Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Queen's English

Real life, in the form of a lot of work and the computer sliding down the curtain have meant no blogging for a while. And even now all I can offer is the worst kind of post, a collection of links and quotes from myself. But anyway, here we are. One of the things I had intended to write about was this, from the Times. (Another, of course, was the football.*)

The Queen's English Society, as you will discover if you take the trouble to peruse their website, are an ignorant, barely literate bunch who think the function of language is to show how clever they are at learning rules, and to express a stupid and sinister kind of nationalism. They have no idea how communication works, or of what English really is, as opposed to how it's spoken down their street and what their old teacher used to upbraid them on years ago. Even if an English Academy were a good idea these would be the very worst people to run it. I even wondered if it might be a send-up of the Plain English Campaign (who seem to have got a lot better recently, by the way, although for some reason they've lost the article), but it isn't. It is actually intended to be taken seriously.

Before I could get round to posting, a lot of other people had already done it: Stan Carey of Sentence First does it here, John Macintyre of the Baltimore Sun does it here (both added to blogroll), and Mark Liberman does it at the Language Log.

Self-quotation time: this is the comment I left at Stan's place:

"‘You can’t make a record if you ain’t got nothing to say,’ as Willy Nelson done sung.

Mr Estinel clearly has nothing to say, and so, having little use for the language as a vehicle of communication, he treats it as an exercise in the application of rules, which he doesn’t seem to understand in any case. Contrast his comments with those of Mr Gorman, who does have something to say and expresses it well (though he might express it better if he ignored the advice of the QES- note the self-conscious avoidance of contracted forms).

Another underlying, and quite wrong, assumption, is that children learn to communicate by being told rules in the classroom. They don’t, they learn by observing how others communicate, trying, failing, trying again, and discovering how different listeners interpret their words.

Another little clue for Mr Estinel: context is everything; and I do mean everthing. When (young) people text, tweet, Messenger, Tuenti, scribble postcards or just talk to each other, much of the language they use is not only non-standard and largely incomprehensible to anyone outside the group, but is in fact mostly meaningless. This is because it’s not intended to convey factual information, but simply to express their pleaure at being together."

and this is what I said at You Don't Say:

"I don't think it's worth taking them remotely seriously. Their website is terrible; it's very poorly written, full of errors and clunking style, it's parochial, predictable and ignorant.

Peevology is a lower-middle class obsession. These are poorly.educated people striving for something to feel snobbish about. By all means laugh at them, but don't worry about them.

Or it could just be about money, a modern form of tele-evangelsim."

They sum up what I don't have time to develop in full.

The main reason there is no point in having an Acandemy of the English Language is that no one would listen to it. Where such Academies exist they provide a rich source of discussion for the sort of people who like to argue about these things, and they make life a lot easier for lazy writers of style manuals, but for the vast majority of speakers, including professional writers and communicators, they are a useless irrelevance. Spain has one, now linked to all the other Spanish-speaking countries that have created similar Academies, and I don't think I have ever used its dictionary or its grammar to determine how I express something (even its spelling is prescriptive). I do use usage manuals and historical dictionaries (and I tend to have Mrs Hickory vet anything that's for publication) and I check terms and expressions and stylistic choices against those used in similar kinds of writing, but the Academy can't help because it doesn't tell you how people communicate in a particular context, it just tells you very broadly how it thinks they should.

As I said before somewhere, language is not in danger because we will always find ways to achieve communication when we want to. In communiction theory (a dry field of linguistics that consists mainly of stating the obvious) a number of sub-competences of the global communicative competence are identified, one of which is the strategic competence, whose role is to identify and solve problems in communication. It varies from person to person, naturally, but we all have it, and anyone whose intellectual and social skills are superior to Robert Green's goalkeeping instinctively knows how to do it.

*I haven't watched either of England's games at the World Cup (or Spain's, for that matter) and I can't get too depressed that we haven't been able to beat a couple of teams that don't know one end of a ball from the other. Footie in the summer doesn't seem to matter, even if the cricket is a bit weak this year.

But one thing that strikes me is that someone has clearly made a fortune by convincing South Africans not only that football has always been an inseparable part of their culture, but also that they have always watched it while blowing loudly on an overpriced plastic trumpet. I bet they didn't use them five years ago. A triumph of marketing, but then, there's one born every minute. (And also, football is fun. That's the point of it. It's why we watch it. It doesn't have to make sense or be historically accurate.)

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