Wednesday 21 March 2012

Thoughts following my Stockholm presentation

I'm just back from Stockholm where I'd been invited to speak by Prof Philip Shaw (thank you Philip!). I gave a presentation on speech rhythm and intonation in HKE and also a bit of an overview of some of my PhD student's work on intonation in Malay English, followed by discussion with the attendant staff members. One of the things we talked about was the difference between the World Englishes and the learner Englishes viewpoints.

When I went to give a presentation in HK publicising the book on HKE (Setter, Wong & Chan 2010), one of the most interesting things was the attitude of some of the scholars present to the notion that HKE was an emergent variety of English. Cathy (Wong) and I were trying to present in the World Englishes paradigm by looking at the features of HKE and showing that there were many stable patterns which could be indicative of the formation of a NVE. Pronunciation in HKE, for example, is actually fairly stable, and so one could claim that, owing to this stability across speakers, it has become an identifying feature of the variety. However, more than one of the audience members completely rejected this notion, saying that it was only possible to look at English in Hong Kong as some kind of bad learner language.

I was actually quite taken aback by this at the time. Personally, I find it quite exciting to think those of us working on HKE might be present at the emergence of a NVE; it seemed rather negative to just rubbish this whole notion as those HK scholars were doing. However, I originally came from an ELT background and, looking at it from that perspective - as most (?) in HK probably do - HKE could be viewed as a kind of group fossilisation in which learners of English in HK have got stuck at a particular (erroneous) point and are just unable or unmotivated to progress past this.

But is the situation with World Englishes any different from the home grown ones of e.g. the UK? There are linguists and phoneticians who objectively document the differences in UK varieties of English in terms of the linguistic systems which have developed in different regions of the country, but at school one has to learn to speak and write in standard English (not RP - that's merely a prestige variant) and people are constantly writing in to the media complaining about how awful some popular figure's English is or how our children can't spell and punctuate any more. I recently saw a news report on a scheme in primary schools in Essex which is providing elocution lessons as this improves children's spelling. So those educationalists in HK (and other countries) who claim that HKE is just "poor English" have something in common with many others around the world, including those from the UK. Who knows - maybe one day we will spell "thing" with an "f" and "they" with a "d" in standard varieties of English if speakers in such different contexts as Essex and HK pronounce them as such ... but right now that's not acceptable in English pronunciation if one is taking the non-World Englishes view.

Hmm ... this is a bit of a rant. But hey - what are blogs for if not for a bit of a rant now and then? My thoughts on this matter are not fully formed. Over to you.


  1. I have no trouble saying that someone who says [fɪŋ] may still be speaking Standard English, just as someone who says [bæθ] for bath or [kɛːd] for cared may be. See Trudgill's wonderful paper "Standard English: what it isn't" (PDF).

    Personally, I will resist any attempt to spell thing as fing. However, if you want to start spelling vein as vain, I'm all for that: nobody makes that distinction any more.

    1. Yes, I'm not keen on spelling "thing" as "fing", but it might be out of our hands a long way down the line.

      The BATH vowel is a long-established regional difference, and we use different phoneme symbols to write the vowel dependent on how the speaker produces it, but they happen to be available for use. SQUARE-smoothing is more recent but I don't know if it's regional or not. We stick to the diphthongal phoneme symbol /eə/ in CEPD (as does John Wells in LPD) as it's not a different phoneme, just an allophonic variant. Collins and Mees, however, have adopted /ɛː/ for SQUARE; not sure that I approve of that as it's a bit too much like /ɜ:/ and could confuse students/learners (it doesn't seem to take muchǃ).

    2. That is to say: It's not that I mind because I have some sort of dislike for the /f/ > /θ/ sound change, I object because far too many anglophones show no trace of it, and reflecting it in the spelling could only confuse them. It is far better for a writer to have to remember to write theft rather than feft or to differentiate between lord and laud, than for a reader whose accent makes these distinctions to be confused by the unconventional spelling. Only if BrE and the other Englishes split up fully into separate languages, which is unlikely short of a fall of civilization, will the spellings fing and feft make any sense at all.

      For the record, my personal lexical-set mergers are TRAP=BAD=BATH=DANCE, NURSE=TERM=DIRT, FLEECE=BEAM, FACE=TRAIL=FREIGHT, LOT=PALM, CLOTH=THOUGHT (I am one of those irritating Yanks who make the CLOTH lexical set still necessary), GOAT=SNOW, GOOSE=THREW, NORTH=FORCE.

  2. Which reminds me, my (Irish but west of so the "θ" is there)of "bath" once caused me considerable difficulty in the purchase of a universal bath plug in John lewis at Brent cross.
    With regard to the general point of the post, I reckon the explanation is more political/social than linguistic. A lot of people find it hard to accept that the English is at is, spoken by all kinds of people in all kinds of ways, rather than they would like it to be, single, perfect, with there being one right way of saying it/pronouncing it regardless of who is talking and where and for what purpose.
    At least English isn’t cursed with an “Academy” which can abolish and/sigmatise/ accept words and grammatical structures as it sees fit.

    1. Yes, the political / social aspect is a major factor. I agree.