Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Reforming Language: Arbiters And Liberals

There was a time when the BBC was not solely inhabited by individuals who spoke with plummy, public-school accents which located their upbringing as having been in an anonymous and mysterious cloistered environment that was never actually revealed. That was because it didn't physically exist. It was (still is) an intangible attribute of birthright, deployed to distinguish its users from the riff-raff and to mark themselves out as superior beings.

Nevertheless, there were those who dared to differentiate themselves along identifiably regional lines. Numbered among them were Eamonn Andrews, Jimmy Clitheroe, John Arlott and Ted Moult. But they all - more or less - still spoke the Queen's English. The BBC was able to tolerate little else unless there was some comedic value attached. Even as the modern world, aka permissiveness, passed through the portal of Broadcasting House, the requirement barely shifted. If you ever have the chance, listen to John Peel circa 1967. The slow, "really nice", public-school drawl is unrecognisable with what it became once he discovered punk.

It may well have been punk which shifted the BBC spoken axis as much as it had launched a broadside against predominantly public-school prog rock (e.g. Genesis). But whatever and whenever it was, the BBC started to become what it is now - all things to all men, women and children, however and whatever they speak. Which is exactly how it should be: a reflection of society rather than being a self-appointed arbiter, which it was when the insistence was on the Queen's English and, prior to the Queen, the King.

Along the way, however, there have been major assaults on standards of grammar. There is no better an example than what one might call Football English. Identifying the culprit for this is not easy, but I'm tempted to finger Ron Atkinson. It was Big Ron, it seems to me, who popularised the footballing use of the present perfect tense. For those of you unfamiliar with this, it goes something like: "The boy's gone down the line, he's crossed the ball, and the big fella's stuck it in the back of the net."

Grammatically there is a problem with this structure, and it lies with its application. It is after the event, used to describe something that has happened and has been completed. The present perfect is therefore incorrect. The past tense is required: "the boy went down the line, etc." But does it matter? Not really. It grates - well it does with me - but if the application becomes as pervasive as it has, it acquires the status of common usage.

Such is the flexibility of language, English in particular. It is highly organic, a function, in no small part, of there being no standard-setter. English doesn't have academies as French and Spanish have to issue decrees as to standards. It is left to evolve, and one of its formerly de facto standard-setters, the BBC, is perfectly willing to allow it to.

There is a splendid article* on the BBC's website which looks at how the self-appointed arbiters have railed against supposedly bad English, be it grammar, punctuation, syntax or vocabulary. They range from Jonathan Swift in the early eighteenth century to a George Quinn in 2004. He suggested that someone who started a sentence with a conjunction should have been “appropriately beaten in grammar class”. For what it's worth, there is no "rule" barring the use of a conjunction at the start of sentence, though it shouldn't automatically be followed by a comma: conjunctions don't take one.

The article reveals the snobbery of these arbiters. For instance, Henry Watson Fowler, he of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, referred to "barbaric" usages. Lynne Truss had her "moral weaklings". Correctness equates therefore to "moral propriety". Lack of correctness permits vulgarisms and barbarisms. Strewth!

It's not as though I'm wholly liberal on the subject. I have just used an exclamation mark, which I rarely do. So misused has it become that it appears to be an optional alternative to a full stop. Other beefs concern Americanisms. There again, American usage is a further indication of the inherent flexibility of English. Far from barbaric, language evolution is natural, a consequence in particular of internationalisation.

Which leads me to Spanish. There are all manner of Spanish words which have passed either directly or indirectly into English. Fiesta is an example of the former; potato of the latter. I advocate another, one which is commonly used in English here in Mallorca: "reform". The Spanish "reforma" means as it does in English when one talks, for example, of legislative reform. But English doesn't use reform for building work. One can re-form with a hyphen by changing a shape, but one cannot reform a kitchen or a whole building. I'm tempted to think that one should be able to, as it makes perfect sense. Reforming language; it never stands still.


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