Tag Archives: dictionary

Shakespeare, Chaucer, Jane Austen – all of them bad at the English language

(This blog was later re-published in the Huffington Post)

I posted a blog (or did I?) the other day.

Someone on Google+ took offence (or did he?) and posted (or did he?) this comment:

“no offense,” he wrote, “but can we stop calling blog posts and blog articles ‘blogs’? unless you actually are composing an entire collection of articles and posts each time you say you’ve written ‘a blog’, you’re really not using the correct term and are just coming off as uninformed and just desperately trying to drop a buzzword (albeit incorrectly).”

I am not sure about this.

He is, I presume an American, because he wrote “no offense” instead of the British English “no offence”. I have a suspicion the problem may be an example of two nations separated by a common language – even in cyberspace.

I am sure I have commonly seen and heard in the UK, the word “blog” used both for the collection within which the “posts” are… erm… posted… and for the individual blogs… erm… posts… themselves.

But, some might think surprisingly, I am no great upholder of ‘correctness’ in writing. If you get too hung up on the niceties of what is ‘correct’ and what is ‘not correct’, things can get pretty mind-numbingly dull, as I am about to prove…

I think the French are mad to have an academic body which decides what words and phrases are or are not ‘correct’ French. They are mad to try stopping ‘Franglais’.

The nearest thing we have in Britain is the Oxford English dictionary which decides to include not what it thinks is ‘correct’ English but what has become common usage.

The sentence, “Men and women competed in a quiz with a £1,000 prize but the rules stated that, when the single eventual winner received THEIR money, THEY had to donate it to charity,” is clearly grammatically incorrect, because “winner” is singular but “their” and “they “ are both plural.

The Oxford English Dictionary decided several years ago that the use of “they” and “their” in this sort of sentence structure was “acceptable” usage simply because it had been so commonly used for years by everyone. The alternative would be saying “he or she” and “his or hers” instead of “they” and “their” every time the circumstance cropped up and your tongue and brain would go potty after a time.

In English, ‘good’ English is ultimately whatever way English speakers actually speak and write the language. The French are heading towards a dead language; ironically, they are stifling it by trying to protect it.

The English language is a bit like the Edinburgh Fringe. No-one actually organises the over-all thing, anyone can join in and it becomes all the more vibrant for it.

It is anarchy, but it works.

Shakespeare could not even spell his own name the same way every time he wrote it – he used various spellings. As far as I understand it, English spelling had no need to be uniform until Dr Johnson published his dictionary in 1755 – and, even now, we are in the anarchic position of having “humour” and “humor” and “colour” and “color” being correct in different places and how the fuck did “programme” and “program” and “aluminium” and “aluminum” ever come about? They’re relatively new concepts!

I share comedian Stewart Lee’s horror at the constant mis-use of apostrophes though it is a losing battle and what gets up my own personal nasal passages is the mis-use of commas around subordinate clauses and in lists.

If you have a list of A, B, C, D, and E there should be no comma before the “and” because, in a list, the commas represent “and”s – that’s what they are, so it should be A, B, C, D and E (without the fourth comma).

But I think Americans have a different usage and the comma is correct in the US.

The abbreviation Mr for Mister should never have a full stop (i.e, Mr.) because the full stop represents an abbreviation as in etc. which has a full stop because the “etera” has been cut out. It’s like the apostrophe in “don’t” or “wasn’t” – it shows there is a missing letter or letters.

People lament the change wrought in the language by the arrival of text messaging.

But who cares?

Shakespeare wrote in what was virtually a foreign language.

Chaucer certainly bloody well did.

Even some of the Victorian novelists are a bit heavy-going nowadays.

The English language is constantly changing, which is what makes it so vibrant.

I worked in Prague in the mid-1990s, writing scripts for TV voice-overs to read in Czech – a neat trick, as I did not speak, write nor understand Czech. The scripts were translated into Czech and I then had to direct the recording of the Czech-language voice-overs – giving the TV announcers direction on intonation and suchlike – another neat trick.

On several occasions, the translator came back to me and said: “I can’t translate this exactly, because I can’t translate the nuance. Czech has fewer words than English and I can’t translate what I know you want to say.”

