Saturday, October 30, 2010

News: The Untouchables of India Intends to Open Temple Dedicated to the Goddess of the English Language

Hi All,

This is an interesting piece of news. Besides, this article discusses the changing usage of English delinates ones class and culture.

Quote: English is an empowering language.

Rodney Tan
It ain't what you say. . .

As the Untouchables of India plan to open a temple to honour the English language, Christopher Howse looks at how its shifting usage defines class and culture. By Christopher Howse

Published: 8:23AM BST 29 Oct 2010

My Fair Lady

Today, Henry Higgins, the practical phonetician, would be booked up months ahead

Photo: Corbis

What is the most annoying thing you hear people say? "I was sat", or "between you and I", or "for free" or "Can I get a coffee?" or controversy stressed on the wrong syllable, or perhaps simply the name of the letter aitch pronounced haitch?

It does seem odd that other people cannot speak their own language properly and so career (or careen as foolish folk say) like wildebeest into the crocodile-infested shallows of the latest wrong turning of the English language. This is of more than amateur interest.

Untouchables in India, as we reported yesterday, are to open a temple to the Goddess English. It will contain an idol of Lord Macaulay. This has put the cat among the pigeons, for Macaulay, when he went to India in 1834, took no interest in Indian literature or antiquities except as evidence of the superiority of all things European.

His "Minute on Indian Education" urged the colonial administration to establish "a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect" to be made fit for "conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population".

No wonder many Indian nationalists revile the name of Thomas Babington Macaulay. Yet the argument put forward by his nephew George Trevelyan in The Competition Wallah (1864) is the same as that of one of the leaders of today's Untouchables, Chandra Bhan Prasad: "We believe English is an empowering language."

Transfer the argument to Britain, and what do you get? A cast of academics, sociologists and educationists on one side who declare that one child's pronunciation is as valid as the teacher's, that spelling doesn't count and that English classes are valuably spent in composing rap lyrics. These politically correct forces are equivalent to Indian nationalists who wouldn't dream of calling the Indian Mutiny anything but the First War of Independence.

On the other side are teachers, employers and media columnists who agree with the Untouchables (whom we must call Dalits today). They know that a child in Bradford or Southwark will never get a good job unless he spells the words in a letter of application correctly, can string two sentences together in an interview without lapsing into: "It was, like, massive." (By he, they mean "he or she", to the rage of those for whom so-called inclusive language is to be as inviolable as the virtue of a Victorian maiden.)

Which side of the argument, then, is supported by these typical hip-hop lyrics from the song Take Me Back by the popular Tinchy Stryder? "Look I know you got played and that, /And it's only right you ain't feeling let alone rating that, / But babe it's a fact you on with the latest map / I had to live by that I spend night in your bredrin's flat."

Mr Stryder's real name is Kwasi Danquah, for he was born in Ghana. His English forms part of that global tongue being celebrated in a big exhibition called Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices at the British Library. A two-and-a-half hour event at the end of November linked to the exhibition is called "Voices of rap and hip hop". The evening includes "a discussion of how words impact at street level". It is already sold out.

But of course, Tinchy Stryder's lyrical language is not Ghanaian English. He was educated at St Bonaventure's Catholic Comprehensive School in Forest Gate, once in Essex, now in the London Borough of Newham. His lyrics are not in the English of Essex (which centuries ago influenced so strongly the language of the court, and hence that of the upper classes).

No, Tinchy Stryder's argot is carefully acquired from a mixture of West Indian dialects and the black gangsta slang of the United States.

Enjoy it or loathe it, hip-hop lingo is a cultural construct. In this it is identical with the sporting slang embraced by the fast set at Oxford in the 1840s, as retailed in the best-selling Adventures of Mr Verdant Green (1853). "There's a squelcher in the bread-basket that'll stop your dancing, my kivey," exclaims their pugilistic hero during a Town and Gown punch-up.

Of course, the language of Tinchy Stryder is as much to do with class as that of Verdant Green's fashionable sportsmen. The funniest sketch in The Armstrong & Miller Show on television depicts in black and white two wartime RAF pilots conversing in clipped tones, but with the vocabulary of street bredren: "Hurricane pilots are, like, you know – their mums go down the chippie in their slippers. Isn'it?" Class has changed.

"See this creature with her kerbstone English," says Henry Higgins of Eliza in Pygmalion, "Рthe English that will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days." Today, Higgins, the practical phonetician, would be booked up months ahead, bringing down the patrician accents of the Ed Stourtons of this world a social notch or two, to make them acceptable to d̩class̩ employers.

As for politicians, their idiolects are now as awash with glottal stops as high tide in Canvey Island. Ed Balls was educated at Oxford and Harvard, but there's no' a lo' of evidence in his pronunciation. The Conservatives are as bad in their profligate manipulation of the upper trachaea to produce this substitute for orthodox consonants. Henry Higgins himself could hardly detect traces of George Osborne's roots in the Irish Ascendancy or his studious hours in the schoolrooms of St Paul's and the lecture rooms of Magdalen, if Magdalen has lecture rooms. Mr Osborne might look like the dastardly baronet of Victorian melodrama, but he talks like a Brentwood boy from the HR department.

It's funny that politicians feel they have to do this in order to get on. Tony Blair is much to blame for the trend, gliding as he did in his actor's way into what he imagined was the speech pattern of the audience before him. But if politicos are so linguistically responsive to the imagined sensibilities of class, how is it that they talk such awful bilge by way of administrators' jargon? It's worse than management-speak. They are forever rolling out flagship proposals and rafts of measures, or delivering targets on renewables, going forward.

That is a disease of the mind far more alarming than dropping your Ts or over-aspirating your aitches. That is not to say pronunciation doesn't matter. I have on the shelf beside me Broadcast English, first published in 1928 as the fruit of a BBC committee that included Robert Bridges (the poet laureate), George Bernard Shaw and Professor Daniel Jones (the phonetician who inspired Shaw's Henry Higgins). In 51 pages it lists some "recommendations to announcers regarding certain words of doubtful pronunciation".

Among them are the still troublesome kilometre, which they correctly recommended to be stressed (with the stress-mark before the stressed syllable): 'kilometre. It is hard to think that fabric, florist, thug, legend and fragile were "words of doubtful pronunciation", but there they are. Would we now agree, though, with the pronunciations represented by 'pomgrannat, 'vaitamin, swayve (for suave), shee (for ski), kwaaf (for quaff), 'flaksid (for flaccid), 'gibberish with a hard G, 'cundit (for conduit), arti'san or 'teenet (for tenet)?

I have never met anyone who pronounces ski as shee. If someone did, interlocutors might be puzzled. On the other hand, most people pronounce flaccid as flassid, and they ought not to. These things are important.

That is why some listeners to Today yesterday morning detected a certain trahison des clercs in the moderate opinions of Professor John Wells, the successor of Daniel Jones (alias Henry Higgins) at University College, London. He wouldn't say kil'ometre himself, he admitted, but that was because he was getting on a bit. (He is 71.) He knew better than to say mischievious, but he breathed no word of criticism of those who did.

Professor Wells also knows enough to realise that if all the world says ski or kil'ometre, there is nothing that can be done about it. That will not stop us all playing the game of spotting our least favourite pronunciations and perhaps subjecting the perpetrators to excoriating (or coruscating as people say by mistake) criticism.

For my taste, the Mrs Grundies of the Queen's English Society, for example, protest too much. But language is there to be played with, and a game is not worth playing without rules.


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