[Paleopsych] Prospect (UK): Mother tongue

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Mother tongue
    [No. 106 / Jan 2005]
    [33]January 2005 | 106 » [34]Cover story » [35]Mother tongue
    What does the fashion for books about the state of the English
    language tell us? People care about their language because it forms
    part of their identity, and part of the resistance to changes in
    English is a resistance to change itself. But correct usage is not an
    elite affectation; it is a badge of competence

Richard Jenkyns

    Richard Jenkyns is professor of the classical tradition at the
    University of Oxford, and author of "Westminster Abbey"
    When you had finished reading your October Prospect, were you purple
    with rage? One contributor, writing about Gordon Brown, described him
    as an "heir apparent" who might find that someone else inherited after
    all. But an heir apparent must necessarily succeed; the term the
    writer should have used was "heir presumptive." A second contributor
    discussed why parliament is "like it is"; that should have been "as it
    is," or so we used to be taught at school. A third contributor wrote
    about the norms of something being "flaunted," when he meant
    "flouted." So it seems that even Britain's intelligent conversation is
    being conducted by people what haven't been learned to talk proper.
    Fetch me my green ink bottle: I have an article to write.
    Why do people get so agitated about linguistic misuses and even about
    changes in the language? Is English in a bad state? Are things getting
    worse? These questions have been made topical by Lynne Truss's
    bestselling Eats, Shoots & Leaves and by the spate of books (and a
    television show) on similar themes by authors hoping to benefit from
    her success. The subject of John Humphrys's stocking-filler, Lost for
    Words, is indicated by its subtitle, The Mangling and Manipulating of
    the English Language. Gobbledygook, by Don Watson, an Australian
    journalist, is a more serious piece of work; again, the subtitle
    explains its theme: How Clichés, Sludge and Management-speak are
    Strangling our Public Language. Vivian Cook's Accomodating Brocolli in
    the Cemetary, produced by Profile, Truss's publisher (and mine), is
    somewhat different. The subtitle - Or Why Can't Anybody Spell? - may
    suggest that it is another "why oh why" book. In fact, it is a
    collection of linguistic facts and oddities assembled by a professor
    who loves words in both their spoken and written form. It is
    first-rate bedtime browsing and will surely find a place in many of
    Britain's most cultivated loos.
    There is probably little mystery about Truss's success. She is a
    talented journalist, with a gift for the perky phrase; the book was
    skilfully packaged; and like other fads, it just caught on. Reviewers
    in this country seem to have been almost all favourable, but on the
    other side of the Atlantic the book received a withering dismissal
    from Louis Menand in the New Yorker. Menand is a very clever man, and
    hiring him to deal with Truss is like sending for Red Adair to put out
    the bonfire at the bottom of the garden. He began by observing that
    Truss's first punctuation mistake comes in her dedication and found
    many more errors and inconsistencies, as well as poor argument.
    Some people have taken Truss seriously, but she herself, I think, does
    not. Her subtitle, The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, is
    mischievous, since in fact she sensibly takes a fairly relaxed view.
    Her long diatribe against misplaced apostrophes is a comic rant, to be
    enjoyed as such, and no more. The interesting issue is not the book
    itself but the public response to it. Reading these books and other
    articles, and listening to discussion on the broadcast media, I am
    struck by how widespread is the sense that we are being hoodwinked.
    "They" - politicians, academics, captains of industry, management
    consultants, bureaucrats - are misusing the English language as a way
    of deceiving us.
    The idea that language can be manipulated to disguise the truth, and
    even to control and limit thought, is, of course, one of the themes of
    George Orwell's 1984. Orwell also explored the topic in his famous
    essay "Politics and the English language," written in 1946. He took
    five specimens of recent writing to illustrate "various of the mental
    vices from which we now suffer." The first is a clumsy and contorted
    sentence by Harold Laski containing so many double negatives that he
    seems to have ended up saying the opposite of what he meant to say.
    The second is from another once celebrated intellectual, Lancelot
    Hogben, whose vices are dying metaphor, pomposity and facetiousness
    ("we cannot play ducks and drakes with a native battery of idioms
    which prescribes egregious collocations of vocables"). The third, from
    an American essay on psychology, is a typical piece of academic prose.
