I had to resist the temptation to correct the speaker on the spot. Also, if I did, which I did in the end, by the way, where would I start? Would it be the “it don’t” howler? Or the typical London-accented “ma’er”? “Coz”, perhaps? Or, “innit”, again, a Cockney-influenced linguistic prop commonly used by the villagers of Londontown? In the end I just corrected the “it don’t” and the “innit”. Couldn’t be arsed to deal with the rest.
And that’s English for you, my dears.
Where do the boundaries of what is considered “good” English start? Where do they end? This was the subject of a recent, fascinating debate in the pages of Prospect magazine between Simon Heffer, author of Strictly English: The Correct Way toWrite and Oliver Kamm, who recently penned Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage.
|Enough to give a pedant a heart attack|
I could write another hundred posts like this, a thousand articles, a million words and the message will always be the same: as a non-native speaker, I am truly mesmerised by the seriousness with which the English language is taken. I was never surprised about finding linguistic pedants in my own native Spanish. Nor was I to find them in French, too, when I began to study the language. Both Spanish and French have academies that act as the guardians of the language. Compared to both, English was a breath of fresh air.
How wrong I was. From slamming miscreants who violate the rule that dictates that pronouns change their case when they follow prepositions to indulging in the peccadillo of fused participles, the English language (or at least its defenders) can sometimes come across as modern inquisitors.
Heffer makes a good point about correct English being the standard from which most dialects are derived. It is true that if you do not have a word like “father”, it is unlikely you will come up with its patois equivalent “fadda”. On the other hand, Oliver’s riposte that the problem is not English grammar but the constant, obsessive linguistic nit-picking, is the type of argument with which I totally agree.
Where I think both columnists fail miserably is in not moving their debate beyond the narrow confines of language. Not everyone who uses slang, or falls into the trap of the grocer’s apostrophe is an illiterate person. Social, historical, economic and even political elements come into play in daily parlance. If you were born in one of Britain’s former colonies, your patois might be a way to defy the old, imperial status quo. If you feel that society is out to get you, language becomes a barrier with which to defend yourself. The wall you build around you or the trench you dig to duck in is made of words that only you and a select group of people will be able to understand. In that case pedants will become ammunition for your cause.
To be sure, there are various shades of grey in this discussion and I find myself siding slightly with Mr Kamm rather than with The Heffza. Parents, teachers and society in general must act together to teach our younger generation the context in which they can use a particular phrase and when it is better to default to Standard English. Replacing “they’re” with “their”, “would have” with “would of” and “you’re” with “your” is grammatically incorrect. Same with “don’t” in the third person singular. We live in a world where the job market has shrunk considerably in the last seven years. It would be irresponsible and plainly idiotic for a young person to deny themselves the opportunity to break into that market just because they can’t be bothered to switch to Standard English. At the same time there is a time and place for “ma’er” (“matter”, but with a London accent) and “innit”. In my opinion, these are not mistakes but identity markers.
Knowing when to use one and not the other is one of the most valuable lessons I have learnt in my life. Not just in English but also in Spanish. We, Cubans, have a reputation in the Hispanic world for being hard to understand, given our proclivity for chopping off the end of words (especially those ending in “s” and “r”) and leaving sentences unfinished. Taking into consideration that this contravenes the rules laid down by the “holier-than-thou” Royal Spanish Academy, I should be on Oliver’s side, wearing my linguistic rebelliousness on my sleeve. Yet, I am also very practical. Nail that job first, son, and then go back to your natural, linguistic, niche, aw'ight mate?
Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On", to be published on Saturday 7th March at 6pm (GMT)