Ee by gum, Norman

October 10, 1997

THE many and varied explanations which Anthony Lodge is reported to offer (THES, September 26) for the marked differences between the speech of executives and taxi drivers in London compared to their Parisian equivalents evidently fail to address a much deeper consideration.

Standard English is an evolved form of Norman French, the language of those who have ruled England for 931 years. Regional dialects across Britain derive substantially from the language spoken by the peoples conquered and ruled by the Norman French.

This view serves to explain many language differences in Britain that seem normal to the British but strange to Europeans.

It is not just in Paris that people of different social classes speak in much the same way. The same phenomena is apparent in cities as varied as Bergen, Stuttgart or Leeuwarden, where local people of all social classes speak a dialect so markedly different to the standard national language that visitors from Oslo, Berlin or Amsterdam have considerable difficulty in following street conversation.

In all these cities children are taught "standard" Norwegian, German and Dutch at school, and carry forward both forms of speech as they learn to read and write in the standard language.

This is not done in Britain, where dialect speakers are assumed by their standard English-speaking teachers to be slow learners if they cannot learn to read and write in what is virtually a foreign language at five. This results in high levels of adult illiteracy compared to other northern European countries and reinforces prejudice that dialect speakers are less intelligent.

It was in the interest of the Normans to establish a strong middle class to help them run their empire and translate orders from their French dialect into old English. It has suited their descendants to sustain a rulers' language.

The Germans comment on the strong Rhineland accent of Helmut Kohl, but never in a disparaging way. We look forward to the first Cockney or Brummie prime minister but not with bated breath.

Geoff Chivers and Sister Josepha

Division of adult continuing education, University of Sheffield

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