The myth of ‘real English’

It happens very often, and it is quite amusing. Speaking about someplace in the English-speaking world, at some point somebody (often a non-native speaker) will say that locals “do not speak ‘real English’ there.” Even if I limit the scope of my attention to England, I have heard this comment about the North West, the North East, the West Midlands, the East Midlands, the South, and recently even London! It is funny because it would mean that ‘real English’ is not spoken anywhere in England. I have singled England out because I live there, but of course, I have heard the same comment about the rest of the UK, not to mention the US, Australia, Jamaica, and so on… nobody in the English-speaking world speaks real English! This rather awkward claim makes one wonder what on earth this ‘real English’ is supposed to be.
When a native speaker mentions ‘real English,’ they normally refer to a variety or a cluster of varieties (usually, including their own) which are supposed, for some reason, to be better representatives of the English language than others. Sometimes these comments are made in jest but sometimes they are meant to be taken seriously. When a non-native speaker mentions the phrase ‘real English’ instead, they normally mean a speech which is similar to the English they were taught in school. In European countries, this is usually a standard variety of British English, which is supposed to be close to the variety spoken in London (as if a single, uniform variety of English could be detected in such a diverse megalopolis). Both native and non-native speakers are wrong on this point.
The former are mistaken because although different varieties are more prestigious than others, and more used in formal situations, the English language belongs to the whole English-speaking community. No variety is inherently ‘superior to’ (let alone ‘more real than’) any other: it is a matter of social perception, which depends on variables such as region, class, age, gender, and so forth (the interested reader is referred to the sociolinguistic literature on this topic, in particular, the seminal work of William Labov in the US and Peter Trudgill in the UK) Non-native speakers are mistaken because the variety of English they are taught in school is just a variation-eliminating idealization based on a (rather artificial) variety which is used in the media and other formal contexts. The importance of this kind of language can hardly be overstated, and it has always proved its worth in language teaching. However, standard varieties are largely the result of a process of abstraction, and surely there is no reason to consider any of them as representing ‘real English’.
In conclusion, there is no such a thing as an opposition between ‘real’ and ‘non-real’ English. The English language is a diverse, multifaceted entity, which is characterized by a myriad of (to a large extent, mutually intelligible) varieties whose commonalities and differences cut across a range of dimensions. Of course, non-standard varieties can be hard to understand for the non-native speaker, but there is no reason to claim that these varieties are any less representative of ‘real English’ than more standard ones. Rather, the high level of diversity which characterizes contemporary English reflects the different historical and cultural heritage of the many distinct English-speaking communities around the world. Therefore, while it is a fact that some varieties of English are more standard and/or more prestigious than others, we are not entitled to claim that any of them is ‘real English’. Instead, we should recognize that all these varieties are integral parts of this beautiful, multi-colored entity which is the English language today.

Image credit: Talking People

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