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Non-standard Language In Writing

Many authors write their novels in Standard English, and have their characters speak Standard English. Some authors, however, use a form of non-standard English. This can be for different reasons: indicating class, level of education, race, or geographical origin.

Standard English is the accepted form of English in a country in which English is the native language. In the United Kingdom, Received Pronunciation (RP) is the standard form, and General American (GA) is the standard form in the United States. Standard English is not an accent – RP and GA have a different pronunciation but are both Standard English – but a dialect, with its own grammar and vocabulary. The standard form of a language is the one that is used in newspapers, by the government, and in the media. Using a nonstandard form in writing means that the author uses a character’s dialect and writes that down how it is pronounced.

The use of nonstandard language in literature is not a modern phenomenon. One early example is The Canterbury Tales, written by Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer wrote this fourteenth century manuscript in Middle English, which recognized three dialects: Northern, Midlands, and Southern. The Canterbury Tales consists of 24 tales, all told by people who travelled together to Canterbury. This group of people was varied. Some of them were a knight, a nun, a reeve, a merchant, and so on. The diversity of this group is mirrored in the language. Chaucer used language variety to show the character’s social class and geographical origin.

Charles Dickens wrote his novel Great Expectations about an orphan boy, Pip, who suddenly gets a great fortune. Pip and the people around him, such as Joe and Mrs Joe, speak in a working-class dialect. When Pip moves to London and is learning to be a gentleman, he also tries to develop an upper class accent. Pip thought that speaking a certain way is part of learning how to be a gentleman, he thought that his speech would influence people’s perception of you.

One of the most well-known characters from the end of the twentieth century who speaks in a nonstandard language might be Rubeus Hagrid, known from the Harry Potter series. Hagrid speaks in a West Country accent:

“Harry – yer a wizard.” (…) “A wizard – o’ course,’ said Hagrid (…),
“an’ a thumpin’ good’un, I’d say, once yeh’ve been trained up a bit.
With a mum an’ dad like yours, what else would yeh be?” (55).

There is no particular reason why Hagrid has a West Country accent – it is not to indicate class or race – but author J.K. Rowling herself is from that area, so that could be a reason why she chose to give Hagrid this accent. In the film adaptations, the actor who plays Hagrid also speaks in a West Country accent.

When non-standard language is used, it is important that a character’s speech is still understandable for the reader. If a character speaks a certain dialect and also borrows words from other languages, dialogues can be difficult to read. I personally think that the use of non-standard languages in literature is a good thing, as long as it is not only used to stereotype a certain group of people.

by Elise Klom



Works Cited


Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. London: Bloomsbury PLC, 2014. 55. Print.