    The fourth is taken from a ranting communist pamphlet. The last is
    from a letter published in Tribune, in which rant, pomposity and
    facetiousness are majestically combined.
    Orwell found certain faults common to all of these passages -
    ugliness, staleness of imagery and lack of precision: "The writer
    either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says
    something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words
    mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence
    is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and
    especially of any kind of political writing."
    Has anything changed in the last 60 years? The most obvious difference
    is in political language. People still distrust the politicians - at a
    guess, they distrust them more now than they did then - but the rant
    that Orwell attacked now seems quaint and dated. For him, too much
    heat was the danger; now the enemies of clarity and honesty are
    euphemism, waffle and evasion. Perhaps the most depressing part of
    Orwell's essay, when we read it now, is his sample of academic
    writing, for prolix and obscure though it is, one's first reaction is
    to wonder what the fuss is about: it is so much better than a great
    deal of today's professorial prose. The public suspects that much
    academic production is fraudulent, and they are partly right. Since
    one of Orwell's targets was imprecision of thought, it is interesting
    to observe how frequently the word "precisely" is found in a certain
    type of academic prose, almost always used where "imprecisely" would
    be more accurate. You can diagnose weak thought from dead language as
    you can diagnose firedamp from a dead canary, and "precisely" is a
    dead adverb. It is an example of what Orwell called a meaningless
    word, an upmarket version of "literally," as in: "He literally wiped
    the floor with his opponent." In other terms, it is a bad faith word -
    a symptom of bluster, vagueness or vacuity.
    In Orwell's fashion, Humphrys hauls in a couple of public
    intellectuals for questioning. Their offences are of unequal gravity.
    One is the sociologist Frank Furedi: the passages cited by Humphrys
    are indeed ineptly written, but at least Furedi is trying to say
    something serious. The other culprit is Susan Greenfield, in this case
    from a popular book. Here are the passages from Greenfield that
    Humphrys quotes:
    "These doom-laden imaginings need a pinch of salt. Setting aside the
    obvious precaution of not volunteering for a brain implant, even if
    the opportunity for psychokinesis was too valuable to pass over the
    direct implanting of thoughts would still not necessarily be
    "At last, at the turn of the century, IT has finally matured into
    adjectives such as 'cheap' and 'easy to use,' with the tsunami of
    applications and knock-on implications it has for our lives."
    It may seem ghoulish to linger at the scene of these verbal pile-ups,
    but an accident investigation is called for. The first of these
    passages begins with an ugly mix of metaphors and proceeds to a
    sentence that is barely literate. "Setting" is a dangling participle
    (not easily interpreted, though one realises with a shudder that this
    part of the sentence is meant to be humorous); "was" should be "were,"
    and a comma is needed after "over." In the clause beginning "even if,"
    I suspect that the word "not" has dropped out after "too valuable,"
    but the sentence is so inarticulate that it is hard to be sure.
    How can an educated person write so badly? The second extract may
    supply the answer. The meaning towards which Greenfield is groping is
    probably this: "IT is now so cheap and easy to use that it is having a
    big effect on our lives." What on earth does "matured into adjectives
    such as" mean? Is she trying to say something about use of language?
    Probably not: the likelihood is that "has matured into adjectives such
    as" is Greenfieldian for "has become." "Tsunami" is
    pseudo-sophistication, a sort of gimcrack brightness, like those
    people who say "smorgasbord" for "variety." Insofar as the word makes
    any sense at all, that sense is wrong: the writer does not mean to say
    that the effect of home computers on our lives has been sudden,
    violent and destructive.
    We might wonder why she has found it so difficult to say something so
    simple. But that surely is the answer: it is because the proposition
    is so simple that the expression is so muddled. If it had been put
    straightforwardly, we would have seen at once that it was hardly worth
    making. We all know that cheap computers have made a difference. But
    they have not made that much difference: "tsunami" is, among other
    things, a factitious attempt to create a bit of drama. One of the
    reasons that this is bad prose is that it is dishonest prose: in each
    of these passages the writer is trying to hide the fact that she has
    very little to say.
