likely to be influenced by RP, but retains some local flavour. If we wish to generalize about the speech of England, we have mainly to describe the speech of a few conurbations, including London, Birmingham, Greater Manchester, Merseyside, Leeds-Bradford and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Note the difference between the two terms ‘standard English’ and ‘RP’: ‘standard English’ refers to the form of the language as a whole, and includes grammar and vocabulary, whereas ‘RP’ refers specifically to pronunciation. Australians, Scots and Americans generally have standard English, but RP is spoken as a prestige accent only in England.
The kind of English spoken outside England is in many cases more conservative than the speech of England itself. When a language is taken to a new area, dialect differences among the immigrants tend to be levelled out in the speech of the new population, so that a more homogeneous variety is formed; and the new variety then tends to preserve features of the language of the time of its introduction. American English thus preserves many features of seventeenth-century English, and although there are dialects of American English, they are not as diverse as those of England. It is much easier to generalize about American pronunciation, and the standard model is actually called GENERAL AMERICAN or GenAm. We shall be referring to RP and GenAm collectively as the ‘standardized varieties’ of English.
The English of the ‘Celtic’ areas of the British Isles varies according to the time of the introduction or rein-troduction of English. The dialects of the Scottish lowlands derive from the northern dialect of Old English, so that English is as indigenous there as in England itself. Further north, in the Highlands, English was introduced as a foreign language, particularly in the eighteenth century after the union of England and Scotland. The lack of a traditional non-standard local dialect is presumably the source of the claim that the ‘purest’ English is spoken at Inverness. (It is not of course possible to prove or refute such a claim, as it is a purely personal and subjective feeling.)
English has been introduced to Ireland on several occasions since the Norman period. Ulster was colonized from England and Scotland in the seventeenth century, and this is reflected in Ulster English: the speech of County Antrim and adjoining areas is markedly Scottish, while further south in the Lagan valley and the areas round Belfast, local accents are influenced by the dialects of England.
1.2 Speech and writing
If you have occasion to write a conversation down, you are very likely to find it disjointed, stumbling and inarticulate. If you do react like this, that is because what you expect to find in speech follows your expectations of written language, particularly prose. It is difficult not to regard speech as an imperfect version of the written language.
As a preliminary exercise, find or make a recording of a natural conversation. Write down exactly what you hear, complete with ums and ahs, mistakes and repetitions. Avoid the temptation to edit the original: even though you can work out what the speaker really meant to say, write down what you actually hear. This is much more difficult than it sounds!

Which comes first: speech or writing?

The view conventionally taken by linguists and phoneticians is that speech is logically prior to writing. As individuals, we all learn to speak befo...

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