From The Guardian (Education section), London, 6 September 1994

Estuary English

Tony Bex takes issue with Gillian Shephard and her recently aired objections to English as she is spoken.

In what was billed as her "first in-depth interview" as Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Shephard spoke to the Daily Mail last Wednesday. Perhaps predictably, a significant amount of the interview concerned the teaching of English and the supposed "erosion of standards". I say "predictably" because the teaching of English has always been an easy target since it arouses such strong passions. We are all experts in the use of our own language, and we all feel we know how other people should use it.

Mrs Shephard rounded up the usual suspects: literacy and grammar, but also identified a new culprit: "Estuary English", a variety of speech which she has "even heard in Norfolk".

Estuary English is a convenient term to describe a variety of English that is chiefly distinguished by its pronunciation. Based on accents that were centred around Greater London, it has spread beyond the Home Counties and is chiefly adopted by the young (although it is also used by older people who grew up in the London area). It retains certain linguistic features from these origins and has been well described by Paul Coggle in his book Do You Speak Estuary? (Bloomsbury). It is difficult to see why it should upset Mrs Shephard. For most people, it is perfectly intelligible and for the young who use it regularly it is a marker of social identity that sets them apart from those other groups from which they wish to distance themselves. If it is a fad, it will wither in the same way as the mock Liverpudlian accent withered after the Beatles et al.

If it represents a more permanent historical shift ( similar, for example, to the adoption of the East Midland dialect in the 15th and 16th centuries), there is nothing Mrs Shephard can do about it. But then that is the problem with language, and the problem for teachers of language. Different varieties of English develop precisely because their speakers wish to assert their cohesiveness as a social group.

One role of the language teacher must surely be to educate children so that they are made aware of how and why English varies functionally, regionally and socially. Different ways of saying are also different ways of meaning and the myth that there is a single model, often referred to as Standard English, which is appropriate in all situations and for all purposes, must be laid to rest. If we are to teach English successfully, then we must teach it comprehensively, sympathetically and critically. No particular variety should be stigmatised since every variety has a function within society.

It is not at all clear that Mrs Shephard would agree with this programme, not least because it might expose her own uses to critical scrutiny. She is quoted as saying: "There is an accelerated process of erosion of the language. There is concern that less importance is paid by individual people to literacy and grammatical skills. People are judged by employers and others by the way they express themselves. Expression by grunt should not be allowed."

We can analyse these consecutive sentences in various ways. The first would be to engage in the old-fashioned process of parsing in which nouns and verbs, subjects and objects, etc are identified and laid out as so much dead meat on a slab.

The second, and far more interesting way of analysing them, is to see how they work and what they mean in context. As a series of assertions they have a neat rhetorical structure. "There is" is repeated; "people" in the second sentence is picked up and made the subject of the following sentence; "express" is nominalised to become the subject of the final sentence. This is the rhetoric of the politician and appropriate for a newspaper interview. Carefully structured, it is ideal for its purposes, but those purposes are highly specific. Imagine discussing language with friends in a pub, and such usages would seem pompous and contrived.

If we look at the sentences again, as a sequence of developing meanings, then something quite bizarre seems to be happening. The first and second sentences are simply assertions. We can contradict or accept them. Or, more tellingly, we can ask for evidence. However, if we accept the second sentence as true, we are left with a dilemma. Who are the people who are concerned? Presumably not the individual people who are paying less importance to literacy and grammatical skills. It must be the people in the third sentence who (with the employers) are busy judging others.

And finally, in the fourth sentence, who has the authority to ban "expression by grunt", the same people or some other unspecified group? Are there never occasions where a grunt may be a perfectly acceptable mode of expression? Again, we may feel that this method of constructing an argument is perfectly appropriate for a politician speaking to a tabloid, but its logic would hardly impress an A-level examiner.

In conducting this brief analysis, I am less interested in criticising Mrs Shephard than in showing that the analysis is much more complex than offering children the "rules". These rules vary according to who is speaking to whom and for what purpose. Issues of accent, for example, are of no concern between friends, although they may be for someone who intends to become a broadcaster.

Even here, though, there is variability since it may be less appropriate for someone broadcasting on local radio to use the same accent as someone broadcasting on a national wavelength. Equally, issues of grammatical acceptability vary depending on the purpose of the exchange. Had I been writing to a friend about these issues, I might well have expressed myself more forcefully (for example, by not writing in complete sentences), and might even have used vocabulary that would have been unacceptable in a newspaper. Or, to put it another way, there are occasions when a grunt is an appropriate response.

But where does this leave the poor English teachers? They have been instructed by successive Ministers of Education to teach a particular variety of English as "correct". Their own experience, and that of their pupils, makes them constantly aware that there are competing varieties of English in the neighbourhood, on the radio and TV, and in the press. And yet these varieties are deemed "incorrect" by the politicians and largely excluded from the curriculum. The teachers, then, are left with the dilemma of having to teach something that they know is false.

And yet the alternative: to discuss language variety and how it has developed and changed historically; to analyse how different varieties function within our contemporary society, would be to admit tacitly that the nation is made up of different social groups with different forms of behaviour (for language is above all a form of behaviour) and with different aspirations. Not surprisingly, such an educational programme is anathema to the majority of our politicians.

Tony Bex is senior lecturer in English and Linguistics at The University of Kent at Canterbury.

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