Different accent or bad diction?

I’ve written before about confusion about the term dropping your g’s. The Time columnist Claire Foges waded into this debate on 20 September. Her article argues that people can improve their life chances by learning to speak and write what she calls Standard English. I agree with her on that. But her comments show some confusion.

Is Standard English best?

Foges says: “Standard English is best because it is the Standard, with rules the vast majority understand. It is the medium through which writers and speakers of language can achieve maximum clarity and minimum confusion. This is why deviating from it can grate.”

Foges also says: “If people speak sloppily, mangling their grammar and failing to enunciate their words properly, language turns from a window between souls into a wall between them–and swiftly, subconsciously, we label the speaker… Few things affect our chances more than how we speak.”

These comment contain some valid points:

  • Standard English is widely understood, so speaking or writing it gives you a good chance of being understood.
  • Deviations from Standard English can grate with some readers or listeners who expect Standard English. This can lead to unjustified and unreasonable bias against the writer or speaker. To reduce the chances of such bias occurring, some people may wish (or find it useful) to learn how to reduce deviations from Standard English.

But Foges makes some points that, in my view, are less valid:

  • Standard English is best because using it can lead to maximum clarity and minimum confusion. This may be partly true–not because Standard English is inherently clearer and less confusing, but because two people are more likely to understand each other best if they both use the same variety of a language.
  • Deviations from Standard English are attributable to sloppiness, mangling, lack of enunciation and similar failings. Well, in my view, that depends: if someone is trying to produce Standard English, deviations are indeed errors. But if someone isn’t trying to produce Standard English, a deviation isn’t an error at all.

To take an extreme example, if I speak French, what I say will consist entirely of deviations from Standard English. That doesn’t mean I am being sloppy or mangling Standard English grammar or failing to enunciate Standard English. Choosing to speak French at that point, rather than Standard English, may or may not have been the wisest decision, but that is a separate question.

Similarly, using an accent different from Standard English is not a case of speaking Standard English badly, it is just using a different accent.

Accent or diction?

Claire Foges goes on to comment on recent remarks by Digby Jones, which I discussed in Droppin’ g’s = bad speech? – Language Miscellany. She argues that some of the criticism of Jones was misplaced because, in her view, he “was talking not about accent but about diction”. Frankly, that statement is just ridiculous. Jones was criticising presenters for pronouncing the combination represented in writing by <-ing> as [-in], not as [-iŋ]. That is using an accent that differs from “Received Pronunciation”, it is not speaking badly or sloppily or lazily.

Some common accents in the UK

The web site for the project Accent Bias in Britain contains a useful summary of 5 accents in Britain:

  • Received Pronunciation
  • Estuary English
  • Multicultural London English
  • General Northern English
  • Urban West Yorkshire English

This is available at Accents in Britain – Accent Bias Britain

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