As an American English Education student who is currently taking courses in British Literature and having had read Victorian Literature in those courses, what affected me the most in my Aspects of the English Language course was the knowledge I gained in the formation of isoglosses and the difference between a dialect and an accent. For starters, everyone speaks in a dialect, as a dialect is the realization of a language. As such, using myself as an example, I would have an American English dialect or AE, because of the area in which I as well as my parents, were born and raised in.
However, another dialect in the English language would consist of the British English dialect.
The textbook Language its Structure and its Use defines a dialect as “A language variety characteristic of a particular social group; dialects can be characteristic of regional, ethnic, socioeconomic, or gender groups” (Finegan 535). Dialects are mutually intelligible regional or social varieties of a single language.
Because Victorian literature focuses on England geographically, the characters involved in the novels we read in class would speak differently than we do in America. Often times a clip of a film adaptation is shown. For example, someone may say that a character has a ‘Cockney accent’ is the incorrect use of the word. The correct thing to say is that the character has a Cockney dialect. This is due to the Cockney dialect being a language variety of the overall English language. The Cockney dialect belongs to the English language.
An accent is defined as “the pronunciation features of any spoken language” (Finnegan 531). Though overtime in some languages such as the English language, the pronunciation and sound of the language became more prestigious than others. Such was the case with the Queens English dialect in England which historically was seen as more prestigious than the working-class’ Cockney dialect. As seen in the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw where the Cockney speaking character, Eliza Doolittle, is seen as a project for the phonetics Professor Higgins and the linguist Colonel Pickering. In America this would extend to the Standard American dialect which is seen as more intelligent than the southern states’ Southern dialect. When analyzing texts and characters such as those found in Pygmalion it is important to remember that a dialect differs from an accent. As stated in Language its Structure and Use “dialect refers to a language variety in its totality, including vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, pragmatics, and any other aspect of the linguistic system. By contrast, the word accent refers to pronunciation only” (Finegan 371). Often times when an American thinks of a ‘British accent’ they are imagining the sound of the language or how a word is pronounced.
However, on a bigger scale, the English language is made up of many different dialects. A language variety refers to characteristics of a particular regional (regional dialect) or social groups (social dialect). The English language is alive and is always changing. According to an article listed on babble.com “Out of the world’s approximately 7.5 billion inhabitants, 1.5 billion speak English — that’s 20% of the Earth’s population. However, most of those people aren’t native English speakers. About 360 million people speak English as their first language. In addition to being widely spoken, English is by far the most commonly studied foreign language in the world, followed by French at a distant second” (Lyons). With so many people speaking one single language of course there would be varieties in grammar spoken in the language. However instead of seeing the English language as a wide ranged and varying language it is instead seen as being spoken in a correct and incorrect way.
Returning to Pygmalion, the character Eliza, in this text speaks in a Cockney dialect, as a member of England’s working class she speaks in the less ‘posh’ Cockney dialect. Professor Higgins gives Eliza speech lessons in an attempt to train her to speak in what he believes to be ‘the proper way’. Throughout the text he chastises her whenever she slips back into her own dialect, often making remarks detailing how he views her natural dialect as unintelligent and as the wrong way to speak the English language. As stated in Mugglestone’s article on this topic “Shaw himself recurs often in his writings to this notion of accent as social impediment, though perhaps most pertinently in his 1906 comment that ‘most Englishmen and women would almost rather die than be convicted of speaking like costermongers and flower girls’. This comment, giving additional emphasis to Shaw’s perceptions of linguistic disadvantage and its social correlations, serves more significantly, however, to underline the particular social resonance of the cockney in then contemporary English society, a fact which is, moreover, used by Shaw to add a further dimension to the social meanings already evident in Eliza’s transformation” (Mugglestone 380). The Cockney dialect was seen as unintelligent to speakers of the Queens English dialect in this era as stated in this quote “way in which ‘The Cockney dialect seems very ugly to the educated Englishman or woman because he-and still more she-lives in a perpetual terror of being taken for a Cockney’. A report on the teaching of English in elementary schools, published in 1909, went still further: ‘Most dialects have their own distinctive charm and historical interest; but Cockneyism seems to have no redeeming features, and need only to be heard to be condemned.’
The linguistic prejudice manifest in such statements was of course merely a marker of attendant social prejudice, but nevertheless, for many in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such statements were adopted as social facts, employed, as by Gissing, to reinforce perceptions of the inherent rather than imposed inequality surrounding the cockney (Mugglestone 380). In the play Higgins mother weights in on Professor Higgin’s transformation of Eliza’s speech by stating “She’s a triumph of your art and of her dressmaker’s; but if you suppose for a moment that she doesn’t give herself away in every sentence she utters, you must be perfectly cracked about her” (Shaw). Meaning that Eliza looks the part of what was considered to be a sophisticated woman at the time, but she is believed to ruin the illusion Higgins has created the moment she speaks.
Higgins speaks the higher class’ Queens English dialect which was seen as being posher than the Cockney speaker’s low-class dialect. Due to a divide in socioeconomic status these two dialects arose. Finnegan in Language its Structure and its Use would define a dialect such as this to be a social dialect. He states “language varies from region to region and also across ethnic, socioeconomic, and gender boundaries. Speakers of American English know that many white Americans and black Americans tend to speak differently, even when they live in the same city. Similarly, middle class speakers can often be distinguished from working class speakers. Women and men also differ from one another in their language use. Throughout the world, in addition to regional dialects, there are ethnic varieties, social class varieties, and gender varieties. These constitute what some call social dialects, although the word dialect is commonly limited to a regional variety” (Finnegan 370). On a much larger scale, two major national dialect varieties of the English language include British English and American English. British English (BE) is the base of the varieties of English spoken in England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa, among others. American English (AE or AmE) is the base of the varieties of English spoken in the United States of America. British English and American English dialects can differ in pronunciation. For instance, the word aluminum in IPA is /ˌæl.(j)ʊˈmɪn.i.əm/ for Queens English dialect speakers and /ˌæl.(j)uˈmɪn.i.əm/ for the standard American English dialect speakers. British English and American English dialects can also differ in spelling.
Such as the British spelling of the word ‘color’ is spelled as ‘colour’. Among these differences there are also syntaxial and grammar differences between the BE dialect and the AE dialect. Such as the use of the American English version of the phrase “in the hospital” compared to the British English version “in hospital”.
In conclusion, the English language is spoken by a large variety of people The English language has an extensive history. Much like how the English language was viewed in the Victorian era with the Queens English and the Cockney dialects, this is similar to the American dialects’ Standard American dialect and the Southern dialect, in which one dialect is seen as being the superior and correct way to speak the language. When in actuality there is no correct way to speak a language, any way that an individual speaks a language is a viable and valid variety of speaking the language. Because the English language is always changing with new words being added to the oxford dictionary every year our language is always developing. Who knows how our language will grow and develop over the next few centuries?
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