    That was an extreme case; here is something much more ordinary. I read
    this the other day in an interview with a well-known figure, talking
    about industry: "You will never deliver a successful bottom line on a
    sustainable basis unless you have a vibrant organisational dynamic." I
    understand the first part of this; it means, "You will not make a
    profit." But what about the second part? It might mean, "unless your
    staff are happy in their jobs." Or it might mean something quite
    different: "unless your people argue vigorously with one another." Or
    it may be meant as a statement of the obvious: "unless your firm is
    well run." It is impossible to know. "Vibrant," by the way, is another
    of those bad faith words - a sure indicator of unconscious
    As it happens, the speaker of these words is an administrator of
    outstanding force and clarity, and he was merely using the common
    currency of our day. Some people talk like this of their own accord.
    When I praised my university's computer service to an eminent American
    scientist, he agreed that it was "a truly consumer-oriented facility."
    But there are also political pressures to make us talk like this. For
    instance, universities are now expected to produce mission statements.
    That ought to be easy: "We teach, study and write, and try to do these
    things as well as we can." But of course such plain, frank words will
    not do, and we are driven to swathe simple meaning in the language of
    bureaucracy. I am unsure why the language of management, Don Watson's
    main target, is so deplorable, but it is a serious matter, as it clogs
    the working of schools, hospitals and other public and private
    In the academic world, it may be easier to detect the forces which
    discourage good, plain English. Modern societies have created large
    salaried intelligentsias, which are required to keep publishing. Some
    subject matter is essentially difficult: philosophy, for example, must
    often be done at a high level of abstraction. But the aim ought always
    to be to make difficult matters as simple as the subject allows, and
    the conditions of modern academic life tempt people to do the
    opposite. History is an almost limitless field, and my impression is
    that historians usually write well. But the study of popular culture
    easily tends to statement of the obvious, and its practitioners
    naturally want to disguise that fact. The English literature industry
    is so big that in many areas there is not enough material to go
    around, and here the temptation is to claim that even the most
    perspicuous authors need the professionals to interpret them. It is
    like the plumber telling you that it will cost a grand to fix that
    leaky tap.
    As for politics, all governments reasonably stress their successes and
    palliate their failures, but many people seem to feel that the present
    government is more widely and systematically dishonest with fact and
    language than any of its predecessors. In my view, this suspicion is
    justified. To take a small example, Labour has for many years
    deliberately confused the important distinction between spending and
    investment by avoiding the former word: Gordon Brown would invest in a
    packet of Polo mints. Tony Blair himself is one of the two most
    interesting users of English in politics today. Humphrys refers to a
    couple of notorious habits: his tendency to change his accent to fit
    his audience, and his use of sentences without verbs when he wants to
    empty his language of determinate meaning. His 1999 conference speech
    on the "forces of conservatism" - incidentally, in its demonising of
    opponents and its aspiration to make the Labour party the political
    arm of the British people, perhaps the most fascistic speech ever made
    by a mainstream British politician - exploited the fact that in spoken
    English, "conservatism" and "Conservatism" are indistinguishable. In
    his most recent conference speech, he said, "I can apologise" (for the
    equivocations over Iraq), and the newspapers next morning reported
    both that he had apologised and that he had not. Perhaps that was too
    clever by half, but at least it enabled him to utter the cathartic
    word "apologise" (and to avoid the plain word "sorry" - apologies are
    what we send when we cannot attend a committee meeting). Later, in the
    House of Commons, he declared that he took responsibility for the
    security services. This sounded bold, but was actually a way of
    acknowledging formal responsibility while denying real responsibility.
    The long Latinate word "responsibility," like "apologise," was
    helpful. The five-letter words which would have got to the heart of
    the matter were "sorry," "fault" and "blame."
    The use of smear and sneer words to block open-minded thought has
    declined since Orwell's time (except for "racist" and perhaps the
    pejorative use of "politically correct"). But in other respects the
    situation is no better, and in many ways worse. Much of the current
    fuss over language, however, is about something different from
    Orwell's concern, although it is related. Take the examples in my very
    first paragraph. In none of these cases is the meaning in any doubt;
    if they are objectionable, it is for other reasons. There is a feeling
    around which might express itself like this: "Everything's going to
    the dogs. They aren't taught grammar in schools, they can't spell...
    and don't you hate the way people say 'ballpark figure' and 'at this
    moment in time.'"
