The Queen’s English Society is wrong to just give up . . .

The Queen’s English Society, which has railed against the misuse and deterioration of the English language, is to fold.

For 40 years the society has championed good English – and hasn’t been above the occasional criticism of the Queen’s own standards of English – but it has finally conceded it cannot survive in the era of textspeak and Twitter. (Guardian)

I have a degree of sympathy with that point of view, but none at all with the idea of giving up on our language as a lost cause.

That English, like any other language, evolves is a given. That it’s being bastardised by people too dumb to give a shit is also a given. Cyril Kornbluth’s Marching Morons really are on the rise, and they outnumber those of us who actually do care how our language develops.

Largely getting grammar, punctuation and spelling wrong is not, though, evidence of a language evolving, it’s evidence that people, excluding those who for reasons of dyslexia or other impairments have legitimate problems with language, are simply are too lazy to care. Yet in the comments following that Guardian article, it’s quite clear that those who are too lazy to care bizarrely believe that they are contributing to the evolution of the language, when they are really contributing to its devolution.

Note for the hard of thinking, devolution is nothing to do with Scottish independence: Devolution – descent to a lesser, or worse, state. Source: ODE.

I was initially going to say that the suggestion that Twitter and texting are, invariably, the villains is exaggerated – they are merely part of a far greater malaise. However, a critical look at Twitter this morning shows that they do have a point, and a valid one. The point about texting, though, is impossible to argue against.

My tweets (and I’m a long way from being alone in this – though we are outnumbered), barring typos, are properly constructed correctly spelled and, mostly, correctly punctuated, though I confess that, given the constraints of Twitter, punctuation suffers, especially if it can be omitted without changing the sense of the tweet. Full stops, for example, can be dispensed with, as using capitals will naturally announce the start of a new sentence, but commas cannot, as leaving them out can radically change meaning, which can’t always be discerned from context in something so short (actually, meaning often can’t be discerned at all, but that’s another story). Ditto apostrophes, to a somewhat lesser degree.

Likewise, I’d stick needles in my eyes before perpetrating textese, even when texting. It’s an abomination, and if you have to resort to it then it’s likely you have nothing of consequence to say.

Using standard English is easy enough (note: the Queen does not speak standard English, her version is studded with the traditional anachronisms that go with her office), if you choose your words with care. There is, though, a problem with that idea – the diminution of personal vocabularies (the logic that says it’s desirable to learn a whole new vocabulary – that of textese – while not being bothered to do so with one’s own language baffles me).

Take Word, the word-processing software. Its native dictionary has about 10,000 words, maybe more these days but, still, a vocabulary just about adequate for a bright pre-teen, and yet it is more than adequate for many adults today, especially those much younger than me, a fact that almost nobody finds worrying.

I knew a 38-year-old, seven years ago, who had never added a word to her  personal dictionary in Word, and that’s with the benefit of a university education. I can’t, personally, conceive of typing anything of a decent length, say 500-1,000 words, which won’t cause me to add several words to my personal dictionary.** Word’s native vocabulary, from an averagely educated adult’s perspective, is woefully lacking. That so many find it adequate should be cause for national concern.

**Total wordage, including this, 1,363. Words added to personal dictionary in Word, 5. QED.

Before I became too ill, I trained and worked as an adult literacy tutor, so I know full well that people can go through at least 11 years of education and emerge unable to read or write beyond the absolute basics, and sometimes not even that much. Happily, those who came to us recognised their failure (and please, don’t tell me it’s a teaching failure – you can’t teach those who won’t learn), and wanted to  do better – and we duly obliged them. Many, in less than a year of once a week, one-on-one tuition, had mastered what they readily admitted they couldn’t be bothered with in school.

But they were the success stories, the people who recognised their own shortcomings and set out to remedy them. There are very many more who, while not being functionally illiterate, can legitimately be described as sub-literate, and either don’t realise it or don’t care.

It’s clear, then, that what the Queen’s English Society sees as the problem is, while not new, now completely out of control, and that no-one – or so few they don’t appear on the radar – really cares enough to want to change that. I think they’re wrong, but those of us who do care, and I’m pretty sure it’s mostly a generational thing, are becoming fewer as the attrition of time nibbles away at our numbers.

