Slip of the mother tongue

It's irrational to worry so much about the English language, argues David Crystal
Click to follow
The Independent Online
"I THINK you ought to know," says Marvin, the paranoid android in The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, "I'm feeling very depressed." When I heard the opening question posed by Jean Aitchison in the first Reith lecture last week, "Is our language sick?", Marvinian gloom began to grow inside me. It wasn't that the lecturer didn't answer the question competently: she did indeed. It was the fact that the question was being asked yet again - and in a Reith lecture, of all places.

To its credit, the BBC has devoted a fair amount of time to airing the issues. I did my bit on Radio 4 in the 1980s, in several series of English Now. At the beginning of the decade, I was receiving letters condemning language change unreservedly. At the end of the decade, I was receiving letters saying - exactly the same thing. It was as if I had never been.

I shouldn't be surprised. As Professor Aitchison says, "Laments about language go back for centuries". People insist on believing that spoken language is sloppy - even though the omission of sounds in fast speech is a natural style which everyone practises to some degree. And they insist on thinking of language change as a disease - although change is a natural result of contact between people who speak differently.

Linguistic likes and dislikes are not easily affected by reason. Something makes people think of informal speech as sloppy, of change as decay. Why? Something makes them value the written language over the spoken, although the latter antedates the former in the child and the race. Why? There is a 200-year-old view that we need eternal vigilance to keep the language intact: why is it so difficult to replace it with eternal tolerance? Why do people ridicule accents? Why are they so hurt when others attack the way they speak - even (there are attested cases) referring to this as a factor in their suicide?

Maybe the really interesting question is not "Is our language sick?" but "Why do we want to think that our language is sick?". It is not enough to say that language change is the normal state of health. Why do people think there is disease in the first place? We don't need the linguistic equivalent of a doctor: we need a psychiatrist.

People are very protective about Standard English - the variety which binds educated people together all over the world (not all languages have one). Without it, there would be difficulties when people from Glasgow and Newcastle, or from York and New York, tried to talk (or write) to each other.

The issue has in the past been particularly critical in relation to writing for the obvious reason that most written texts end up being read by an indefinitely large number of readers, most of whom do not have the opportunity of sorting out difficulties of comprehension with the original author. The point of Standard English is that it is essentially a written language phenomenon - chiefly a feature of print. Examine the English newspapers in Sydney, Tokyo, Athens, Atlanta, or Edinburgh, and you will find little difference in their grammar and vocabulary. Standard written English patently exists, as a world-wide medium. That is why our children need to learn it, and learn it well - to enable them to communicate with confidence and as equals on the world stage.

A few people learn to speak Standard English, too. These are the people most in the national or international public eye - such as broadcasters who have learnt the importance of communicating with large numbers. (This factor was very much in the forefront of Lord Reith's mind, when the BBC had to choose a variety of English as its norm at the outset.)

Standard English is spreading around the world faster than at any other period in its history. If any variety of the language is in excellent health, it is Standard English. (Many regional dialects, by contrast, are in very poor health.) If you add up all the points of grammar and vocabulary which some people imagine to be "mistakes" (like the split infinitive), you will find that they amount to only a tiny part of 1 per cent of the language. Real mistakes stand out like the proverbial sore digit. These are usages that fall completely outside the norms of the dialect to which a speaker belongs. If I use the word bibliography to mean "religious studies", or spell psychiatrist as psyciatrist, then I am an idiot. I have made mistakes in Standard English. I should have looked the words up in an appropriate guide - such as a dictionary. And if I call a seesaw a teeter-totter in my home locality in North Wales, I have also made a mistake. That isn't an accepted local dialect usage, as locals would soon tell me (through their blank looks). Each dialect - regional or standard - has its rules of grammar and meaning, and children learn them, at home, in the street, or in school.

Linguists who ignore the essentially prescriptive nature of the written language must prepare for ferocious counterblasts from people who feel that the emphasis on the natural rules of speech has been at the expense of the partly contrived (but none the less desirable) rules of writing. There is nothing to be gained if linguists allow their position to be seen as one of "anything goes". Anything does not go: that is the point.

Children can learn Standard English without losing any of their local identity. I use one dialect at home (a mixed Welsh Liverpudlian variety of British English), another when I talk in public in Britain (British Standard English), and a third when I meet people from other English-speaking countries (World Standard English). This last variety has been slowly growing since the 1960s, and is beginning to be heard in such places as international conferences and along the world corridors of power. It is a variety in which Americans, British and other English-speaking nationals avoid the idiosyncratic features of their mother-dialect (such as UK pavement - US sidewalk) and move towards a neutral variety intelligible to all.

It is a pity that the first Reith lecture ignored the relationship between speech and writing, as those especially concerned about standards will condemn the lecture for its failure to address what they perceive to be the "real issues" - namely, the need to preserve satisfactory standards of written communication, nationally and internationally, and to be able to reflect this medium in formal speech.

Maybe Jean Aitchison felt that she needed to remove a "cobweb of worries" about the spoken language. She shouldn't have bothered. If you have worries about English, they will still be there. Indeed, they are likely to grow, as English spreads around the world. Take the 64,000 ecu question: will the language one day fragment into many mutually unintelligible spoken dialects, or will the pull of Standard English be enough to hold it together? I sense Marvin glooming in the wings.

David Crystal is editor of 'The Cambridge Encyclopedia'