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By D. Leith

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One dimension of this contrast concerns writing: dialect is not usually associated with writing, still less with print. Another dimension has to do with functional elaboration: the dialects have not been developed in the same range of formal functions. A third is that dialects have often been seen as barriers to communication, thereby ‘holding back’ their speakers. Finally, dialect is seen as regional, whereas the standard is seen as national, even mainstream. It is questionable, however, whether most speakers of English see it as anything other than a dominant variety, one associated, moreover, with its historical base in the SouthEast, especially London.

It is ultimately to these units that the letters of the alphabet relate. For no alphabet can represent the wealth of phonetic variation that exists in any variety of speech. For instance, we pronounce the initial sound of pit in a slightly different way from the same sound in spit: the p is aspirated in the first example only. But while that distinction might be important in some languages, such as Urdu, it is not so in any variety of English, so there is no reason why it should be signalled in spelling.

A phonemic spelling system can only hope to STANDARDISATION AND WRITING 31 represent one accent, but the problem is, whose? The selection of one discriminates, in principle, against speakers with other accents. By encoding the sounds of speech in an inconsistent and often arbitrary way, our spelling system at least manages to favour nobody. Contrary to what some people think, it is not a representation of the accent spoken by a small minority of the wealthy and privileged. We are all equally disadvantaged by it, and that is one of its strengths.

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