Michael Rosen is an acclaimed British author who has written countless books for children and adults. Whilst not familiar with the latter that much, I am well acquainted with the former. We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, Sonsense Nogs and Tea in the Sugar Bowl, Potato in My Shoe are some of the titles I have read over the years. Michael’s imagination knows no limits.
That is why I was really looking forward to reading his contribution to Radio 2 and the New Statesman’s What Makes Us Human series. The name might ring some bells to some of you as, back in the summer when I was away from my blog, I uploaded a couple of articles from the series. Mr Rosen did not disappoint me. His essay was on history and what he called the “paradox” of it. Like his monthly “letters” to Michael Gove, our education secretary, his column was thought-provoking as well.
Reading Rosen’s wonderfully crafted write-up led me also down a path I had not considered before. On musing over what history represents for humans (I’m the bloke scurrying about trying to find out stuff to do with my great-grandparents or great-uncles and aunts. More history. Or I’m the bloke wondering why British people say “I’ve got” and Americans say “I’ve gotten”) Michael reminded me of the role language has played in the making of our history. As part of our human culture, regardless of nationality, gender, class or race, language is a key element of our identity. No two human beings speak the same way, have the same inflection or even pronounce words the same way. The current rising-intonation-at-the-end-of-affirmative-sentences epidemic sweeping the UK teenage population might mortify some, but, believe you me, these adolescents still sound British, as opposed to Australian.
Without wanting to come across as a fence-sitter, I understand both camps. Those who criticise the expansion of what’s come to be known as Multicultural London English (although it’s not a phenomenon that only takes place in the British capital) might be striving for a linguistic structure that is easily accessible to all and perfectly understandable. I can sympathise with that feeling. As a non-native speaker, I find my language resources wanting when faced with a regional dialect or a slang-ridden sentence. Even those born and bred in English-speaking countries sometimes struggle with certain speech patterns. The desire for a linguistic level playing field is, thus, justified. Besides, with a job market getting narrower by the day, people need to show as many skills as possible. In order to do this, they have to be able to be fluent, confident speakers. Someone who ends her/his sentences with “innit?” is not going to get very far, no matter how much we protest and say that experience and the ability to perform the role efficiently is what counts.
However, that would be almost like denying the evolution of language. To me that would be as if the creationist movement suddenly took control of the way we spoke and built its own Royal Academy of the English Language. God made us this way and this is the way we ought to speak forever and ever. Again, I turn to Michael Rosen for a beautiful reflection on history: People all around us sing songs, tell stories of what’s happened to them, talk about their parents and grandparents, where they used to live. We remember some of this, and somehow it all becomes us. Becomes us. That is what happens to language, too. It becomes us. We become it. When we sing “Old pirates, yes, they rob I; Sold I to the merchant ships”, we forget about the objective case of “I” and lose ourselves in the message of redemption the song conveys. I say “ourselves”, I can’t vouch for you, but I do. When I talk to older people in my barrio who have lived in it for so long they can’t remember any longer, they tell me tales of exodus, of Cockneys migrating to Essex and Poles, Somalis and Turks replacing them. Whether the self-appointed guardians of the English language like it or not, this influx has an impact. On our lifestyle, our habits, our culture and, of course, it has a deep impact on our language. I have no other option but to (willingly) embrace it. Will you, too?
Next Post; “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 2nd March at 10am (GMT)