Stamping out the "Standard"

Updated: Aug 3

[The following is from PBS.org]

“American Heritage suggests there's no single, universally accepted standard for how to speak or write American English.“



Furthermore, they note:


People who invoke the term Standard English rarely make clear what they have in mind by it, and tend to slur over the inconvenient ambiguities that are inherent in the term.


[The term] is highly elastic and variable, since what counts as Standard English will depend on both the locality and the particular varieties that Standard English is being contrasted with.


A form that is considered standard in one region may be nonstandard in another...



A row of yellow wooden pegs all look the same with the word Standard written on top.
Standard yellow pegs. All look the same.

I realize that we are in a place and space in time when it feels like we can’t say anything that we used to say. I promise, I can understand how frustrating that feels. But, we also need to understand that the words we use matter.


Why do they matter?


On one hand, using a certain word/words to describe an abstract idea can lead to misinterpretation of that idea. On the other hand, using a certain word/words to describe a person or group of people can lead to much graver consequences.


Let's take the word "standard."


Using the word “standard” makes us feel as though that whatever this "standard" is, is the desired target. In some instances, perhaps this is warranted. But I’m not here to talk about those instances.


Now, let’s take the words “standard American English (SAE).” This terminology is often used to describe a “correct” or “proper” way to speak. But using this terminology does a few things:


1) it does not help us understand what that way of speaking actually IS


2) use of the term places it at the top of a hierarchy where none should exist


3) it leads to dichotomous thinking of “right” ~ aka Standard and “wrong” ~ aka every other way of speaking, with no room for gray


And I love gray.


Because this SAE term is being used to describe language, and language is cultural, and culture is embedded in people; it now places people in a hierarchy or leads to dichotomous thinking of people themselves:


People who speak SAE are smart and educated and right, therefore People who don’t speak (or know how to speak) SAE are not smart and not educated and wrong.


A very slippery slope.


Regarding my hierarchy analogy, you might be saying, well, MB, people are already placed in a societal hierarchy; socio-economic status, immigration status, educational background, ability status, etc. This is true. But do we really need to perpetuate this?


Now, I am aware that not everyone thinks that there is one correct way to speak (congrats and thank you to you!), but plenty of us do. More importantly, plenty of educational stakeholders think this way and plenty of job recruiters do too. And when we think in this way, and when we react accordingly, linguistic discrimination has occurred.


People who speak other dialects of English (yes, the so-called "Standard" is a dialect) like African American English, Chicano English*, or Appalachian English are often discriminated against because of the way that they speak. Or, a better way to put it, for NOT speaking society's "standard." But, please refer back to the first statement of this blog.


Another consequence of using the word "standard" when speaking about the way people talk is that it may impact someone's cultural identity. We have to understand that not everyone desires to speak this so-called “standard” and not everyone finds it necessary. But most importantly, using this term puts forth the idea that this significant piece of someone’s cultural identity has now been deemed as "improper" or "incorrect." A person’s culture is not improper.


The reverse is also true. When a person who is not expected to speak in this “standard” way, does, that also hits at their cultural identity. For example, when Black people speak using this “standard” form, they may be called ”articulate” or that they are “talking White.” Trust me, as a person who fits this description, these were never compliments to me.


Red apple is amongst a group of green apples and is being painted green.
Apple changing identity to "standard."

Thankfully, the word "standard" in Standard American English is starting to get replaced with words like “mainstream” (not agreed upon by all) or “general” (still not agreed upon by all). But, at least we are heading in the direction where using the terminology “Standard American English” is seen as disrespectful, discriminatory, and culturally insensitive - to those who do not speak the “standard.” More importantly, it is just plain incorrect.

Simply put, what’s considered a “standard” way of talking is relative.

I have lived in 6 different states and have traveled all over the world. Everyone’s definition of the “standard” way of speaking is completely different than another’s. And if you think you speak “standard” - put yourself in another part of your state or another part of the country and someone else will think you don’t. Yes, the media and educational institutions have made us think there is one correct way to speak, but it’s time we question those views.


To be honest, I don’t currently have a comfortable way to describe this way of speaking. I don’t love the phrase “Mainstream American English” although that’s what I currently use. But, I also don’t love the phrase “General American English.” Ive even heard people speak of the “language of wider communication.” Sigh. If anyone has a better term, please let me know.

We have learned to be careful with the words we choose when talking about our feelings or when explaining a difficult concept to another person, but it’s time we take a closer look at the words we use to describe our ideas about language. Because within those ideas are the people and their cultures who are impacted by them.


Language matters. Culture counts.


For more conversations about language and identity, check out my podcast! Or join my Facebook group to read articles about language, culture and identity.

* Not everyone agrees on the terminology used for so many things. This includes use of the terms African American English, Chicano English, and Appalachian English. I do not use these terms to offend, but to describe using current wisely known terms.


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