Powerful language

I went to a debate at the RSA yesterday lunchtime. Jeremy Paxman was defending the motion (or not) that English was “on the skids”. It wasn’t a particularly incisive debate, revolving around the idea that English grammar has always been more descriptive than prescriptive, and the possibility that the diversities of spoken English were a sign of its vitality.

Paxman was groping towards a valid point, which is that any language depends upon some consensus, upon some commonly accepted conventions, in order for it to work. He let himself be sidetracked by the description/prescription worry, but if the idea of “English grammar” is to be meaningful at all, the possibility of consensus, of inclusion and exclusion, needs further exploration.

Both debaters acknowledged that children needed to be given basic skills, so they could communicate adequately away from their particular tribes (so they could hold down a job and so on). All the same it’s a common worry that the rules of this “standard English” are a bourgeois fiction and we need to find another way of saying “anything goes” which all the same acknowledges the practical reality of the rules.

I think we should be clear that “standard English” is a tribal version of English as much as any other. It just happens to be the language of the ruling tribe, the tribe in power. There’s nothing wrong with speaking a local patois, but if you want to be accepted by the ruling tribe, then you will have to learn to speak its language. That language is evolving, is a living thing, but that doesn’t mean it has no worthwhile conventions, and it certainly doesn’t mean that anything goes. If you show ignorance of those rules the tribe will exclude you, or at least look down on you. That’s how tribes work.

So when a business turns around and demands that its name should take a plural verb (as the insurance giant Aviva has) this is not an act of creative inclusiveness. It is an act of ignorance by an incompetent and unqualified manager. The convention for the moment is clear: collective nouns take a singular verb, with the odd exceptions of sports teams and the police. If you ignore this, as far as it is possible in English you will be making a grammatical error as serious as saying “we was”. Perhaps this will become a lost cause, in the same way that we have lost the useful distinction between “disinterested” and “uninterested”, or the way the third person plural pronoun is now used as gender-neutral third person singular pronoun. But for the moment at least, the convention stands.

I am all for creativity with the language, but creativity demands the conscious manipulation of limits. If you don’t know where those limits are, then you literally don’t know what you’re doing. Naiveté has its charms, but our tribal language of power offers a lot more than charm.

So I had to vote against the notion that English is on the skids: that’s a ridiculous claim. On the other hand I want to stand up for education over ignorance. Specifically I’d want to say that people in business or the media who would claim to be professional communicators but who are ignorant of the conventions of the tribal language they use should be sacked.

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