    People care about their language because it forms part of their
    identity. Consider Blair's chameleon shifts of accent. Mass
    immigration has reminded us about the importance of accent: a person
    who talks with a native accent is "one of us," whatever his skin
    colour, while a person with a foreign accent, however well respected,
    remains a foreigner. On the whole, this is good news, for it suggests
    that shared habits of speech can help a diverse society to hold
    together. People's sense of local and national identity is often based
    on things that were familiar when they were young: policemen in tall
    helmets, Routemaster buses, roast beef for Sunday lunch. People feel
    like that about language, and part of the resistance to changes in
    English is a resistance to change itself. It is also significant that,
    as Humphrys notes, Americanisms are especially resented. Once the
    change is complete, however, no one notices. Who now sympathises with
    the don who, on being told by a visitor that he wanted to contact her,
    replied: "I am delighted that you have arrived in Oxford. The verb 'To
    contact' has not."?
    One of the examples in my first paragraph represents language in
    transition. The use of "like" as a conjunction is now general even in
    educated speech, and it may soon become accepted in written English
    too. It grates on me, but it may not grate on the next generation. In
    the case of manifest language errors, the rule should be simple:
    resist as long as you can, but once the battle is lost, surrender. It
    is still worth trying to keep "media" and "data" as plural words, but
    it would be silly to say, "Her stamina are remarkable."
    One of the lessons of books like Lost for Words is that everyone has
    his own bête noire (one of mine is bête noir; one of Orwell's was the
    use of pretentious foreign phrases). One of Humphrys's is the plural
    in, for example, "the caller withheld their number." "Aargh!" he says
    (not all his comments are very sophisticated). But "their" is what we
    have always said in ordinary speech. True, we used to be taught to
    avoid this in writing, but if people think that so-called inclusive
    language is important, it is surely better than the ugly and obtrusive
    "his or her." Humphrys also hates redundancies like "safe haven" and
    "future prospect," but although these are faults, they are pretty
    minor ones. What would he make of Webster?
    I am acquainted with sad misery
    As the tanned galley-slave is with his oar.
    No doubt something lingers here of the original meaning of "sad,"
    which was "persistent," but the dull repetition in "sad misery"
    movingly expresses the monotonous continuance of the Duchess of
    Malfi's sorrows. In our ordinary discourse, a little redundancy may
    help to make meaning clear.
    Nor should we be automatically hostile to padding, as both Orwell and
    Humphrys are. In the 16th century, Cranmer gave the liturgy rhythm and
    dignity, in a language much less polysyllabic than Latin, by
    repetitions, often yoking together an Anglo-Saxon and a classically
    derived word: "Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we,
    worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may
    obtain... perfect remission and forgiveness." Clichés such as "at the
    end of the day" and "at this moment in time" have become trite with
    use, but in origin they were virtuous: they grow out of an instinct to
    give language shape and flow.
    There are several misunderstandings about cliché. There are clichés of
    thought; I used one in my first paragraph, when I referred to the myth
    that angry letters to the press are written in green ink. These are
    like family jokes; they are part of the national conversation, and are
    not to be regretted. Some clichés are modestly useful, like "tip of
    the iceberg." Many are metaphors, and of these, some are plain bad,
    while others were once fresh but have become stale with time, such as
    "sick as a parrot." But "over the moon," though now horribly
    hackneyed, was once rather a charming phrase, with a pleasing touch of
    the surreal; and there was, I suppose, an allusion to the cow jumping
    over the moon in the nursery rhyme.
    The nature of grammar, too, is often misunderstood. When Ernie Wise
    talked about "the play what I wrote," he was using a grammar, but it
    was not the grammar of educated English. No native English-speaker
    would say "the play whom I wrote," a mistake which a foreigner
    learning the language might well make. That would indeed be contrary
    to English grammar. Another fact which often confuses people is that
    grammars include irregularities. Humphrys frets over the form "aren't
    I," before coming to the sensible conclusion that it is all right. But
    there was never a problem to start with. "Aren't I" is the correct
    form in modern English; it is simply an irregularity.
