My visit tomorrow to the dentist is timely, since I have yet again ground my teeth at a “Today” presenter this morning. I’m wondering if I suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. At least, when it concerns language, and specifically English, and probably most specifically the spoken version. This demonstrates itself and, increasingly, quite violently these days via my shouting abuse over the scrambled eggs and smoked salmon breakfast at the egregious Sarah Montague for her repeated ignorant misuse of the indefinite article in offering us “a weather forecast”, or simply switching the radio off every time I hear a non-consequential reply starting with “So,…”. It applies to punctuation as well – I’ve just had to give some thought about the position and necessity of that last full stop. To me this matters a lot. Perhaps too much.
But all words have a function, even (especially) the smallest, as atoms and molecules make up mountain ranges.
Asked what I would define as England, the very first quality would be the English language. This might seem a given, but it’s the lingua franca of the world, not just of here; and it’s only the first quality in the definition. Now I’ve loved this language from childhood – I’ve loved its sound, its accents, its dense richness, its variety, its willingness to take pretty much any word that comes along and give it at least a try-out. I love its elasticity. I love the ultra-reductive simplicity of its syntax and grammar. I love its lack of inflection, a quality which in French and Spanish so bedevilled my Modern Language pupils of yore.
I love its inbuilt reluctance to conform, how it lies back and relaxes with a spliff while the house gets fuller still of foreigners coming in and making themselves at home. I mean, for example, the ease with which English ( far in excess of any other Indo-European language) can (and DOES) make a verb out of pretty well any noun. Some expressed horror at the sudden use at the 2004 Olympics of the verb “to medal”. Me – I love it. I’m not that keen on its stablemate – “to podium” – but I can understand it instantly and will doubtless adjust to its oddness. That’s what my language expects me to do – get used to it. I am my tongue.
This bastard mélange of Celtic, Scandinavian and Latin parentage has amiably opened its doors to Norman French, then to Greek, Chinese, German, Hindi, Iberian and Latin American versions of Spanish, all of whom pepper our daily speech in Wigan, King’s Lynn or Bodmin. And because of the predominance of Shakespeare in the English cultural mind we unthinkingly use his 1700 invented words as we do his many quotes. Our Will wouldn’t have minded “to medal”. He’d stick prefixes or suffixes on old nouns, use verbs as nouns, join two words together to form a new third or just make something up. The anti-medallers of today (see what I just did?) were doubtless around when he coined “dauntless”, “grovel”, “dawn” and “champion”.
But this relaxed attitude to verb behaviour and vocabulary needs the proper solid foundations of punctuation as a hammock needs trees. And even Mr Linguistically-High-as-a-Kite has to accept that there are some things society does not let you get away with, my dear. Even so, there are rules and “rules”. There’s only “cherished superstition”, no matter what you hear in the “Frog & Nightgown”, which bars you from splitting infinitives, from ending sentences with prepositions, from introducing a sentence with “And”.
There is, however, as any fule kno, a definite rule of spelling in the cases of “there/their”, “too / two / to”; an unavoidable set of irregular past participles – “gone, bought, blown, begun, made” (loads and loads of them); and a clear and present need to put “only” in its correct place. Modifying “unique” or “dead” should be punishable with a hefty fine, with branding on the forehead for anyone who puts in wrong apostrophes. But, in fairness, errors here are usually committed by the unlettered and so forgiveness is in order as long as “lessons are learned”. (Rotherham Council and Social Services)
What there isn’t…………..is leeway given to any lazy, ill-lettered “Today” jackass who introduces “A weather forecast” as though there’s some vast selection out there and this one’s been picked at random; or to any of the rapidly increasing number of supposedly intelligent yet clearly orally dyslexic men and women who begin any answer at all with the irrelevant “So…”. The most obnoxious of these heard to date was:
“Do you use any form of birth control?” “So….no”.
I wanted to scream and throw that linguistic moron into a chest freezer and close the lid. It’s the new “Sort of” or “Kinda like”, still practiced by the Yanks whose inability to put a pluperfect together (“I had went to the store”) makes me certain they deserve Trump. Or worse.
So roll on the dentist. They’ll be a tooth less to grind after tomorrow. Oh my God, see what I just did?