Varieties Of English Usage

So often, in discussions of poetic language, people compare it with non-poetic ('ordinary', 'everyday', 'orthodox') language, without going into the question of what this latter category contains. A glance at the diversity of English usage outside literature will help to put things in the right perspective.

i.i.i Dialects

Everyone is familiar with one kind of diversity in language: that of coexisting dialects. A language such as English contains not only different regional dialects, used by the inhabitants of different areas, but also social dialects, or varieties of English characteristic of a particular social class or section of the community - forces slang, for example, or the language of schoolchildren.

The question of what dialect to use has generally been a simple one for

English poets: ever since the fifteenth century, and more clearly than ever today, there has been a privileged dialect, a standard English, to which any writer wishing to command the attention of a wide educated audience has naturally turned. This standard English cuts across the boundaries of regional dialects, and is, in fact, international : American, Indian, Australian, and British writers make use of what, except for minor features of local currency, may be considered the same standard dialect. In the history of English literature since the Middle Ages, only one poet of unquestioned greatness, Robert Burns, has chosen to write his best work outside the standard dialect. Other poets, notably Rudyard Kipling and Thomas Hardy, have made extensive use of dialect in 'character' poems.

1.1.2. Registers: Usage according to situation

More central than dialect to the present topic is the diversity of English usage not according to the background of the speaker or writer, but according to the situation in which he is prompted to use language. It is usual to distinguish, amongst the circumstances which affect our use of English, the medium of communication (especially whether by speech or writing), the social relation between the participants, and the role of the communication.4

The social relation between the participants (that is, for the most part, between the author and his audience) determines what we may call in a broad sense the tone of the discourse - whether it is colloquial or formal, familiar or polite, personal or impersonal, and so on. The role of a piece of language is the place it has in the manifold patterns of human activities and institutions. Types of language which can be more obviously pigeonholed as performing different roles are legal English, scicntific English, liturgical English, advertising English, the English of journalism, all corresponding to public institutions which we acknowledge and identify with little difficulty. All these varieties of English may be comprehended in the notion of register, which, as language 'according to use', complements that of dialect, or language 'according to user'.5

Whereas each of us may be said to speak a recognizable dialect of English, he also has at his command, then, a range of registers, or usages, amongst which he can move, as speaker or writer, without difficulty, and indeed, often unconsciously. We rarely notice, for instance, how our manner of speech is transformed when we turn from conversation with a close friend or member of our family to talk to a stranger. In addition, we have a passive familiarity with a further range of registers (e.g. of advertising, of income tax forms, of sermons) within which we are rarely, if ever, called upon to perform the function of authorship. We can recognize almost instinctively the salient qualities of these types of English, so that, incidentally, we are able to compose or respond to parodies of them. When we find ourselves in a given communication situation, we automatically switch ourselves into the 'set of mind' for producing or receiving messages in the appropriate register. Any deviation from expected patterns of linguistic behaviour will bring about a reaction of disorientation and surprise.

It is evident that literature is to be fitted into this special framework as constituting a special role of language (although, as we shall see in Chapter ii, this in a sense amounts to an invitation to the poet to invent what role he pleases). Like the other roles mentioned above, the literary role corresponds to a distinct social or cultural function, the aesthetic function, for which a distinct form of linguistic behaviour is expected. As we are not concerned with appraisal, either within literature or outside it, there is no need to feel that there is disrespect in associating poetry with journalism, advertising, income tax forms, etc., in this fashion. Nor need anyone feel that the status of literary activity as a social institution is jeopardized by the difficulty of defining its function in society, or of drawing a clean line between literature and other kinds of linguistic composition on the fringes of literary art. For the present purpose, what makes a piece of writing literature is simply its treatment as literature by writer and reader - the fact that they both bring to it the assumptions, expectations, and standards which apply to literature rather than (say) to a deed of covenant, or a monograph on the ecology of eels.

Registers, like dialects, are different 'Englishes': they are distinguished by special features of semantics, vocabulary, grammar, sometimes even of pronunciation. For instance we recognize the sentence ' the bus we got on was the one he'd got off' as colloquial in tone because of a number of lexical and grammatical features:

1. the idiomatic phrases get on and get off;

2. the contraction of he had to he'd;

3. the lack of relative pronouns in the relative clauses 'we got on' and 'he'd got off';

4. The placement of the prepositions at the end of these clauses. (This is a necessary concomitant of 3.)

A corresponding formal version, with none of these features, might be: 'The bus which we boarded was that from which he had alighted.' This will probably strike most people as pompous,"because the subject matter of the sentence is not of a sort to be treated formally. The Englishes of different roles are most clearly differentiated by special vocabulary: legal English by fossilized forms like hereinafter, in addition to an extensive technical vocabulary; scientific language by its innumerable technical terms, generally composed of Greek elements, and sometimes of grotesque length, like phosphonochloridothioic (acid). Grammatical differences, also, are not wanting: there is a striking survival in religious English, for example, of the second person singular pronoun thou/thee/thy/thine, with its attendant verb forms shouldst, etc., although these have long been obsolete in most other varieties of English.

Not that these rules of religious English, colloquial English, etc., have been ascertained to the extent of those of general English usage, which have long been codified in grammars and dictionaries. The conventions of such subdivisions of the language lie in more or less unanalysed feelings about what is appropriate in a certain situation. Medical students probably learn without special tuition that 'His tummy is all upset' or 'He's got a bit of a head' is not the sort of tiling to put in a medical report. Disregarding conventions of this kind does not lead to misunderstanding so much as to embarrassment or amusement. If on receiving a formal wedding invitation 'Mr and Mrs Gordon Jones .. .' I reply familiarly in writing 'Thanks a lot - so sorry I can't make it', this is-a faux pas similar to that of turning up at the wedding without a jacket, or wearing tennis shoes at a ball.

These 'Englishes' are difficult to describe precisely, because they shade into one another, and have internal variations which could, if wished, lead to interminable sub-classification. For instance, we could not, on any reasonable principle, draw a strict line between the English of journalism, and the English of belles lettres or of general educational writing; or, to take another example, between formal and colloquial English - for there are innumerable degrees of formality and informality in language. The analogy of regional dialects is instructive on this point: rigid geographical frontiers between one dialect and another are exceptional.

These remarks are especially applicable to literature. Consider the futility of trying to draw an exact boundary between novels counting as 'literature', and the mass of popular fiction; or within literature, between lyric, epic, and other poetic genres.

Another thing we have to take into account is how rigid and restricting are the special habits of usage in different situations, more particularly in different roles. It would be misleading to suggest that in science, the law, or journalism, acceptable performance depends on slavishly following the dictates of convention: in all these spheres, a certain latitude is allowed, in which individual freedom and individual talent can assert itself. However, roles of language differ widely in how generous the latitude is: it is useful to draw a distinction here between liberal roles, in which the pressure to linguistic conformity is weak, and strict roles, in which it is strong. The language of legal documents and the language of religious observance are the clearest examples of strictness in this special sense. In these roles, not only is a certain usage strictly insisted on, but often also a certain exact form of wording. Representatives of the opposite tendency are the roles of feature journalism, fiction writing, and general educational writing, in which good linguistic performance is measured not so much by one's ability to use the conventions properly, as by one's ability to escape from the conventions altogether. In these liberal roles, originality counts in the writer's favour; the conventions on the other hand, are considered marks of unoriginality, and are condemned by the use of terms like 'cliche', 'hackneyed', 'jargon', 'journalese'. From a historical viewpoint, strictness often means conservatism, and hence the cherishing of archaic forms of language, whereas liberalism goes with a ready acceptance of innovation.

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