The dialectics of English dialects

Oliver Kamm’s ignorance of his chosen subject, the English language, continues to astound me. Rather than learning the basic concepts of linguistics, he simply applies to language the same relativistic multi-culti standards he applies to everything else – with predictably risible results.

In his latest article Ollie defends Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, against accusations of thickness based on her Mancunian accent: “A speaker’s accent is totally unrelated to their intelligence.”

Anyone who follows a singular antecedent with a plural personal pronoun should be forbidden to pronounce on English, or indeed anything else, on pain of corporal punishment.

This of course comes from the politically motivated campaign to abolish masculine pronouns altogether. But an explanation isn’t an excuse: it’s incumbent on a writer to protect language against perversions, not to trail in the wake of any cretinous fad.

However one defines intelligence, be it simply IQ or intellectual attainment, of course accent has nothing to do with it. It does have something to do with the speaker’s social, cultural and educational background though. The accent acts as a calling card.

Kamm’s tumble into inanity has an accelerator built in: the farther he falls, the thicker he sounds. “Almost all of us have an accent,” he writes, “that is tied to a particular region.”

That simply isn’t true. Though one of the most brilliant men I know speaks with a Yorkshire accent, most of my friends speak without any geographical peculiarities whatsoever – they enunciate their sounds in accordance with the generally accepted (received) pronunciation used by most cultured Englishmen.

Someone with a good ear may be able to tell what kind of school this or that chap went to, but I defy anyone to do a Dr Higgins and pinpoint the part of the country any of them come from.

That falsehood was essential to Ollie because without it he wouldn’t have been able to make a startlingly ignorant point that has more to do with his politics than with any knowledge of the subject: there is no standard. We all speak in dialect:

“In reality, standard English is merely the regional dialect that got lucky, being associated historically with the wealth and power of London and thereby crowding out other varieties of the language.”

As someone who in his impressionable youth had to spend sleepless nights cramming for an exam in the history of the English language, I can offer Ollie a piece of avuncular advice: don’t go there.

Let’s just accept that all languages develop a standard, non-dialectal pronunciation one way or the other, with some dialects persisting in their particularism. The standard is usually based on the way people speak in the capital, but not invariably so.

Standard French, for example, developed some 100 miles south of Paris, in the Loire Valley, and standard Russian was formed on the basis of Moscow at a time when Petersburg was the capital. Without venturing into a linguistic thicket where it’s so easy to get lost, let’s just say that it’s not only “wealth and power” that forms a phonetic standard.

Speaking of English specifically, London had been the centre of “wealth and power” for centuries before it exercised its magnetic pull on other dialects. Even in the eighteenth century regional varieties were perfectly normal. No one in London looked down on Dr Johnson because he spoke with a Lichfield accent.

And when the good doctor compiled the first dictionary of the English language, he didn’t include any phonetic indications because he regarded those as strictly individual. In other words, the “wealth and power” of London hadn’t yet produced phonetic uniformity even though it had been England’s capital since the Romans.

In any case, to advance his credentials as a language guru, Ollie ought to learn the difference between an accent and a dialect. For there’s more to a dialect than just pronunciation.

A dialect is a deviation from a widely accepted standard, and it also reveals itself in localised grammatical structures and vocabulary. Hence it’s sheer ignorance to say, as Ollie does, that: “Everyone has an accent; and everyone also has a dialect.” Regarding standard English as a dialect is logically false, which Ollie inadvertently proves in his next statement:

The Times is written entirely in dialect. The dialect we use is standard English… Because standard English is so widespread, it’s essential to know its grammar and conventions, even if it’s not the dialect you use with family and friends. But a dialect is what it is – just one among many dialects and several different languages native to these islands.”

Standard English can’t by definition be a dialect: if it were, it wouldn’t be standard. Since even Ollie can’t help using the S-word, it follows logically that a dialect is a deviation from a standard.

English needs a non-dialectal standard more than other languages. This relatively small island boasts 50 major dialects, and God only knows how many minor ones. London alone has five different accents, practically more than Russia has in her entirety.

Some of those dialects are so different that speakers of standard English have difficulty understanding them. For example, my wife, who grew up in Exeter, couldn’t as a girl understand farmers from five miles away. And to this day she asks me to translate whenever she hears a heavy Glaswegian or Geordie accent.

It’s as if God has done his Babel trick in England: “Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”

Under such circumstances, standard English is not only a cultural indicator but an essential adhesive of a nation. And make no mistake about it: this invaluable factor of unity is reeling under the blows delivered by multi-culti egalitarians like Ollie.

They promote dialects not because they cherish the rich history of the English language but because they need a battering ram of class war. They hate ‘toffs’ (to whom they themselves belong) and everything about them, including their cultured accents.

The Ollies of this world may just succeed in destroying standard English; they’ve made giant strides already. But there will be collateral damage: English culture, possibly even English nationhood.

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