It is like the (apparently untrue) story that Eskimos (sorry, Inuits) have 30-odd words for “snow” and we have only five or six.

English is a wonderful language because it is so rich but also because it is so fast-changing. And long may it continue to be so.

Language is about communication not rules.

According to an Oxford University professor who has seen her original manuscripts, Jane Austen was shit at grammar and crap at spelling. I happen to think she wrote dull novels as well (apart from Emma). Others disagree with me on that. But she is an example that great writers are about ideas not linguistic rules.

Grammar and punctuation can be ‘cleaned up’ by a sub-editor.

Clear ideas are what matter.

Now, if only someone could come up with a word to replace the valuable lost meaning of “gay”…

What a great word was lost there…

I am sure Jane Austen used it.

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The Welsh language is just plain silly and is a clear sign of national insecurity

So, tell me, what is the point of having a blog if you can’t write bigoted pieces based on truth, half-truths and misunderstandings?

For the last couple of days, I have been staying on Cardigan Bay in West Wales.

When you walk in the streets and go into shops in Cardigan – or Aberteifi as it is now pointlessly half-re-named – people are sometimes speaking Welsh not English to each other. It was not until I worked in Ireland that I started to think the propagation of the Welsh language is ridiculously pointless.

If a language is dead, let it die. If it is still alive, it will survive without heavy-handed insistence that it must be used.

What is very relevant to this blog is the fact I am Scottish not English. Remember that my mother’s grandmother did not speak English until, in her late teens I think, she came down from the hills. The image of my grandmother coming down from the hills is one a friend of mine finds peculiarly funny but, anyway, my mother’s grandmother originally spoke Scots Gaelic as her native tongue, not English.

I once spent some time in the Outer Hebrides where I admired and was fascinated by how, in shops, people would speak to each other in sentences that meandered almost randomly between English and Gaelic words and phrases. They used whichever words and phrases came more naturally and fitted better. Sometimes the words were Gaelic, sometimes English; all within the same sentence.

I once had an interview for a job with Grampian Television in Aberdeen which basically transmitted to the Highlands while Scottish Television transmitted to the Lowlands. The conversation came round to starting a number of Gaelic-language programmes transmitted on Grampian (part of ITV) and on BBC Scotland. I said I thought it was silly because such a relatively small percentage of Scottish television viewers – by then almost entirely in the Western Isles with a small smattering in the Highlands – actually spoke Gaelic as their natural tongue.

The Grampian TV executive interviewing me was highly miffed.

“Ah! But you’re English!” he said to me.

“I was born in Campbeltown and partly brought up in Aberdeen,” I told him. “Where were you born?”

“London,” he said.

I did not get the job.

Later, I did a lot of freelance work over many years for HTV in Cardiff – or Caerdydd as it is now pointlessly half-re-named. It’s a bit like re-naming Saigon as Ho Chi Minh City when most of the inhabitants continue to call it Saigon.

As far as I remember, when I started working in South Wales, almost all the local signs were in English. I mean the road signs and the general retail shop signs.

At some point, almost imperceptibly, dual language signs started appearing, usually with the Welsh version first.

At around this time, or maybe a little later, there was an extended period where my full-time freelance work alternated between working for HTV in Cardiff and Tara TV in Dublin.

In Dublin, I could see old, rotting, rusting and ignored street signs in Irish Gaelic. All the current signs were in English. This was the period when the ‘Celtic Tiger‘ was on the rise and the Irish Republic had re-discovered its self-confidence.

It is very relevant that I was once sitting in an edit suite at Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin, directing a trailer for an RTE television programme which included an interview in which someone said a couple of sentences in Irish Gaelic.

“What did he say?” I asked the Irish videotape editor sitting with me.

“No idea,” he told me.

We had three other Irish people come into the suite. None of them knew what the Gaelic words meant. They had all had to ‘learn’ Gaelic at school but, just like British schoolkids who do five years of French at school, they could not speak and could barely understand the language because it was bugger-all use to them in everyday life.

It was at this time – alternating my time sometimes one week here/ one week there/ one week here/ one week there between Cardiff and Dublin – that I began to think the Welsh language was just plain silly.