    We need to distinguish ugly language from ungrammatical language:
    plenty of language is ugly but grammatically correct. And we also need
    to distinguish between the grammar of informal speech ("aren't I"),
    non-standard grammar ("what I wrote"), and incorrect grammar ("whom I
    wrote"). There is a story of a German spy who was caught because his
    English was "too correct." If he was caught because the natives'
    speech was muddled and slovenly, he was unlucky; but if he was
    speaking like a book, he deserved his capture. Spoken English is
    different from written English - a point which Humphrys makes well -
    and the foreigner who has not learned this has not fully mastered the
    Some people stress the importance of grammar, in the sense of educated
    speech and writing; others, in reaction, deny that it matters, and may
    even claim that it is an elite conspiracy to keep the proles in their
    place. A similar reaction insists that the English language is in good
    health, and that there is no need to be concerned about it. This was
    the claim made by Jean Aitchison at the time of her Reith lectures in
    1996, but she seemed to have no criteria for distinguishing good
    language from bad. It is certainly wrong to suppose that languages
    cannot improve or deteriorate, or to deny that different languages
    have particular strengths and weaknesses. Among the disadvantages of
    English, for example, are the comparatively inflexible word order, the
    use of "s" both for the genitive case and for the plural and a general
    excess of sibilance, the inability to distinguish the singular and
    plural of the second person, and the awkwardness of having to use "it"
    for what the French distinguish as il and ce. The strength of English
    is the variety of its registers. The base of our language is Germanic,
    but it has been overlaid in three stages by words of Latin derivation:
    those that arrived in Anglo-Saxon times, those that came from French
    after 1066, and the abstract vocabulary that entered from the
    Renaissance onwards. We have cases of two words derived from the same
    Latin original, such as "frail" and "fragile," or "ransom" and
    "redemption." Good prose can exploit this range of register. We can
    use short, plain words or sesquipedalian polysyllables; we may want to
    use both.
    We should learn educated English, as we should learn to spell, if only
    because it is a certificate of competence. Mistakes like "should of"
    or "flaunt" for "flout" are literally childish: they are the result of
    people picking up language by imitation, as children do, and
    misunderstanding what they have heard. We should flaunt the rules of
    grammar, not flout them, if only to show that we know what we are up
    to. But there is a nobler reason for knowing the rules, and that is
    that it enables one to speak more variously and effectively. Language
    does more than inform: there are occasions when it should be sonorous,
    poetic, dignified or inspiring; and at times it needs to be blunt and
    coarse. I said earlier that Tony Blair was one of the two most
    interesting users of English in present politics; the other is Chris
    Patten. He speaks and writes with force and elegance; he quoted
    Shakespeare after losing his seat, but he also understands the value
    of a drop into the demotic ("gobsmacked"). You cannot drop into the
    demotic, however, unless you have a height to drop from.
    Patten's case may suggest that there is a practical advantage to good
    English. Hardly anyone knows whether he did a good job or not in
    Brussels, but he has acquired the reputation of a wise statesman, and
    that surely owes much to his way with words. On the other hand, Blair
    has been immensely successful in electoral politics, and Patten has
    not, so maybe the price of good language is respect without power. But
    there are grounds for being cautiously hopeful. I suspect that behind
    the fuss about grammar, spelling and cliché there lies a larger
    uneasiness. The feeling is abroad that government and society are
    hostile to high culture, or at least uneasy with it; that anything
    demanding has to be simplified or smoothed out ("accessibility" is the
    weasel word here); that no serious matter can now be treated
    seriously, the malaise summed up in the phrase "dumbing down."
    Humphrys's heart is in the right place, but his book, alas, is itself
    an example of dumbing down, for it is written in a relentlessly
    chirpy, folksy prose, as though he were trying to jolly along a class
    of 14 year olds suffering from attention deficit. Popularisation need
    not and should not be patronising. Think of Kenneth Clark's
    Civilisation: Clark was superbly patrician, but the reverse of
    patronising, for he treated us as people who would want to hear a
    serious argument, elegantly made. Civilisation was popular, and
    something of the same kind could be popular again now, for there is in
    the land a hunger to be more serious. The hungry sheep look up, and it
    is time for them to be fed; why, there might even be money in it. End
    of the article

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