Two weeks ago I published a blog post about deleting my “nonstandard” pronunciation of mischievous (I pronounced it “mischievious”) from a podcast. That same week, students in my introductory English linguistics course and I were slated to talk through the concept of “Standard English,” which is a more challenging concept than it might first appear.
“Standard English” (or “standard English” without the capital S, or more specifically “Standard/standard American (or British or Australian, etc.) English,” or “Mainstream U.S. English,” etc.) is a fundamental concept to a course in English linguistics and yet, as soon as one sets out to define it, it slips out of grasp. As many linguists have noted, it is often easier to define what is not standard than what is; it is also easier to pin down a formal written standard than a spoken standard. “Standard English” is sometimes claimed to be neutral and unmarked, but it also clearly carries connotations of education, class, and race. Many linguists have pointed out that no one speaks completely standard English, and some have argued that “Standard English” is a myth. Yet speakers are able to identify features as being more and less standard.
What language is considered standard and nonstandard is, of course, socially constructed and changes over time. But the categorization can become so naturalized that its artificiality can be hard to see when we talk about features like double or multiple negation or the construction needs washed. As a result, it can be hard to genuinely grapple with critical questions such as: How do language features become standard? And who decides?
I wondered whether “mischievious” would ground our discussion of these questions in an effective way. Here was a pronunciation that Merriam-Webster labeled nonstandard, even though my informal polling suggested that it was more widespread among highly educated speakers than I had realized. And while some speakers I polled had strong reactions about the pronunciation’s nonstandardness, that status seemed readily challengeable (i.e., the pronunciation seemed not (yet?) to be ideologically naturalized as nonstandard).
I started the class discussion by polling the class on their pronunciation of mischievous. More than half of the 34 students had the pronunciation “mischievious” — whether as their only pronunciation or as one of two available pronunciations. I then put students in pairs, gave them the blog post to read, and asked them to work through two questions:
- Let’s imagine that you are consulting with Merriam-Webster about whether to remove the label nonstandard from the pronunciation “mischievious.” What are two things you feel like you need to know to make a recommendation?
- Given the information you currently have in hand, should Anne have left the “nonstandard” pronunciation “mischievious” in the podcast or had it deleted so as not to distract listeners?
The responses to the first question smartly surfaced parameters for defining this slippery concept of standardness. Here is a sampling:
- Determine how many people use each pronunciation and see the trends. Which has been increasing lately?
- How long has the pronunciation “mischievious” been in use? (In other words, is it a fad?)
- What is the regional distribution? Is the pronunciation widespread or regionally specific?
- What is the age distribution for this pronunciation?
- How does education factor in, if at all?
- Is it widely understood?
- How often does the pronunciation appear in environments like newscasts?
- What are the counterarguments (i.e., arguments against “mischievious”)?
All of these questions highlight the contingent nature of the standard/nonstandard label. And students were quick to point out that if a pronunciation like “mischievious” does not appear in newscasts and the like — because speakers self-consciously avoid the pronunciation in a more formal setting due to a concern that it is nonstandard or because they delete it from the recording (like I had) — then the pronunciation cannot come to fully enjoy standardness. Which means speakers may continue to police their speech for the pronunciation, which continues to relegate the pronunciation to nonstandardness. And why can’t two pronunciations of this word both be seen as standard and acceptable in more formal contexts if everyone understands both of them?
This conversation, based on a single word, was one of the most grounded discussions I have facilitated of what we mean when we call a linguistic feature “standard” and how a feature comes to be seen or labeled that way.
In the end, the students voted 27-7 that I should have left the pronunciation “mischievious” in the podcast rather than subscribe (or at least potentially be seen as subscribing) to the notion that the pronunciation is in some way nonstandard, and I think they are right.