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Is English under threat?

March 06, 2006

Do you get tired of people telling you that English as we know and love it is under threat?

Hello again.

I hope you will permit me a little rant on my favourite topic: standards in English. Before the Norman Conquest of 1066, Old English was the language spoken in various dialects in the several kingdoms of what is now England. It was a highly inflected language with a characteristically Germanic vocabulary. With the Normans came the imposition of Norman French for official business in all educated and courtly circles. English was left to languish, rot and atrophy among the lower orders before re-emerging in a different guise as the language that would become that of Shakespeare. Truly it was not until about 1500 that the language we would recognize today as English took hold once again. Of course there were great literary flowerings in an interim language with several dialects that we now know as Middle English. Unfortunately, however, the modern reader tempted to dip into the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, for example, will usually call for a translation. Thus they miss the particular richness and gutsiness of the original . . .

. . . So here we are, nearly 1000 years after the Norman invasion, and English has its own distinct voice once again. Over the past 500 years the language has suffered enormous growing pains but it has matured and spread its influence so thoroughly that it is now the leading international language of statesmanship, business and science. With this degree of success we might ask why so many language 'mavens' think that it is under threat. Their fears in fact belie their ignorance of the very language they claim to wish to protect.

Virtually every grammatical rule in English is artificial. As the language that re-emerged in 1500 was so radically different from the highly rule-governed Old English from which it sprang, there were no undisputable rules in operation. This was too great a temptation for the eighteenth-century grammarians who set about constructing rules based on the model of Latin. But it was a thankless and ultimately futile task. Many of the rules we learnt so diligently school don't bear logical scrutiny.

For instance, we all know that sentences must not end with a preposition. This sounds fair enough since prepositions govern nouns. A preposition without a following noun is like hammer poised to fall but without a nail to hit. Yet this logic fails to take account of the numerous phrasal verbs in English such as 'pick someone up' or 'drop someone off'. These multi-part verbs behave similarly to German multi-part verbs such aus'fahren or ab'geben. The loose particles in the German verbs can sit happily at the end of a sentence and so, I argue, can the particles of phrasal verbs: 'it was getting late so I dropped him off'.

And what about split infinitives? I am about to boldly go into the lions' den and suggest that infinitives are split for the very logical reason that the adverb has a fatal attraction for the part of the verb to which it refers. Since 'to' carries so little meaning in the infinitive form, the writer or speaker feels sorely tempted to wrench the 'to' from its base verb and insert an adverb. I wonder if my daring to make this point will lead me to eventually repent my audacity.

I have no desire to defend sloppy or inaccurate language use. The ability to write or speak lucidly and cogently is a powerful tool and we must fight against shoddy or dishonest word-mongering. When medical staff speak of a 'state of negative existence', we must insist on knowing if the patient is or is not dead. Let us insist on plain speaking and eschew all the attempts of scurvy politicians to obfuscate and confuse rather than elucidate.

It would be wise also never to lose sight of the origins of language. Lords and ladies sound like fine people and maybe they have long family histories, but in the beginning these two words meant 'keeper' and 'kneader' of the breadloaf. Where were the servants then? And, by the way, the next time you are tempted to call someone 'feisty', do try to bear in mind that this word has its roots in a verb meaning 'to fart'.

Let me know you views on language.

Bye for now,


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  1. Marlen Says:

    Feisty - love it! Brenda, what do you think of the recent call to re-examine the English language in light of emerging new "English" vocabularies in countries where it's not the first language, such as Singapore and India? Should these new forms of English be included in mainstream English dictionaries, texts, etc?


  1. Brenda Townsend Hall Says:

    I will shortly be talking about emerging forms of English in the light of David Graddol's report, English Next. He believes that with new forms of global English, native speaker varieties will lose their dominance.

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