Lord of the language

28th October 1994 at 00:00
Diane Hofkins meets Professor Randolph Quirk as, at 74, he embarks upon a new career in Parliament's Upper House. Why did the man known as "Mr Standard English", or more appropriately now, Lord Standard English, give his maiden speech in the House of Lords earlier this month on the subject of transport?

After a few jokes in the speech about the need to avoid a contentious subject such as education, Professor Randolph Quirk, who, as well as being a professor of English,was vice-chancellor of London University and then president of the British Academy and is now Lord Quirk of Bloomsbury, made it clear that communication and language are the real focus of his interest.

He wants to promote better information for passengers and efficient communication for emergency services across Europe through the development of pared down and "studiously unambiguous" nuclear language codes. He was involved in developing "Seaspeak", adopted by the UN's International Maritime Organisation for global use in marine navigation in 1987, and wants to see its lessons applied more widely.

The impetus of the Channel Tunnel, he told the Lords, "has speeded the wider recognition that sustainable mobility - the subtitle of the report before this House - requires special attention to the communication needs at those points in Europe where we cross not just political frontiers but linguistic ones".

This is one of three themes Professor Quirk, 74, wants to take up as he begins his career in the House, and, not surprisingly, communication is at the heart of all of them. Randolph Quirk is the author of numerous books on English language and usage, most recently, English in Use, co-written with his wife, Gabriele Stein, a professor of linguistics at Heidelberg University. His thinking is known to have influenced the redrafting of the national curriculum in English, particularly the increased emphasis on vocabulary.

Education is of course a central interest, in particular language and literature. The third area is language and disability, on which he made his second speech in the Lords this week. "Speech disability is unfortunately a growth industry for various reasons", he says. He wants to bring together the various professions, such as speech pathologists, psychologists, linguists and neurologists, involved in working with those who have no power of communication, and hopes to stimulate interdisciplinary research which could lead to help for this growing community comprising mostly the very young and the very old. "The nature of the brain is at the centre of this", he said. "Not everyone is aware of the need for research in this area."

Those in need of help are the sad byproducts of medical advances: babies who survive at-risk pregnancies and the old who have lost the power of speech. as well as survivors of accidents and strokes. "The quality of that person's life deteriorates to an unimaginable, horrifying extent, but so does the task carers. It is very, very difficult to look after someone who is incapable of communication," he says, adding poignantly, "We expect a little dog to be able to wag its tail."

This interest in the bare essentials of language may seem a far cry from standard English and its effective and elegant use, but it is not. All three themes have to do with access. Like "nuclear" English for navigators at sea, standard English provides a code of communication for people throughout the world. "I am astonished that there could be teachers who fail to see the advantage to the child who comes to school linguistically disadvantaged of acquiring the incredibly rich and valuable tool of the language in which the world of English speakers discourses. The social mobility, career mobility, geographical mobility which is self evidently at the disposal of children who arrive from homes who have given this as an easy gift to their children should be so obvious that every teacher should want to extend it to all their pupils, instead of painting themselves into the unbelievable corner of effectively saying, 'you will never become the editor of The Times, you will never become an MP, you will never become a doctor, you will never have a career that will take you to LA and Hollywood'."

He also believes in the idea of lifelong education, and that students and parents should take more responsibility for their own education and professional development. "I want to see a much bigger proportion of our resources really going into schools and a greater demand upon parents to appreciate that this is their children's future, that if the taxpayer - society as a whole - is providing the ambience of school then part of the social contract is that the parent chips in too - with respect and encouragement for what the child is doing, insistence that if the school says something has got to be done its going to be jolly well done, and that kind of social awareness among the parents that this is their kid's future." This includes encouraging children to stay on for advanced courses.

He also wants more value placed on non-academic skills. "I want a highly specialised chef who knows the nuance of flavours, who knows when to put in oregano and why, to be as highly regarded as someone who does German or PPE."

Those who can afford it, meanwhile, should not be paid as low-grade civil servants to attend university. This "doubly denies" those from the working classes, because there isn't money left in the kitty for their further studies, he maintains.

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