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The Middle Ages
RP and its successors
The situation today
5. The situation today
The eighteenth-century prescriptivists had two impossible aims: they wanted to stop the language changing, and they wanted to eliminate usage variation. In neither case were they successful. They could not have been, for it is in the nature of language to change and to vary. And the evidence of their failure is all around us today, in the remarkable diversity which exists. It is moreover a diversity which is increasing, and in some unpredictable ways.
We must always remember to talk in terms of trends, never of uniformity. Linguistic change does not take place all at once. It gradually diffuses - both geographically, throughout a region, and socially, throughout the various classes out of which the society is comprised. The rate at which the change is taken up is very much affected by the gender and age of the speakers.
As a result, at any one point in time, there is inevitably a great deal of variation, as old forms compete with new. Not only is there variation among speakers, there is variation within individuals, with people taking time to get used to new forms. Everyone is pulled in multiple directions when it comes to language, because we interact within a multifaceted society.
We need to respect and preserve social diversity, especially in the face of cultural steamrollers which threaten to crush it, and of the crude racial antagonisms which daily assail it. But we cannot respect something if we do not recognize it. We all therefore need to increase our awareness of the role of languages and of language (in the form of accent and dialect) as a primary expression of this diversity.
The UK has never been as multilingual and multidialectal as it is today. The crisis affecting our global linguistic heritage, with half the languages of the world threatened with extinction, has generated a lively and welcome concern for language maintenance and revitalization, and this can clearly be seen in the UK.
Of the indigenous languages of the British Isles, Welsh is the success story of the twentieth century, with two Language Acts in place to foster its growth, and the 2001 census figures showing a significant increase in users. Concern over other Celtic languages has also grown, with renewed interest in the position of the Gaelic languages in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and growing revitalization movements in support of Cornish and Manx.
There is a corresponding vitality evident in relation to the 350 or more non-indigenous languages of the UK. This could hardly have been otherwise, given the size of the immigrant communities which have grown up in several city suburbs, and the numbers of their children attending schools. The languages of countries from the former British Empire, such as India, the Caribbean, and West Africa, have been supplemented by the languages associated with the European political issues of the twentieth century, as refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers arrived in the UK, bringing with them Polish, Italian, Russian, Yiddish, and many other languages. The rights of passage of members of the European Union add a further dimension to this linguistic 'salad-bowl' - a term used in relation to the American experience (in contrast to 'melting-pot') to suggest a society which respects cultural diversity while striving for a new unity.
All of this adds to the UK's multidialectism. There is a widespread myth that dialects are dying out. All that has happened is that, as society becomes more urbanized and mobile, traditional rural dialects have evolved into new varieties, and a large number of new urban dialects have emerged. Where there was once just 'Scouse' (Liverpool English), there is now Caribbean Scouse and many other ethnically influenced varieties. As a result of social mobility, many speakers now have mixed accents, representing the parts of the country in which they have lived.
The linguistic complexity of the country is growing, as its social constituency evolves. The UK speaks today in more regional and ethnic voices than at any other time in its history.