The English language is too mercurial to obey traditional dicta, says Brian Cox. A HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE By N F Blake Macmillan Pounds 12. 99 THE NEW FOWLER'S MODERN ENGLISH USAGE (THIRD EDN) Edited by R W Burchfield Clarendon Press Pounds 16.99
Thatcherism has wrought significant changes in the way we use language. On the railways, "passenger" has been replaced by "customer". In universities, students are now often called customers or clients. These changes reflect the belief that all institutions would improve if they submitted to the rules of the market. The English language continually shifts and alters in this way according to new ideas and social practices.
The right-wing Conservatives who took control of National Curriculum English in 1992 regard what they call the Queen's English as sacrosanct. There is an ironic contrast between their insistence that both written and spoken English should always obey traditional rules and the radical changes in usage introduced by Thatcherite market forces.
My examples are taken from Professor N F Blake's excellent new history of the English language. He provides a detailed, scholarly and persuasive account of English from before Alfred the Great to the present. The book's continual relevance to our contemporary arguments about language makes his account particularly stimulating.
In his final chapters, he describes the rapid changes since the 1940s in both written and spoken forms. The influence of advertising and of a more relaxed attitude to language has led to written forms unthinkable in the 19th century. A fish and chip shop may have the sign FishnChips or FishanChips. Advertisers force home their meaning by spelling variants or puns that often become well-known (Beanz Meanz Heinz, drinka pinta milka day, if you want to get ahead get a hat).
Meanwhile the erosion of the BBC monopoly and the growth of commercial television have introduced a variety of models for spe-ech, including the recent growth of Estuary English. Blake says that since the Second World War the influence of Received Pronunciation has waned, so that it is not used by more than 5 per cent of the population in England.
He concludes that it is unlikely in the immediate future that what is taught in schools will greatly influence the conventions people use in writing and speech. Old people always deplore the changes ac-cepted as natural and inevitable by the young. Even Barclays Bank has dropped the apostrophe.
Blake says the high regard for English felt so passionately by some Victorians was almost hysterical. Kingsley Oliphant in his Standard English of 1873 linked the history of English to its Teutonic background, which made it strong and noble. For Oliphant and his ilk, good English was still very much a class issue: the upper classes knew how to use English properly, whereas the lower classes tended to corrupt it by introducing foreign words and using Latin words incorrectly. Much of what we read today by right-wing Conservatives, some of whom are members of educational quangos, is similarly hysterical.
Blake's historical survey demonstrates that today's misunderstandings and prejudices have been common through the ages. Standards in the use of language, like standards in schools, have been permanently in decline since Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden.
Unlike other histories of the language, Blake abandons traditional divisions into Old, Middle and Modern English to focus on epi-sodes which more accurately reflect the shifting attitudes to and developments within 'standard' British English. He provides de-tailed accounts of changes in phon-ology, vocabulary and syntax as well as more entertaining descriptions of sociological change.
Those who recently advocated a large-scale return to the teaching of Latin in schools should read his careful accounts of its influence on English usage. Renaissance hu-manists were intent on re-establishing the Latin of the classics. They disapproved of the spoken variety known as Vulgar Latin and wanted Latin to be taught in its classical form. Blake comments that this effectively made Latin a dead language. The teaching of grammar was forced into a straitjacket by the royal dictat that only Lily's Latin grammar was authorised for use in schools after 1540. This had the effect of stultifying any advance in grammar teaching in schools, and of encouraging Latin as the universal grammar.
Only when we come to the Romantics - to Wordsworth, Coleridge or Cobbett - do we find a rejection of attempts to purify the language or to set boundaries around what was permissible in polite speech and formal writing.
Cobbett published his grammar in 1818, arguing that a knowledge of Latin and Greek does not prevent us from writing bad English: "Good grammar, for instance, written in Welsh, or in the language of the Chipewaw Savages, is more learned than bad grammar written in Greek."
If standards in English are unsatisfactory today one major contributing factor must be the rejection by right-wingers of the 1989 English National Curriculum's proposals to encourage children to know more about language, including grammar. Teachers can help children to write and speak more lucidly, effectively and imaginatively, and for this knowledge about language can be of great assistance. Blake has provided a comprehensive introduction to the history of the English language which will be very useful for teachers of such courses.
Burchfield's new edition of Fowler is certainly an essential buy for all teachers of English, and indeed there should be a copy in every school. Fowler's Modern English Usage was first published in 1926, and then lightly revised by Gowers in 1965. In his preface to the third edition, Burchfield stres-ses the isolation of Fowler from the mainstream of linguistic scholarship of his day.
Fowler relied heavily on school-masterly textbooks in which the rules of grammar, rhetoric, punctuation, spelling, and so on, were set down in a quite basic manner. He disclaimed all knowledge of the varieties of English spoken and written in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa or elsewhere.
Burchfield describes Fowler's work as a fossil, a monument to all that was linguistically acceptable in the standard English of the southern counties of England in the first quarter of the 20th century.
When Burchfield was preparing this new edition, many older or retired people told him that they had always kept Fowler close at hand at all times. They all looked anxious when he mentioned the changes he was introducing, in-cluding the placing of 20th century variations in their historical dimension and the introduction of the International Phonetic Alphabet. "I wish you hadn't told me that," one commented. The slightly haunted looks they gave him were like those of passengers (customers?) fearing that they were going to miss their connection.
The fact that what is thought "correct" in one generation may be deemed unnecessary by the next is deeply unsettling to conservatives. Burchfield provides exemplary historical accounts of word usage, with accurate accounts of what has been happening during the present century. For example, his material on the use of the apostrophe gives admirable advice on acceptable usage, but also a careful historical account of why the dropping of the apostrophe in some names and titles seems certain to continue. Barclays Bank is in good company: Harrods, All Souls and Teachers Training College do not use it.
Burchfield should be congratulated on an extraordinarily comprehensive work of scholarship, based on a mass of evidence obtained and classified by electronic means. He hates gobbledygook and officialese, and presumably would agree that children should write accurately with a full understanding of what is acceptable in contemporary usage. He rightly attacks the pessimists who believe standards of English are declining. He is sure that the English language is not collapsing, and that it still provides a tool of extraordinary strength and flexibility. Let us hope that in future children in schools will be allowed to study English without interference by pedants and dogmatists.
Professor Brian Cox is Chair of the Arvon Foundation and of the North West Arts Board. In 1988-9, he chaired the committee on the English National Curriculum which produced the Cox Report.