Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Such Watch!

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?
Mrs. Leuchtag:
Ten watch.
Mr. Leuchtag:
Such watch?
Hm. You will get along beautiful in America, mm-hmm.
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?"

* The reference to Sangatte in the news betrays the long gestation of this post, begun way back on 10/10/09...


Kent Wiley said...

Hmmm... probably a lost cause, Mike, this language policing. But I'll grant you that there are many who will go down in flames.

You might enjoy this rather long winded article from David Foster Wallace, but the preferred method of reading - at least for me - would be to get a copy of his Consider the Lobster in which it is compiled. It's about, of all things, dictionary wars and English usage.

BTW the 1st photo got me: I thought it was 2 photos. Nice one!

Gavin McL said...

As overheard,

Following a correction to a grammatical error

"That's just your pedantiscm coming out"

"Actually you'll find it's my pedantry"

I like the ploughed field


Bronislaus Janulis said...


great post, but relax, it's a living language. You haven't even touched on dialetical deviation. There are parts of the US, where so called "olde English" words are common. In far NW Florida, I am unable to understand the native dialect. I am able to understand natives of the South side of Chicago, having spent time there as a yoot, down neer toidy-toid street.

I'm far more relaxed about language after the adult discovery that my Lithuanian grandparents did not speak Lithuanian, but rather a melange of a multiplicity of East Europe languages. Russia had abolished the Lithuanian language, thus the melange.

Miguel said...

I am a Spaniard, working for a Swedish company. Our common working language is something we call 'English'. It is a parlance having a very simple grammar, extremely poor vocabulary, many acronyms and lots of expressions borrowed from business publications, which everybody not in management hates.

Surely you would have quite a laugh listening to what we have made of your good old Queen's English!

Frank Harkin said...

Generally agree about the language. Like the photos.

Dave Leeke said...

Hmm. . .as an English-born English teacher I'm quite interested in what Miguel says. What he reports: "a very simple grammar, extremely poor vocabulary, many acronyms and lots of expressions borrowed from business publications" sounds remarkably like the way the management of my school speaks.

It's not the language I grew up with. I, amongst others, aren't really having a laugh at what globalisation has done to our "Queen's English". Everyday in the classroom is a battle with trying to keep the language alive. There is a cultural battleground that the USA seems to be winning. Still, I can't forget the reaction of a very Right wing Virginian I once mentioned to the fact that within 50 years (or less) the main American language will be Spanish.

They haven't got a great sense of humour, have they?

Mike C. said...

Interesting, this -- I get the impression that people may think I'm one of those language nuts who want to preserve the purity of the tongue, whereas I thought I was making a different argument i.e. that the destiny of English is to become a world language and that -- however strange it may sometimes sound to native speakers -- the sound of one non-native speaker communicating with another is the future of the language.

You and your colleagues, Miguel, are actually creating a new global "English", that has little or nothing to do with England, or even the USA. This is a good thing, and fascinating to observe (I work on a very multinational university campus).

I really don't think it matters when a Frenchman says "under the rain" (the "correct" expression is out in the rain) -- the meaning is obvious, and expressive. It *does* matter, however, when a speaker fails to differentiate between, say, "the weather" and "the time", as they often do (the words being the same in French, etc.). "Under the rain" is just style, "the times are bad today" is poor communication.

Mike C. said...

Here's an interesting article I came across today:


I like this bit:

"Repeat after me:

Short is better than long.
Simple is good. (Louder)
Long Latin nouns are the enemy.
Anglo-Saxon active verbs are your best friend.
One thought per sentence."


David Brookes said...

The Vicar of Bethnall Green, Kevin Scully, was a playwright in his native Australia before coming to the UK. He spent a week with me some years ago and we argued ceaselessly about the evils of split infinitives (I am against them; he didn't care either way). As a result he sent me a tape of a play of his (called "Verbal Assaults") which had been broadcast on Australian radio. It made his points persuasively and wittily, but it did not convert me to his point of view.

I now fume at the BBC, not just for the split infinitives, but for the "compared to"s and the "different to"s as well. I think we English speakers of "proper" English are fighting a losing battle, but that is no reason to capitulate.

Mike C. said...


Some "rules" of grammar seem to have been invented largely for the sake of having a rule -- the "split infinitive" is one of those, I think it's fair to say. Wikipedia is quite good on the issues.

Without getting too deeply mired in the subject, the "to" in some alleged infinitives is doing more linguistic work than simply indicating "this is an infinitive". Consider this example: "The population is expected to more than double". Does "to" belong to "double" or to "expected"? If it belongs to "double", why is it impossible to unsplit the infinitive? Is there really a verb "to more than double", perhaps? Etc.

The role of particles like prepositions in English (in place of declensions, conjugations, etc.)is one the language's mysteries, and one of its strengths. To cue my own pedantic bonnet-bee, that is no excuse to replace "could/should have" with "could/should of" (argh!) though you can see why someone might do that.


David Brookes said...

Mike, I agree with you entirely: one of the things that I most like about your blog is the quality of your written English. As a final aside, I confess that I can never see the name of the village on the A36 south of Bath without thinking of it as an incomplete split infinitive, i.e. it should be "to Limpley Stoke".