Sunday, October 28, 2007

Mind your nonsense

There are fewer sadder sights than pedants playing Canute with the tide of language change. Some of these poor creatures have slid out from the woodwork to complain about the BBC, which is, they claim, failing in its duty to guard the English language. I am not sure it ever had that task, really, although it served as a de facto guardian of the standard when its announcers all spoke "BBC English", another term for the style of pronunciation known to linguists as RP, and to the laity as Oxford English, or public school English, among other things. (It is simply the "posh" English that you would be taught in an elocution lesson.)

Sadly for the whiners, language changes, and for a language such as English, which does not have an Academie to fight against change, and whose arbiters of correctness, such as the OED, are solid descriptivists, what is right is not some ossified code from the 1950s, but whatever people actually say.

They claim that presenters and correspondents on both television and radio routinely misuse words, make grammatical mistakes and use colloquialisms in place of standard English.

Do they though? You cannot "misuse" a word if your usage is in accord with the majority's for the reasons I've given. Particularly, you cannot be said to be wrong if the language has changed and your accuser simply wishes it hadn't. I note that one example they give is "refute". Now, "refute" may well once have meant "disprove", but it now also means "deny strongly". One may deplore that it has shifted meanings, making it a less precise word, but the shift has happened whether you like it or not.

I note too, with some glee, that as usual when a pedant fires a broadside, he or she ends up with egg on the mush:

He blamed the corporation for ruining a number of words, giving the example of the noun, replica. Correctly defined as a 'copy, duplicate or reproduction of a work of art', Bruton-Simmonds complained that it was now used in place of 'imitation', 'likeness' and 'model'.

But "replica" of course does mean all those things. It basically has two meanings. One is a copy that is indistinguishable from the original. The other is a miniature model of the original. Those of us who spent boyhood (or girlhood) hours gluing together replicas of aircraft and ships will be well aware of this meaning (so it's clear that the word has had that meaning at least since I was a lad, and that's, erm, many years).

The idiot who made this mistake wants a whole grammar Stasi for the BBC. Volunteer nitpickers would listen to the radio, or watch the telly, and then whine disconsolately to the grammar tsar. I'm sure broadcast professionals would welcome these interventions, because we all enjoy being treated like schoolkids at work.

Ann Widdecombe, a phenomenon that I don't think I could adequately describe to American readers (indeed no biography could get across just what an atrocious and hilarious person Widdecombe is), rentaquotes that it is important that broadcasters mind their Ps and Qs because their use of language has a tremendous effect on society. However, she didn't say what that effect was. Broadcasters of course reflect society more than they influence it (although I accept that a feedback loop probably does exist, and of course American TV has some influence on usage -- although possibly not as much as some make out).

They need not fear. Language survives everything except its speakers dying. Like everything else, it evolves. And complaining about that is as sensible as complaining about the evolution of animals and plants. What? You think cats, dogs and birds were better in the good old days?


Anonymous said...


did you just make that up?

October 29, 2007 at 4:28 AM  
Anonymous Dr Zen said...

No. But it's the perfect description of these people who just seem to pop up all the time.

October 29, 2007 at 5:43 AM  
Anonymous said...

i have a love/hate for insider jargon.

like the way salesmen refer to various dynamics of their marks, for instance. or their techniques with dealing with same.

some of the terminology ends up passing through to the general population while most of it doesn't.

it's fascinating stuff (as well as amusing on so many levels).

someone ought to write a book about the beauty of jargon.

or better yet, do a documentary.

a nice juicy deconstruction piece.

i'd watch it.

it'd be fun.

there's so much humor involved -- much more than in normal language.

like poker terminology, for instance. or newspaper-speak. or salesmen-think.

but the best would be politician-talk. what a hoot that would be.

October 29, 2007 at 6:41 AM  
Anonymous the oxo said...

Nit-picking alert - RP is actually an accent, rather than a dialect!

October 29, 2007 at 6:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I heard about this on the toady program this morning and immediately thought it might be your ticket home. I guess not, after this.

As for Anne Widdecombe, she strikes me as the personification of a Wooster Aunt. "Mrs Travers does have a somewhat penetrating voice, Sir".


October 29, 2007 at 7:11 PM  
Anonymous Dr Zen said...

the oxo, thank you, yes, rather slack of me, so I've edited it to a more accurate description.

john, I fear I would make a poor pedant. But if the pay was right...

October 29, 2007 at 8:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dr Zen said...

john, I fear I would make a poor pedant. But if the pay was right...'d make a rich pedant.


October 30, 2007 at 6:30 PM  
Anonymous Dave said...

Currently I find myself incensed by "try and" where "try to" is correct. And yet I know I say it myself. For some reason I don't mind it much in speech, only in writing.

October 30, 2007 at 9:30 PM  
Anonymous Dr Zen said...

That got me to thinking, and now I'm going to have to post about "try and". I fear the post may incense you further.

October 30, 2007 at 9:41 PM  

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