BOOKS / A good word for the mother tongue: The English as she is spoke: P D James on three new books

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The Independent Culture
THERE has in recent years been a lively interest in the English language: how it should be taught, the alleged fall in standards of written and spoken English in public life, its status as a world language spoken by more than 700 million people in an increasing variety of forms and dialects. Two new books, though very different in style and intention, address these concerns, and a third gives the derivation of some 3,000 phrases which are part of our shared experience.

Anthony Burgess takes his title, A Mouthful Of Air (Hutchinson pounds 17.99), from Yeats, who said that he made a poem 'out of a mouthful of air'. The main thrust of his book is not the visual symbol of the written word, but the sounds we make and hear, 'the buzzes, hisses, bangs and flutings'. The first 19 chapters deal with language generally, including phonetics, linguistics from Grimm to Chomsky, and foreign idioms. Mr Burgess defines his approach in a preface:

This is supposed to be an English lesson, but it is doubtful if the English language will be so much as mentioned before the bell rings. My real, as opposed to imaginary, teaching experience has been much of this order - trying to induce an interest in the phenomenon of language in general before swooping to the particular and, even then, not neglecting the general.

Mr Burgess does not always wear his learning lightly. He writes, so he tells us, for the plain reader. But this plain reader found much of his book hard going - the equivalent of a mouthful of air belching forth a heady mixture of learning, definitions, history, phonetics and anecdote. The last nine chapters, dedicated to the English language, are the most interesting, particularly the chapter on how Shakespeare's plays would have sounded (how, apart from the obviously intended rhymes, can we really know?), and the chapter on the Bible, which echoes my own concerns. Pointing out that King James I was, in one sense, the luckiest of monarchs because the two greatest works of English were published in his lifetime, Mr Burgess comments: 'A world that looks to the future is not particularly interested in what it regards as the fossils of the past. But language comes out of the past and is not easily separated from it.' Mr Burgess is a novelist intensely interested in what he describes as 'the impermanent, evanescent, highly chargeable, primary reality' of the spoken word, and, as one would expect, this is an argumentative work of wit, erudition and originality. By the end, however, I had a sense of an opportunity missed. And surely a book so frankly pedagogic merits a bibliography.

The Oxford Companion to the English Language (OUP pounds 25), edited by Tom McArthur, contains 4,000 entries written by more than 90 specialists on virtually all aspects of English: not only grammar, but pronunciation, the fashion for politically correct language, the effects of technology on English and the formation of new words. In addition it contains brief biographical details of more than 2,000 individuals for whom the language has been a passionate interest, ranging from the Venerable Bede to Wole Soyinka.

The Companion does not neglect the international use of English, a subject dealt with perfunctorily by Burgess. From its beginnings 1,500 years ago, the language has always been diverse, and is now spoken in an ever-increasing variety of tongues, from Aboriginal to Zimbabwean English. This huge increase in the international use of the language has, strangely enough, coincided with a lack of confidence at home in what we mean by Standard English and whether, and how, it should be taught. One view, happily now less current, is that Standard English is the verbal and written proclamation of caste and privilege, and that to seek to impose its vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar, particularly on a child from a background where different standards apply, is both elitist and condescending.

I was fortunate enough to go to a local authority grammar school at a time - 60 years ago - when it was considered part of the school's responsibility to ensure that we could speak and write our native language accurately, clearly and, it was hoped, with some elegance. Today we have a society where often a child has only to open his mouth to proclaim disadvantage. As the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe wrote: 'The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use.' But it should be possible to recognise and respect the richness of other varieties of our tongue without denigrating our own usage.

Tom McArthur is to be congratulated on a fascinating compendium, a work not only of reference but of enjoyment and discovery. I have one small criticism: except for the reference to television, the entry for detective fiction could have been written in the 1930s.

The Methuen Dictionary of Cliches ( pounds 15.99), edited by Christine Ammer, is an altogether lighter book, but also affords its pleasures. We are, of course, taught to despise cliches, described by Frank Muir in his preface as 'figuratively speaking, moulded ready-made in wet newspaper', but the best of them last because they vividly communicate a shared experience.

Many people may be surprised to learn that the expression 'the writing on the wall' comes from the Book of Daniel, where, during a feast held by King Belshazzar, a mysterious hand appears and writes its coded words of doom; and that the expression 'nothing but skin and bones' was used by an unknown 15th-century writer: 'Now . . . Me is lefte But skyn and boon'. The phrase 'warm the cockles of one's heart' comes from the Latin for the heart's ventricles, cochleas cordis, and has been used figuratively since the 17th century. The purpose of this dictionary is not to shame us out of such shared verbal formulas, but to explain their derivation and clarify their meanings.