It was silly because it was a mostly dead language being revived and imposed by a clique on a predominantly non-Welsh-speaking population.

One week, I returned to Cardiff from Dublin to find that the local Tesco store had changed all its signs to dual-language Welsh and English signs. Someone (Welsh) told me in near-disbelief that all the signs at the Tesco store in Abergavenny, where she lived, had also been changed.

“I swear to God, no-one bloody speaks Welsh in Abergavenny!” she told me.

By the time I stopped working at HTV, Lloyds Bank was calling itself Banc Lloyds (it has since re-re-branded itself simply as Lloyds TSB) and other shops and businesses were doing the same: making up their own names in Welsh. Mostly, I suspect, they were English companies trying to be politically correct and liberal, much like that English executive at Grampian TV trying to be so ‘right-on’.

Shortly before Tesco started changing its signs to dual-language Welsh & English, I had been on holiday to Cambodia and, in Phnom Penh, there was a street of hovels and shacks which were all English language ‘schools’. At that time, no-one had any money and there was a very real possibility that the homicidally extreme Khmer Rouge might regain power in the next month or two. But, as in almost all other parts of the world, people wanted to learn English because it was and is the ‘international’ language. If you are an outward-looking country with outward-looking thoughts, you learn English.

My understanding is that, after most of Ireland gained independence from Britain in the early 1920s (let us not get into any pedantic details of dates in Ireland: it will all end in many tears and much wailing), the republicans who ran the country wanted to encourage self-confidence and national pride.

So they called the new country Eire instead of Ireland, painted the red pillar boxes green, changed a few of the royal crests on stone buildings to harps and tried to get everyone to speak Gaelic. The country rotted in inward-looking isolation for decades, admittedly not helped by the fact successive UK governments had every reason to dislike American-born Eamon de Valera and his blindly Brit-hating chums.

But, by the time I worked in Dublin in the mid and late 1990s, the Irish Republic had regained its self-confidence and, although civil servants had to know Gaelic, the English language had taken over all everyday usage except in the extreme west of the country. The few Irish language signs in Dublin were faded and/or rusting.

Irish, like Scots Gaelic, was then and is now effectively a dead language naturally spoken by few people. Though long may they speak Gaelic in Ireland and Scotland. I have nothing against the natural rise and fall of any – indeed, all – languages.

But I am told by Welsh friends that, except in the West and sparsely-populated central highlands of Wales, the Welsh language had pretty-much died out by the late 19th century.

It was re-imposed rather than re-grew in Wales in the late 20th century.

My memory is that extreme Welsh nationalists got publicity in English newspapers by setting off some minor explosions and burning down occasional second homes owned by ordinary English people in Wales.

Then some second-rate people who could not get jobs in media, politics and the local civil service had the bright idea of looking to what their USP was – they could speak Welsh – and they pushed for Welsh-language TV programmes, an entire Welsh TV channel and the use of the Welsh language in the local civil service because, that way, they would have a positive advantage in getting jobs.

The Welsh language was, to an extent, partially revived not by natural growth and usage but by xenophobia and the self-interest of a small clique.

Yes, that’s a very personal view of what happened, but not necessarily totally untrue.

English politicians, frightened of alienating the Welsh, went along with it for electoral gain and you now have a country where people have a TV channel –  S4C – which most of them don’t understand and dual-language signs only half of which most understand – the English language half.

While the rest of the world was moving towards internationally-understood English, a group of self-serving xenophobes in Wales (where English was already established) were pushing for the renewed use of a mostly-dead language known only by some in Wales and nowhere else except some obscure area of Patagonia.

Looking inwards in an increasingly international world is not a good idea. An insistence on trying to spread the Welsh language more widely in Wales is not a sign of national identity. It is a sign of national insecurity.

Right or wrong, that’s my viewpoint. Like I said at the start, What is the point of having a blog if you can’t write bigoted pieces based on truth, half-truths and misunderstandings?

Oh – Abergavenny has now been pointlessly half-re-named Y Fenni.

Really! Give me a break, chaps or – as Google Translate claims that would be said in Welsh – yn rhoi i mi egwyl, chaps.

What sort of sensible language doesn’t have a word for “chaps”?

Dim sense.

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