A Journal of the Language Services of European Institutions

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THE QUESTION OF STANDARD ENGLISH: SOME CONSIDERATIONS ON JOHN HONEY'S LANGUAGE IS POWER Christopher Rollason Published in Terminologie et Traduction / Terminology and Translation: A Journal of he Language Services of the European Institutions (Luxembourg: European Commission), No 3. 2001, pp. 30-60 Abstract In the global economy to which we are now irreprievably condemned, there is no escaping the English language: innumerable citizens of the planet are surrounded by it, in their business or professional dealings, on the telephone, in letters, books, and scholarly articles, on radio and television, at the cinema, in the courses of thousands of language schools, in computer programmes, and on the Internet (English is even the language of this article!). The rise of English to the status of global lingua franca may be applauded or deplored, but it is here to stay, at least for our lifetime. A book like John Honey's Language is Power which, polemically but highly seriously, attempts to reflect on the state and nature of the English language today is necessarily to be welcomed. In the present article, I offer a sympathetic examination of John Honey's main positions, as well as adding some of my own thoughts on English in the world today. The raison d'être of Language is Power is to challenge an orthodoxy which has dominated the teaching of English in Britain for several decades, namely that neither Standard English nor grammar should be systematically taught to school pupils. I examine in detail the various aspects of this orthodoxy and John Honey's counter-arguments, and then offer some considerations of my own on the possible historical and cultural reasons for the orthodoxy's existence, before briefly suggesting, in conclusion, some perspectives for the future development of English. ooo 1. A challenge to the orthodox John Honey, the author of Language Is Power (1997), has had a long and distinguished career as professor of English at various universities around the globe - most recently at Osaka International University - and is eminently qualified to write on the English language. His positions are, however, highly controversial in the world of academic linguistics, largely because he has taken it upon himself to attack a number of its shibboleths. For several decades now, as anyone who has taught English will know, there has been a highly influential linguistic orthodoxy in academic and pedagogic circles in the Englishspeaking world, which asserts that to teach grammar and Standard English is at best unsound, and at worst downright oppressive. John Honey's openly expressed views in favour of Standard English have, indeed, caused him to be labelled as 'new Right' and considered a spokesman for a reactionary ideology which, as he makes clear, he has nothing to do with in either its evangelical or its ultra-free-market aspects1. It appears that in 'progressive' teaching milieux a concern with grammar or with rigour of vocabulary is often equated with right-wing 1

Honey, Language is Power, 218-219.


politics and general social conservatism: whether that assumption has any genuine intellectual substance will be considered in the present essay. At all events, John Honey's book, as a summation and synthesis of views he has defended in numerous other publications, has certainly set the cat among the linguistically correct pigeons. A few points should be clarified first. This book is about Standard English, by which is meant the codified form of English spoken and written by educated native speakers (and, to whatever degree of accuracy, non-native speakers) worldwide. Standard English does of course have its variants - British English, American English, Indian English, etc; but, as Honey points out, the "differences ... are relatively small"2, especially in the written form. Standard English is not a matter of accent; it is a matter of grammar, vocabulary and semantics. The same written English sentence can be...
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