I also think that they’re totally wrong to throw in the towel in this way. I can understand their frustration, I really can, but someone needs to defend the language from the depredations of the linguistic Visigoths. And preferably with  a new title, because, as I said, the Queen’s English is a poor example to be defending and, anyway, smacks of fogeyism. Before a large part of society, in a generation or two, is reduced to conversing in acronyms and initials, ffs!

The Marching Morons, by the way, deals with a future world society in which an educated, cultural elite are virtual slaves to the bulk of humanity, keeping the wheels of industry, food production, and pretty much everything else, turning, while the uneducated masses are intellectually incapable of doing any job more demanding than “press that button when this light comes on,” and breed like rabbits.

Kornbluth made a very good point, though I do feel he set his scenario rather  too far into the future. The title came from The Marching Chinese theory, popular at the time, which said that if you lined the Chinese up two abreast, and marched them past a fixed point, they’d breed at such a rate the line would never end.

On a personal note, and before anyone accuses me (again!) of intellectual elitism, I barely have a secondary school education (and lost a year of that as the school wasn’t built on time – this meant that my year left without any qualifications at all, not having completed the statutory 4 years of secondary education), and about a third of my total education was lost to illness.

Since I firmly believe that education doesn’t stop the moment the school gates clang shut behind you for the last time, but continues throughout life, the last paragraph does not mean I’m uneducated, though I will concede that it means I wasn’t able to maximise my potential (night school was never an option – getting through the working day was challenge enough; I’ve been ill all my life).

The only times I’ve set foot in a university were at national conferences of the Ramblers’ Association at Keble College, Oxford, and again at Exeter.

I did, however, at secondary school, have arguably the world’s best English teacher of that or any other generation, a fact of which I took full advantage and, by 14, was getting 98% on old GCE O-level English papers – I was too ill for sports or PE, so with his help I studied instead.

There was, though, one thing I and my peers appeared to know instinctively – that there is a world – hell, a universe! – of difference between spoken English and written English (depending upon what one is writing, of course, but mostly true), and I think it’s that distinction, as much as anything else which, today, has been lost.


3 thoughts on “The Queen’s English Society is wrong to just give up . . .

  1. Very well put Ron “There was, though, one thing I and my peers appeared to know instinctively – that there is a world – hell, a universe! – of difference between spoken English and written English”.

    I suggest that we are observing and part of the process of the evolution of a third category of English. Spoken English will always be a subset since it is supplemented by all the other means of communication between people that do not use words alone. Textspeak whatever is the narrowest, dumbest use of the language and mostly bereft of any of the nuances available to speakers or writers. Orwell/Blair highlighted the inherent dangers with his Newspeak which illustrated how a totalitarian state seeks to alter how people think. RIP the Queen’s English Society but do we really want a world where language and thought processes are defined by Word?

    • There’s a video clip doing the rounds, showing a woman walking and texting – straight into a fountain!

      And it made me wonder – are those who habitually text while walking, like this, inherently dumber than most? Given that their mobe might well have a flag screaming “Steal me!” I suspect so.

      Back in the mists of time, when I’d go out to buy a paper, or pick one up on the way to the office, along with many others I’d read the front page while walking – it was quite a common sight. It was a guy thing, but we also managed to remain aware of the world around us at the same time, managing not to walk into each other (mostly), into fountains, or under buses. So what is it with texting numpties? Do they turn off their spatial awareness when they turn on their phones?

      A few weeks ago I saw a guy, texting while wandering along, suddenly veer off the pavement and across the road, not taking his eyes from the screen for a second. Sadly for Darwinism, there was no traffic around at that point – but he didn’t know that.

      I don’t, by the way, think it’s a world where language and thought processes are defined by Word. Rather, by being limited to a vocabulary that wouldn’t challenge that of Word, both thought and speech are, of necessity, stunted.

      I think one reason why vocabularies are diminishing is the lack of suitable comics to develop reading skills by moving, in graduated steps, from the cartoonish comics of early childhood to the almost entirely text-based publications aimed at pre-teens, which were the norm when I was a kid and have since vanished.

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