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  • Print publication year: 2000
  • Online publication date: September 2009

3 - Rats, bats, sparrows and dogs: biology, linguistics and the nature of Standard English



Linguistic historians of English like to claim that they have the nature and origin of Standard English nailed. The standard, as any fule kno, is a non-regional, multifunctional, written variety, historically based on the educated English used within a triangle drawn with its apexes at London, Cambridge and Oxford. Even more specifically, the propagation of this ‘incipient’ standard can be linked to a particular branch of the late medieval bureaucracy: the court of Chancery.

At least, that is the standard account of the rise of Standard English in most classrooms and textbooks. In a series of articles on business texts, however, Laura Wright has now challenged the second part of this account, pointing out that the central governmental bureaucracy is not the only place where the necessary conditions for standardisation obtained; and other chapters in this book offer further evidence of a growing unease with the status of ‘Chancery Standard’ as the simple and sole source of Standard English. In this chapter, I want to question the first part of the standard account – and in particular the general theoretical basis of the hypothesis, which I take to be the evolutionary, family-tree model of language change. I claim that linguists have tended to accept what I will call the ‘single ancestor-dialect’ hypothesis (the SAD hypothesis), not because the linguistic data supports it (in fact it does the opposite), but because the family-tree metaphor demands it.