It's a strange experience, living at the epicentre of a language that has gone global. "English" may be the vernacular evolved by the inhabitants of the British Isles (the mongrel offspring of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, Norman French and goodness knows what else, which squeezed out the various Celtic languages like a cuckoo chick settling into a nest) but there are now many Englishes spoken and written around the world, largely by people who have never seen our green and pleasant land, and who couldn't care less about distinguishing a dale from a dingle, or a dell, or a bottom, or a glen, or a vale, or a valley. And it's a well-established fact that even visiting alien species tend to speak their own insistent variety of English, too: "ex-ter-min-ate! EX-TER-MIN-ATE!!". Never mind global, that's universal.
Faced with this viral phenomenon, it's hard not to feel proprietorial. It's almost impossible, when travelling abroad and asked "Do you speak English?" not to reply "I am English!" (to which a suitable riposte would be, "I'll take that as a 'probably', then"). But, just as we have slipped down the international league of players of our other global export, football, so we have started to lose control and influence over our own language. Ovid, no doubt, would have ground his teeth to hear Latin abused as the lingua franca of mediaeval Europe; so now must we native-born English speakers grind ours, as "our" English takes over the world.
Of course I accept, linguistically, that the rule is that usage trumps prescription. In the end, if all the speakers of dodgy Englishes out there -- the ones who spell "lose" as "loose", or confuse their "their", their "there", and their "they're" -- agree to agree on their ignorance, then in the long run there's nothing to be done about it. But, but... If nothing else, some of us have invested a lot of time and care into getting it right, and it's annoying to see such a precious tool handled so carelessly.
My father was a mild-mannered man, but he would be enraged if he ever caught me abusing a tool -- for example, levering the lid off a tin of paint with a chisel. I have inherited a similar flashpoint with regard to linguistic abuses. But where my father had only me and a handful of apprentices to provoke his ire, I have the entire freakin' internet. Increasingly, I wonder whether it's time simply to stop caring about it. What does it matter if, for whatever modish reasons, people -- English people -- have suddenly started saying "I'm bored of maths" rather than "I'm bored with or by maths"? It's wrong, but in due course it will become right. And, in 50 years, some pedant will be fuming about the new fashion for saying "I'm bored at maths."
Obsessing about the fussy details of obsolete local practices -- which is what it amounts to -- is a sure sign of a culture in decline. In 1776, I'm pretty sure George III and George Washington were not quarrelling over the preferred spelling of "favour" or "sabre", or whether you are said to "rule" or "head up" a country. No, rather more was at stake -- though the French, those perennial bad losers, would probably insist there was a linguistic angle, too. It will be an indicator of the irreversible decline of the United States when pedants start attempting to recapture American metaphors and usages which have escaped into the global wild and gone feral ("Step up to the plate", anybody? Hey, what's the beef? And where is the beef, anyway? Is it on the plate? Oh, I see, that's a whole different ball game...).
One of the wonderful (and insidious) things about English as a language is its hospitality to the delightfully incorrect and unwittingly innovative usages of non-native speakers. We love it when you talk unclean. Why, just listening to the radio news today I heard a French official talking in wonderfully articulate English (in a discussion of the clearance of the Sangatte refugee camp) who referred to people sleeping "under the rain". Why would anyone bother to correct him? It's perfectly sensible, and almost poetic. In the same slot an Afghan refugee, interviewed and asked how many times the police had arrested him at Sangatte, replied "four many".* Again, who wouldn't let it go? Iit may not be "English", but it is English-based communication.
This last example reminds me of a favourite bit of dialogue in the film Casablanca, where the Leuchtags are showing off their new language skills:
Mr. Leuchtag: Liebchen-- sweetnessheart, what watch?It helps if you speak German, of course, in which language the words for "watch" and "hour" are the same... Heh. Well, I thought it was funny, anyway, as did, presumably, the scriptwriters. "Hey," as Chico Marx would say, "Hey, what's a matter for you?"
Mrs. Leuchtag: Ten watch.
Mr. Leuchtag: Such watch?
Carl: Hm. You will get along beautiful in America, mm-hmm.
* The reference to Sangatte in the news betrays the long gestation of this post, begun way back on 10/10/09...