Another view - Even the Queen's gone casual, but there's still a place for formality

21st November 2008, 12:00am
Stephen Jones


Another view - Even the Queen's gone casual, but there's still a place for formality

My grandmother didn't write to me very often. When she did, one thing was glaringly obvious: she was literate - but only just. My grandfather was no different. His writing skills extended only as far as the filling out of betting slips - a task he performed with varying degrees of success.

If you were born around the turn of the 20th century and worked as they did with your hands, no one expected anything more of you. Now we expect everyone to be literate. More than that, we expect them to get five "good" GCSEs, by which we mean grade C or above. They should also be able to write in standard English, with few errors of punctuation, spelling or grammar.

Not surprisingly, we are constantly disappointed. While the Government has determined - with stunning success - that the GCSE pass rate must progress onwards and upwards year on year, employers and universities continue to gripe about the literary skills or otherwise of their recruits.

One common complaint is that some students, from what would once have been called working-class backgrounds, tend to let the language of home and the street into their formal writing. English teachers describe this as dialect interference.

In London, where I work, Cockney is still the overriding influence, insinuating itself into written work in phrases such as "We was going", "He should of told me" and the wonderful verb "to bunk", as in "I used to bunk school."

But with so many ethnic minorities living in the capital, elements from their speech also find their way into writing. The Caribbean tendency to omit the final "ed" from past tense verbs or the "s" from standard plurals are examples of this. "Innit", the all-purpose London interrogative, was allegedly imported from the Hindi-speaking community, although I have also seen claims that it originated among Jamaicans and Cypriots.

An academic study of this migration from informal to formal English has recently been written by Beth Black, a research officer at Cambridge Assessment. Her paper analysed the GCSE scripts of around 2,000 students and noted the frequency of use of colloquial language.

What she found was that large numbers of candidates failed to spot the difference between formal and informal language. In common with most football managers - "The boy Beckham ran quick" - they tended to replace adverbs with adjectives. And around half were unable to recognise that "me and my friend" is ungrammatical in standard English.

Whether this is a case of the cup being half full or half empty depends on your point of view. But two other questions arise: where does this confusion come from and does it matter? As indicated earlier, much of it comes from everyday speech. "Ordinary" people don't speak in standard English. At least not most of the time.

But other influences are at work too. Today, many people, particularly younger people, communicate in writing principally through emails and texts, where informality and contractions abound. Such developments have to be seen against an increasing informality in all areas of life. I was looking at some photographs the other day of men on their way to work in the City. All were dressed in sombre suits and a good many of them wore bowler hats. To my surprise, I found the shot was taken in the 1960s not the 1930s. Today, many City employees don't even wear ties, and on Fridays they are encouraged to come to work in jeans.

Spoken language - in the form of received pronunciation - once wore a top hat rather than a bowler. But does anyone apart from Brian Sewell actually speak like Brian Sewell any more? Certainly the Queen doesn't. If you listen to recordings of her speaking around the time of her coronation in 1953, you are immediately struck by the difference between her "posh" voice then and her much more ordinary tones of today.

Her two grandsons may not actually be Cockneys - although, with a following wind, the London home of their youth might just have been within the range of Bow Bells - but as soon as they open their mouths you realise that their voices and vocabularies are essentially no different from those of any other educated young person today.

Posh isn't cool any more. You need only to turn on the TV or radio to appreciate that. Once newsreaders and announcers spoke like the aristocracy. Now regional accents abound in programmes of all kinds and, to cries of "Shame" from readers of The Daily Telegraph, estuary English is ubiquitous.

To our second question - does it matter? - there is no simple answer. Beth Black points out: "It is possible that these less well-recognised, non- standard English forms will find their way into standard English." Language is constantly changing. If it wasn't, we'd still be speaking like Shakespeare or Beowulf. And, as Ms Black further points out, it is the young, with their constant innovation, who are so often the engine of that change.

On the other hand - and here I reach for my English teacher's hat rather than the bowler or top varieties - until such changes come about, those informal constructions are still going to be seen as wrong. In 1912, Bernard Shaw wrote in his preface to Pygmalion: "It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him." Today, you might say the same for a person's written skills. And isn't it the right of everyone, regardless of background, to be able to write with competence in the standard form of their own language?

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