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  • Standardising English: Norms and margins in the history of the English language ed. by Pillière et al.
  • Don Chapman
Standardising English: Norms and margins in the history of the English language. Ed. by Linda Pillière, Wilfrid Andrieu, Valérie Kerfelec, and Diana Lewis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pp. xii, 286. ISBN 9781107191051. $110 (Hb).

This book is a collection of thirteen papers that address either directly or indirectly questions of prescriptivism, comprising a good mixture of the history of standardization, the practice of prescriptivism, and larger theoretical concepts associated with prescriptivism. It treats many themes that are becoming typical in studies of prescriptivism, such as the insufficiency of the prescriptivist-descriptivist binary, the usefulness of sociolinguistics for studying prescriptivism, the relationships between language prescription and language change, and the nature and history of standardization. The editors’ introduction usefully outlines these themes, noting that the purpose [End Page 811] of this book is to move beyond a binary model and to regard standard English as simply one kind of (albeit important) norm, while examining the norm-setting processes for other kinds of norms as well. The introduction notes that norms and margins are interdependent and that nonstandard varieties have their own norms. Furthermore, individuals are agents in choosing among norms for specific communicative needs.

These themes are all picked up to varying degrees in the remaining papers. A number of papers treat instruments of codification and prescription, including seventeenth-century grammars of English and French (Valérie Raby and Wilfrid Andrieu), Johnson’s dictionary (Lynda Mugglestone), the Oxford English dictionary (Charlotte Brewer), eighteenth-century pronouncing dictionaries (Véronique Pouillon), a female-authored usage guide titled The correct word: How to use it (Viktorija Kostadinova), and usage guides and style guides in general (Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Linda Pillière). A common observation in these papers is that the dictionaries, grammars, and usage guides are not as prescriptive (or in the case of the OED, as descriptive) as our common stereotypes or even as the intentions of the various compilers might suggest. Inevitably the compilers must confront the varying purposes that speakers have for using language, and thus adjust their pronouncements. And as Tieken-Boon van Ostade shows, the tradition of usage guides is also varied by the purposes and circumstances of the editors. Similar dynamics are manifest in those studies that examine attitudes toward prescribed and proscribed forms. Carmen Ebner’s survey of general speakers shows a correlation between attitudes and speaker age for some proscribed forms, while Pillière’s survey of editors reveals a constant negotiation over appropriateness in a given situation—even ‘craft professionals’ (Cameron 1995) in the business of enforcing standardization rely on contingent considerations at least as frequently as on definitions of standard variants.

The importance of sociolinguistics for studying norms in general and Standard English in particular shows up in numerous papers, but is explicitly addressed in Sandrine Sorlins chapter, which notes three different sociolinguistic approaches: a nationalist approach, which emphasizes Standard English as an inclusive language of wider communication; a variationist approach, which notes the groups that are excluded by the standard; and the personal or local approach, which emphasizes the choices individuals make for their own purposes. All three approaches are useful for understanding the repertoire of norms that individuals choose from.

This notion of repertoires is also picked up by Gaëlle Le Corre and Sonia Dupuy, both of whom focus on seeming margins more than the standard norm. They both point out that processes of legitimation are not limited to standardization. Le Corre argues that Virginia soldiers from the American Civil War actually drew upon multiple norms—their vernacular, religious language and the language of popular songs, and language learned in school. Speakers have a choice of models to suit their needs; the solemnity of imminent death required something more formal than the vernacular, yet the soldiers turned to religious language, not school language. Le Corre shows that standard English...


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