Queen’s English is the norm, but for how much longer?


Queen’s English is the norm, but for how much longer?

Is the ‘split infinitive’ acceptable or not?

The English have high standards when it comes to language: in formal situations you should speak “proper” English and avoid certain sentence constructions. But most people are more relaxed in their opinions during everyday language use. These are some of the results of a study by linguist Carmen Ebner. She defended her PhD on 5 September 2017 at Leiden University. Her research was supported by funding from the NWO Free Competition.

Just as the Dutch have linguistic irritations of their own, the English get worked up about all sorts of language variants. ‘One of the best known is the split infinitive,’ explains Ebner, ‘where an adverb comes in between the two parts of the verb: ‘He refused to even think about it’!’ The word “even” is in an unusual place here. Other examples are the use of “I” rather than “me” in ‘Between you and I’, or the modern interjection “like” in ‘The restaurant is like two minutes up the road’.

A lot of complaining goes on about language like this on internet forums, or in letters to the newspapers. But the debate is often dominated by “prescriptivists” – people who want to prescribe certain standards. On the other side are the linguists who call themselves “descriptivists”: they simply describe how people use language, without expressing a judgement on whether it is right or wrong. The opinion of the vast majority of people is often ignored. This is why Ebner wanted to chart the value judgements of this group.

BBC building in LondenBBC: keeper of the Queen’s English? Photo: Shutterstock / BasPhoto

To gauge the attitudes of the general public as accurately as possible, the PhD student used various research techniques. Ebner: ‘In earlier studies looking at language attitudes, researchers asked people directly what they did and did not consider acceptable in language. But usually people give socially desirable answers to such questions. To get around that, I used direct and indirect tests side-by-side so that I could unearth both conscious and unconscious judgments.’

Did you know? A person who uses a double negative is characterised as less educated or as a dialect speaker. Less well known “language errors” attract less social stigma.

Unaccepted language variants

This was the case, for example, in the face-to-face interviews conducted with 63 subjects from Cambridge, London and Oxford. They first had to read an application letter and then indicate which words or phrases they found acceptable and unacceptable. ‘Some people did not correct anything, others literally the whole letter. Afterwards I confronted them with the underlying rules and asked for their opinion. It often emerged that people considered the split infinitive as unacceptable, for example, even though they hadn’t corrected it in the letter.’

The interviews also employed a second indirect testing method. Here, the subjects were asked to listen to sound fragments of a speaker who used unaccepted language variants, and another speaker who only used accepted language variants. The latter speaker was judged by all subjects to be harder working, more literate, more polite and more affluent.

Ebner: ‘People who use a double negative, for example, are characterised as less educated or as dialect speakers. So there is clearly a social stigma attached to this type of language phenomenon. But less well-known “language errors” are less affected by this stigma.’

The PhD student also used an online questionnaire that she sent to over a hundred English recipients. They were asked to give their opinion on a range of known language irritations: a very direct testing method. Ebner analysed the data on the basis of age, gender (male/female) and native language. Each of these factors was found to influence the way in which opinions were formed. ‘The older participants in particular considered fewer sentence constructions as acceptable,’ says Ebner. Women tended to take a stricter attitude, as did non-native speakers. ‘But the latter have had a different education.’

For a long time, English lessons in England just meant literature. In the Netherlands, there was a lot of grammar
- Carmen Ebner

Older people associate unacceptable language variants mainly with lower levels of education or with young people, according to Ebner. ‘They also criticised current language teaching, which they said was not up-to-date. Some participants said that young people needed to learn better which forms are acceptable in which situations. But other studies show that students do know they shouldn’t use abbreviations during an exam in the way they do on WhatsApp. But of course it is true that a lot has changed in this respect. Young people for certain are now writing much more on social media.’

Literary currents

Is the situation in England comparable to that in the Netherlands? Not entirely, according to Ebner. ‘In the Netherlands, you get a solid grammar education in Dutch classes. But in England, for a long time you only got literature in English lessons. You were directed to the most important books and literary currents. Language became a separate subject only recently, six or seven years ago.’

Puerto Ricans on the streets of New YorkYoung Puerto Ricans on the streets of New York. In the United States, ethnicity plays a greater role in the variation of the standard language. Photo: Shutterstock / Tatiana Sayig

And the situation is different in the United States too, according to Ebner. ‘There, ethnicity plays a greater role in the variation of the standard language. In England, social class is much more important. In public life, RP or BBC English is still the norm. Although nowadays more and more accents can be heard on the BBC. So the norm is definitely changing, and I’d like to research that too.’

Further information

Carmen Ebner defended her PhD at Leiden University on 5 September 2017 with her thesis entitled “Proper English Usage” as part of the Free Competition project “Attitudes to usage vs. actual usage in British and American English”. The main applicant and supervisor is professor I.M. (Ingrid) Tieken-Boon van Ostade.

Source: Nemo Kennislink, Mathilde Jansen

Photo banner: Shutterstock / Thoom