Friday, 25 March 2016

The Camp Bells Shall Be Coming

There is a species of online bloviation, generally to be found in the comments section of blogs, which opens with the acronym "IANAL" (i.e. "I am not a lawyer"), almost always followed by the word "but..."  This post, and others like it (for example the recent So So post), should probably be similarly prefixed, but with the signification "I am not a linguist".  So let's just say I am something of a barrack-room linguist, and get on with the "but..." bit.

I have a certain facility with language, and an abnormal level of formal education, but it is nonetheless a fact that much of my linguistic usage is "non-standard".  To an extent, this reveals my upbringing in the skilled working class of East Anglia, with strong dialectal admixtures from London, 1970s youth culture, and academese.  I also have a fondness for neologisms and "lively" language.  Blend it all up and you get a fairly strong idiolect.  We've all got one, but, like noses, some are more noticeable than others.

However, I would resist any suggestion that my particular (peculiar?) way with words is in any way incorrect, and I am arrogant enough to regard my usage as the norm against which all other dialects vary – including RP or "posh".  Yes, it is the world, and not me, that is out of step.  And note that use of "me" instead of the preposterous and pedantic "I".  You wouldn't catch I saying that, boy.

That said, I am always puzzled by those who maintain a strong idiolect in the face of all opposition and correction, when it is simply wrong.  I had a primary school teacher who insisted on pronouncing the surname Campbell as two distinct words (Camp Bell), which was almost as annoying to classmate Billy Campbell as her insistence on calling me "Chiz-hole-m" was to me.*  Similarly, I had a senior colleague at work who, mystifyingly, insisted on pronouncing the name of the port city just down the coast from us as "Port's Mouth", a truly heroic idiosyncrasy.  I never did manage to find the right moment to ask him why.

Pronunciation is easy to fix, of course, if you're bovvered about it.  Most of us aren't, these days, but it's not so long ago that an elective cosmetic accent-job was part of the higher education package.  I think my parents were a little disappointed when, after one term at Oxford, I didn't come home to our Stevenage council flat talking like Brian Sewell.  Harder to change, though, are the more deeply-ingrained habits of language, simple things like the use of pronouns and the "modal" and "auxiliary" verbs, a particular minefield in English usage.

One that has always puzzled me is "will" versus "shall".  I have always thought of "shall" as posh, and rarely, if ever use it, at least in my spoken language.  It feels as alien in my mouth as a phrase like "would you care for a biscuit?" (that all depends on what's wrong with it, missus).  To say "I shall go to the cinema tonight" sounds absurd to me.  In my linguistic tribe, "going to" and "will" do all the necessary work of futurity, admittedly with the occasional use of the conditional construction "Ish'll/Wesh'll probbly" (as in, "What you doin' t'nite?" "Ish'll probbly stay in").

So I eventually looked it up.  It seems the official line on "will v. shall" in Anglo-English is that "shall" is used with first person pronouns (I and we) to form the future tense, while "will" is used with the second and third persons.  However, when it comes to expressing a strong determination to do something, the situation is reversed: "will" is used with the first person, and "shall" with the second and third.  Well I never!  But then you only have to think about this for a minute to realise how simplistic this "rule" is.  Wikipedia's article gives a far more subtle account of the complexities.

Like so many of these things, a lot depends on your level of literacy, and how far your speech patterns have been adjusted to reflect the "proper" orthographic and grammatical norms of print.  To say "Camp-Bell" instead of "Camble" is presumably an extreme example of ostentatious over-compensation.  But that's how it's written, Billy!  Coming from the other direction, there are those people who say (and write) "should of" instead of "should have", presumably because they don't read enough to have registered the contraction "should've".  Somewhere in between are the legions of homespun pedants who think "to look good" is ungrammatical or insist the plural of octopus is "octopi", the snobs who affect blimpish pre-War pronunciations like "Rumsey" (Romsey), "Rafe" (Ralph), and "goff" (golf), and the dressed-down political toffs who think randomly inserted glottal stops make them popular with the common people.

If I think of the vernacular usage of modals and auxiliaries, though, I remember my grandmother, East Anglian to the bone (or "boon", as she would have said), who virtually never used the words "must not", generally using "don't have to" in its place.  It takes a while – even the odd clip round the ear – to realise that the exclamation "Oh, y'don't hatta do that, boy!" is a serious admonition, and in no way a suggestion that your proposed course of action is optional.

* For non-English speakers: the correct pronunciation of Campbell is "Camble", and my own proudly-borne Scottish/Scandinavian name is pronounced "Chizzm".  And, yes, I'm afraid it can sound a little dodgy in the wrong context, particularly to Americans...

[N.B. I'm away for the next week in a land where the phone signal can't penetrate the clouds, and the internet is a mere rumour. I'll get to any comments when I return.]


Zouk Delors said...

Jism! Haha!

I have a friend who insists on pronouncing the word English as it is spelt (as opposed to the usual "Ing-glish") -- and that because of its spelling. Apparently his big sister told him when he was a kid that that's how it should be pronounced and he clings to it, either refusing to believe the evidence of his senses or, presumably, imagining that the millions who pronounce it otherwise are simply ignorant.

In fact I think most people are at odds with the linguists in thinking that language is fixed and any deviation from their idea of correct forms is a corruption of the language. A special case of this is the Muslims' belief that the Qur'an consists of the actual words of God (Allah), as transmitted to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel (Jabreel), so the C6th Meccan dialect of Arabic is, to them, "God's own language". How Muslim linguists regard this question, الله عالم

Btw, I have convened with my fellow Elders of the Linguistic Tribe of Stevenage and we are of the unanimous opinion that we have never even heard of "Ish'll" and that this must be some vile contamination of the One True Idiolect picked up by mixing with all those posh nobs at Oxford. Or perhaps spending too much time on the internet.

amolitor said...

Sherlock's cousin, Chiz, was not much use at solving crimes, but he could beat a confession out of almost anyone.