Before I pass on to the material at hand and demonstrate the linguo- semiotic methodology I am aiming at, I would like first to present the categorial characteristics of signs.
For a unity to aspire to the status of a sign it must be disembodied, arbitrary and singular. Before some or other linguistic (lexical, syntactic or morphological) unity is allowed in, it must be proven to comply with the "fundamentals." Otherwise stated, the content plane of the sign, the signifié, must not be encumbered with individual reference to a particular extralinguistic object. It must be arbitrary in the sense that its physical expression is not required to be symbolic: It is meant to be used arbitrarily, by agreement. It is required to possess the very important property of "singularity": It must be something that is easily distinguishable from all other facts of the same kind.
I shall begin with the diacritical level of the language. The ultimate units of the diacritical level are phonemes - two or more sounds the difference between which is not conditioned by position alone. What do phonemes generally signal? Irrespective of their individual and particular phonetic-articulatory properties phonemes signal "otherness," thus distinguishing between different sound envelopes. Without the latter, languages cannot function as coherent means of human communication. At every stage of its growth and development a natural human language will offer its native speakers as well as foreign learners a balanced system of phonemic oppositions which have to be rigorously adhered to, followed, and intelligibly reproduced. Every time an imaginary Eliza Doolittle utters "I didn't sigh that" there will be a sophisticated Professor Higgins to comment critically "You didn't sigh that. You didn't even say that," not only insisting on precision but selflessly safeguarding "the majesty and grandeur" of the English language!
The fact that nowadays more and more English language teaching professionals insist on accuracy, literacy and norms shows convincingly that in learning the language we have to acquire more than just the sounds. We have to make conscious choice with respect to the particular variant of pronunciation we are after. In the 1980s the ELT classroom has been unreasonably tolerant of imprecision, illiteracy and, more generally, bad English. In the 1990s it is being rediscovered that proficiency in the use of standard English creates favourable sign situations. Speakers of Modern Standard Literary English have more chances to be promoted in business, trade, commerce and education. Those whose English has been proverbially "branded on the tongue" have to learn to convey "cross-cultural identity" by disguising negative signs (inferior background, poor education, unrefined manners) and demonstrating, with growing confidence, the positive signs and sign systems, the ultimate aim being that of maximum intelligibility and social acceptability. 1