English Language Academy

Predictably the Queen’s English Society‘s project to establish an Academy of English has been greeted with disapproval by many litterati among whom were those whom Nigel Lawson memorably described as “teenage scribblers”, e.g. the Times leader writers (7 June).  Metropolitans always criticise bodies like the Queen’s English Society because they only view them from their own relatively literate perspectives.  They rarely go to many towns outside London other than Oxford or Cambridge, so have no idea how unintelligible a lot of people in the rest of the country actually are to the ears of anyone outside their immediate community or group.

Languages embody the experience of the societies which generate them.  As such they are bound to change over time, notably by the creation of words to cope with technological changes and also by the importation of words from other languages.  These usually represent different experiences and concepts, which are needed by the host language.  These changes increase the range of the language and are generally welcome.

What we all should be concerned about is the loss of meaning and therefore range of the language by inability to speak it clearly and precisely and also to detect the politically motivated abuse of the words we presently have. Partly this is due to the refusal of the schools’ education system from about 1970 onwards to concern itself with even the most elementary features of our language, especially spelling and grammar.  We thus have people in the media continually misleading themselves and their listeners by referring for instance to some terrible problem or event whose “seriousness cannot be under estimated”.

Actually this means that the problem is so trivial that whatever figure you put on it, it will always be smaller than that.  Linked to this is the description of something as problematic which means that the something is uncertain or doubtful, not that it’s a problem.  The prospect of winning the lottery is problematic, but actually winning it would not be a problem for most people.

Many people will have their own examples of misuse, but what they will all have in common is a loss of meaning and subtlety which English is extraordinarily rich in.  A prime source of misuse is of course so-called “politically correct” language which officialdom and its allies in the media try to impose on us.  A typical example is the adoption of the word “gay” to describe homosexuals, which has deprived the language of a subtle word to describe lively and charming childhood events, among many others.  Race, too, is a rich seam of PC-speak.  Thus particular ethnic minorities are described as having an Asian or African “background”.  It’s like describing a tree as a plant with an arboreal background.  Likewise the police refer to suspects or victims as “Caucasian” which was the name given to White people by some crank American academic.  He maintained that those whom the world calls European or White all descend from a region of Southern Russia called the Caucasus.  The correct anthropological name for White people is actually Europid.

Yet a third element in the contraction of our language is the deliberate adoption, promotion even, of poor enunciation of spoken English in the name of some sort of dialect equality, or the latest fad – “diversity”.  TV is the prime media culprit.  Again there is a key distinction between different vowel sounds (short or long “a” for example) and the slurring of consonants, pronouncing “th” as “f” – a form of baby talk, or the lazy pronunciation of a “t” as “r” in “gerring” something.

The late Brian Redhead who anchored the BBC Radio Today programme for many years had a North East vowel accent, but his pronunciation of consonants was precise and therefore intelligible to everyone.  Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader, though facing hardship and isolation from friends almost all her adult life, speaks impeccable English, understood by even those around her with only a smattering of the language themselves.

Among locals in the English-speaking world almost any pronunciation will be understood for simple, everyday needs.  The key objective test though is how many foreigners and non-locals can understand you.  And here the result of the test is unambiguous.  Painful as it is for modern teachers to acknowledge, clearly enunciated, ungabbled, standard English with an accent somewhere between Southern England and New England is the most widely understood form across the whole world.

The BBC knows this very well and to increase their chances of a job, coaches ethnic minority applicants in Southern English pronunciation, a facility it does not appear to extend to its Midlands and North country English applicants, who seem to be actually encouraged to keep, even accentuate, their regional accents.

Correcting spelling, grammar, word usage, and diction needs to be made the main priority for primary schooling – providing all children with not only a skill, but also a habit of getting things exactly right, which will stand them in good stead all their lives.  Of all the things which teachers can do for children from impoverished families, this will yield the greatest benefit at least cost.

Top| Home

Leave a Reply

Top| Home