Socialist Worker

Mind your language?

With an endless stream of books about spelling and grammar being published, Michael Rosen says we must resist the language police

Issue No. 2001

illustration by Tim Sanders

illustration by Tim Sanders

If you’re wiser and luckier than me, you won’t have chosen to watch a pair of programmes on BBC4 last week, The Pedants’ Revolt and Never Mind the Full Stops. The idea that lay behind the first was that we are living in a time when more and more people are trying to hold the line on correct spelling, punctuation and grammar.

Are the people concerned “pedants”, or reasonable people just trying to safeguard the English language? Never Mind the Full Stops is a quiz game where panellists have to do various language tasks in line with the pedants’ gripes.

These programmes are riding on what seems to be a wave of interest in language. Lynne Truss produced a book about punctuation – a staggering bestseller called Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Melvyn Bragg has written a book about the history of the English language and John Humphrys brought out a book bewailing the state of English.

So what’s going on? Why the interest? Well, as you might expect, there’s a political element to all this. When Britain ruled the world, many of the people studying English were looking at a language that was being used to govern millions of people.

Now, with no British Empire, there are two main reasons why forms of English are spoken all over the world—the rise of English-speaking America, and the persistence of English amongst the elites of the once colonised countries of the old rulers.

Meanwhile, within Britain, with a general loosening of formalities, the rise of popular music, the arrival in universities and the professions of people of working class origin, the presence of a huge variety of migrants, a whole range of ways of speaking (and to a lesser extent writing) that were previously excluded has burst into the public arena.

For some people, the double assault of the many Englishes from abroad – Australia, the US, Africa, the Indian subcontinent – and the many Englishes at home is a cause of immense anxiety. In the 1950s, the small percentage of people who had a grammar school education (like me), along with the tiny group in public schools, could be confident that what they said and how they said it would dominate in education, the media, the professions, the law courts and government.

Very few people within this layer cared about who was illiterate, or really cared much about how the rest of the population (or Empire) spoke, other than that it was “common”, “pidgin” or just plain wrong.

So the remains and descendants of this elite like to maintain that there was a time when “everyone” (untrue) knew how to punctuate, spell and talk like the Queen, and it’s all gone to the dogs ever since.

So they produce books, articles and TV programmes with one underlying principle: we will tell you what spoken and written English should be – the so called “prescriptive” model. They become in effect language bullies, sneering at people who put the apostrophes in what they say is the “wrong place” or who commit such supposed sins as the “hanging participle” or American spelling.

A great deal of this tries to turn what is in reality no more than a set of changing or local conventions into tablets of stone. For example, when I was at school, many hours were spent teaching us the “rules” of how to lay out a letter. Once computers and word-processing came in, the people with real power, “business”, scrapped the lot.

Again, what we think of as the “one and only correct” way to punctuate conversations has never been used in France, where they use a wonderfully simple system of dashes.

That said, it’s the principle itself that has to be challenged. There is a whole other approach to language— an investigatory one that asks, “What’s going on?” Language flows through almost every human act. The processes we call “behaviour”, “social interaction”, “domination”, “power”, “knowledge”, “thought” or “class”, are all inextricably interwoven with the language we use. So much so that it’s quite misleading ever to talk about this or that bit of language without looking at who was saying or writing it, and who was reading or listening to it.

Away from the company of people trying to fix rules and hand out language Asbos, there are thousands of routes of enquiry and discovery to be made.

How do very young children learn how to speak? In standard English, you can talk about things in the past, present or future. Some kinds of English and other languages appear not to be able to do this.

Does this mean that the people who speak these languages have a different idea of time? If I am a person with power, what are my best ways of using language so that I can deceive you and/or keep power over you? If I’m a person without any power in society, is it fair to say that the reason for this is something to do with the way I speak or write? Meanwhile, a few toffs get airtime to sound like they know about language, when in reality all they’re doing is bossing us about.

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Sat 20 May 2006, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 2001
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