Letters to the Editor in my morning paper don’t always make a lot of sense, either because the writer doesn’t know how to present ideas in a coherent order, or because the writer is unacquainted with the standard meaning of certain words and phrases.
One in this morning’s batch, a letter promoting racial understanding falls into both categories. This post will focus on the writer’s use of the expression “King’s English.”
“King’s English,” or, as it is often heard nowadays, “Queen’s English,” is an idiom. One definition is, “English speech used by educated persons in Britain.” A more general meaning is “a standard form of written and spoken English.”
In the United States, the standard dialect is known as “Standard American English,” “Standard English,” or “SAE.”
The fact that the letter-writer does not understand that “King’s English” refers to “a standard dialect used to facilitate communication” is made clear in this passage:
The way I speak my brand of colloquial Arkansas King’s English will totally confuse any civilized U.S. citizen. Arkansas African Americans speak a different brand of the Arkansas King’s English. I don’t want to change the way I talk and I don’t want African Americans to change the way they talk. How we talk should not cause us to sit across the room from each other. We will never learn to trust living apart.
This passage is puzzling on several levels.
If the writer’s “brand” of spoken English “will totally confuse any civilized U.S. citizen,” then he is not speaking “the King’s English.” He’s not even speaking “Arkansas English.”
In Arkansas, as in other English-speaking regions, a standard form of English is taught in the schools and is spoken and written by educated people in formal contexts. Indeed, the letter-writer has written his letter to the editor in Standard English.
The next puzzle is the writer’s assertion that he doesn’t want to “change the way” he talks, a way that he claims would “totally confuse any civilized U.S. citizen. If he is able to write a standard form of English, why isn’t he willing to speak a standard dialect?
He implies that “Arkansas African Americans” also speak an unintelligible dialect, but Arkansas African-Americans who have been to school have the same option he has to speak a standard form of English when the context calls for it.
Language is the basis of communication and understanding. To suggest that everyone can live together in amity without being able to conduct a dialogue in a mutually intelligible language is, as they say in my own home dialect, hogwash.
Everyone grows up speaking a “home dialect.” Some dialects are regional. Some are ethnic.
Speaking the dialect of our childhood is comfortable and comforting. There’s no reason not to continue speaking it in the company of family, friends, and neighbors who also speak it.
In other contexts, however, the courteous and practical thing to do is to speak a dialect that everyone in the conversation can understand.
In a country that offers thirteen years of free education to all children, why would anyone want to confine himself to a dialect that would “totally confuse any civilized U.S. citizen”?
Book Review: How English Became English