Permit me my wrinkles


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Well, I am all for it - clear and effective speech. I am not talking about the cut-glass stuff, the plum in the mouth, the haw-haw have a devil on horseback Claude. I mean people who know the words and use them correctly and can see how each sentence is going to finish before they start it. So when I read yesterday that Gillian Shephard desires all our children to leave school speaking clearly and effectively in standard English, my first thought was, "Good on yer!"

The thing that bothers me is the possibility that, by promoting only standard English, the other rich types of English usage are left to fossilise.

I know Mrs Shephard says she is not referring to regional accents, but I wonder how successfully the two matters can be separated. What is it, anyway, this standard English? What does it outlaw? While I think any damage inflicted on regional speech patterns by Shephard will be secondary to the blows already dealt it by a mobile population and a television in every living room, nevertheless regional dialects must be threatened further by the adoption of standard English. Does that matter? I believe it does.

Take one of my first boyfriends. He was a Geordie. For me, fresh from Stanford in the Vale, Berkshire, listening to him was like listening to a foreign language. I doubt that what he said to me was structured in standard English, but it was beautiful just the same.

Take my old uncle who lived in a little isolated village near Uffington. He never said he was going to the toilet. He said he was going up the dyke. Dyke. Natural watercourse. Ditch. The language takes you back and informs you what people did pre-privy. My mum never used to say she was going to have a look: she went to have a "kite round". It is from the wheeling bird of prey and is a centuries-old usage. In a Cornish village recently, a man was standing in his garden and I asked him where a friend of mine might live. The man looked up brightly. "Know ee, do ee?" he said. What happens to people who say: "Know ee, do ee?" Mrs Shephard?

Don't misunderstand me. I am not campaigning for regional accents to be preserved in aspic. I have had one for a lifetime and I am not sure I would wish it on a dog. Mention me and people shut one eye and shout, "Ooh ar!" I write comic verse. Well over two million books sold and my current one is in its fourteenth reprint. Yet I hardly ever see a reference to myself in the press without some put-down relating to my voice. Make way for the Bucolic Bard, the Rustic Rhymster, the Shakespeare of the Shires. It is irritating after 20 years. But, Mrs Shephard, despite all my years of fighting "voicism", I would not want all the wrinkles ironed out of our language. Me-dearie-o.

The author is a writer and entertainer. Her latest book is 'The Works', BBC Books, pounds 4.99.

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