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Is there a right way to speak English?

BY Rob Drummond

17th Oct 2023 Life

4 min read

Is there a right way to speak English?
It's been a topic of debate over the years but linguist Rob Drummond argues that there is no right way to speak English. Here's why
Is there a right way to speak English? No! 
I mean, I can see why someone might ask; I can even see why someone else might say that there is, but I’m sticking with my original answer.  
In order to explain, let’s first look at why people might think that there is a right, or correct, or proper, or generally better way to speak English. The main reason is that we are part of a society which constantly and consistently places some ways of speaking above other ways of speaking. Depending on when you went to school you were either explicitly given elocution lessons in order to refine your accent (1950s), simply told to "speak properly" if you want to get on in life (1980s), or encouraged to speak in full sentences (now). And what all of these interventions have in common is that they are pushing young people towards some notion of a standard variety of English, or even a standard accent.  
And what’s wrong with that? I hear you ask. Why shouldn’t we teach young people to speak a certain way if they want to improve their chances in life? Well, perhaps first we should look at why this particular way of speaking is so much better than other ways of speaking. I mean, there must be some clear objective reasons for its perceived superiority, right?
"From a linguistic perspective, there is simply nothing better or worse about any particular accent"
Unfortunately, that’s not quite how language works. Let’s take what is now known as the King’s English. Recognisable all over the English-speaking world as the pinnacle of linguistic goodness, with its standard grammar and Received Pronunciation (RP). Or maybe let’s take its only slightly less posh cousin, BBC English, the voice of mainstream newsreaders across the land. These are without doubt the most prestigious accents in the UK. They are the accents that dictionary pronunciation guides are based on, that people learning English as a second language are taught, and that almost every UK Prime Minister living memory has had. But are they better than other accents?  
Well, no. From a linguistic perspective (as in, coming from the discipline that studies language), there is simply nothing better or worse about any particular accent, compared to any other. RP is not better than Mancunian, or Liverpudlian, or Glaswegian, it is simply different. There is nothing linguistically more sophisticated about RP. It doesn’t have any extra features or secret sounds; it is simply an accent, same as any other. 

What's the big deal about Received Pronunciation?

So, if there is nothing inherently better about RP, why is it so important? Why is it explicitly or implicitly the target for all of those elocution lessons and exhortations to speak properly? Honestly, it’s mainly due to historical chance and the British obsession with social class.  
Up until about the 16th century, people were generally happy to use whatever variety of language came to them. It’s true that there were the beginnings of a certain consistency in the ways in which things were written down, especially around London, but there was still a lot of variation between the different scribes who undertook this work. But in the late 15th century things started to change, in no small part due to the development of the printing press in 1476, set up in Westminster by a man called William Caxton. This new contraption allowed the production and reproduction of texts to a far greater degree, and at a far greater speed than before. But it first required some kind of agreement on which version of English to use. Being a man with sound business sense, Caxton made the decision to use the variety of English that he heard the people of power using around him—the variety of London and the southeast of England. This quickly caught on as the printing norm, and in so doing inadvertently set up a de facto standard variety of the language, a standard which people then began to take as a guide as to how the language should be spoken. 
William Caxton showing specimens of his printing to King Edward IV and his Queen
In time, this did indeed become the case. Pronunciation dictionaries started to appear, providing very strict guidelines as to correct and incorrect ways of saying things. Not only were people noticing the different ways that people spoke, but a whole industry emerged which encouraged people to judge themselves and other people based on these differences. And of course, the most prestigious ways of speaking were deemed to be those used by the great and good of London and the surrounding areas.  
And honestly, while the accents themselves may have changed over the last couple of hundred years, in terms of which ones are more or less prestigious things are pretty much the same. Educated middle- and upper-class accents from the southeast of England still sit at the top, and working-class accents from the rest of the country fight for their positions underneath. Because London and the southeast is where the power, and the people of influence, continue to be located. 
"Certain accents in the UK have gained their status because they were the ones that have traditionally been used by the people with power and influence"
The fact is, accents themselves don’t hold any power or prestige. That belongs to the people who use them. Certain accents in the UK have gained their status because they were the ones that have traditionally been used by the people with power and influence. If one or two battles in English history had gone another way and York had ended up being the capital city, then things would be very different from how they are now. Just imagine King Charles with his wonderfully flat Yorkshire vowels! And pity those poor people in Surrey, once again faced with the ignominy of having the least attractive accent in the UK. When we think of it this way, it seems the status of RP can really be put down to an accident of history.  
So yes, of course there are ways of speaking that will open doors for you as you move through life. But are they right ways of speaking English? Better ways of speaking English? Absolutely not. 
You're all talk
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