Language wars and proper English

Posted by on February 09, 2011

Another battle in the ongoing ‘language wars’ was fought in London earlier in the week. There were no clear victors but the forces of reason looked more convincing than those of prejudice. The excellent Evolving English exhibition at the British Library hosted a debate on Monday on the always contentious theme of ‘What is proper English?’. People love to argue (and complain) about language so, not surprisingly, the event attracted a capacity crowd. I was afraid it would consist entirely of ‘old buffers’ with implacable views about what is ‘proper’, so it was encouraging to see plenty of younger people too. Issues that were discussed included regional Englishes, the status of dialects, and the question of ‘ownership’ (there was a consensus that no-one – not even the Queen – ‘owns’ English).

The panel was nicely balanced, with Bernard Lamb of the Queen’s English Society (which we’ve discussed before); author and theatre critic Henry Hitchings; and our old friend Rowan Sawday, aka Dizraeli. To get things started, each panellist gave a 5-minute summary of their position (uh-oh: I’ve already committed a heinous error: should have said ‘of his position’). In Dizraeli’s case this meant standing up and delivering his 21st Century Flux rap – to the horror of the old buffers and the delight of everyone else. Hitchings, whose latest book is a history of arguments about ‘correct’ usage, made the point that people have been complaining about our language going to the dogs for at least 500 years.

Bernard Lamb mentioned some things he had seen in his recent reading, such as someone spelling ‘public’ without the ‘l’, or a student who wrote about how ‘genetics effects pregnancy’. But surely these are just mistakes: words have meanings which, as a speech community, we generally agree on (if we didn’t, communication would be impossible). So if you choose the wrong word (like pubic instead of public), you create a meaning you didn’t intend to and you won’t be understood. But that’s not the same as ‘bad grammar’.

Lamb defined ‘standard’ English as ‘clear correct English’, but isn’t this conflating two completely different ideas? Most speakers and writers aim to be clear, and if your message is clear (in context) you will be understood. So using effect when you mean affect fails on grounds of clarity. But ‘correctness’ is a more problematic notion: who decides, and what are the criteria? Judging by Bernard Lamb’s responses to audience questions, it all looks rather arbitrary: ‘Do you accept innit?’ ‘No, it’s poor English.’ ‘Can we say their instead of his or her (as in ‘everyone should bring their own books’)?’ ‘I don’t like it’. And so on.

Some audience members were even more out of touch, one lamenting that anticipate was no longer used in its ‘correct’ meaning. This makes about as much sense as saying that gay should only mean ‘cheerful’. The meaning referred to is number 3 here: that was indeed the original meaning of anticipate but it has since developed new meanings. This is normal. The clue is in the title of the exhibition, and if English wasn’t ‘evolving’ we’d all still be talking like Chaucer’s storytellers. Towards the end, Dizraeli got the biggest cheer of the evening by observing that ‘You can waste an awful lot of energy getting upset about things that are perfectly clear’.

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Comments (8)
  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by macmillanelt and Abroad Languages, Macmillan Dictionary. Macmillan Dictionary said: Michael Rundell visited the 'What is proper English?' event #evolvingenglish at BL http://bit.ly/h4YwJQ […]

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  • But no Simon Heffer? What a shame! I’d love to have seen him taken out with a few strategically placed rhymes from Dizraeli.

    Posted by dan on 9th February, 2011
  • Dan: no, Simon Heffer pulled out and was replaced by Bernard Lamb, who didn’t make a very convincing case for the traditionalists. Heffer, though in my view completely wrong about language, would have made a more feisty opponent,and the debate might have been more lively. Perhaps Simon Heffer was worried that David Crystal would be there! David is the main figure in the Evolving English exhibition, and he also wrote a scathing review of Heffer’s recent book about correct English:
    http://www.newstatesman.com/books/2010/10/english-heffer-sentence

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 9th February, 2011
  • The points you make about Bernard Lamb’s arguments are supported by his rather muddled piece for The Independent here , so it would have been good if Heffer had been there, like you say.

    If you think that David Crystal review is scathing, take a look at
    this one from Geoff Pullum!

    Posted by dan on 9th February, 2011
  • Thanks for the review of it, by the way. I wish I’d managed to go – sounded fun.

    Posted by dan on 9th February, 2011
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