Monday, 24 November 2014

English as She is Spoke

A long time ago, ‘Oxford English’ was regarded as the standard of pronunciation to which we should all aspire. Not entirely snobbery: it would surely be a good thing if we could all understand what other anglophones were saying, and for that a single standard is useful.

Eventually however it was realized that ‘Oxford English’ wouldn’t do. For one thing, the real people of Oxford speak with something close to a west country accent, and for another the University people — who are about as ‘Oxford’ as an American airman in Okinawa is Japanese — all too often don’t so much speak as bray and whinny.

‘BBC English’ became the standard. The English of the News reader, who was required to wear full evening dress with tails to read the nine o’clock news on the radio. (The radio, mind: this was before television.) All over the world, wherever English was taught as a foreign language, ‘BBC English’ became the standard, and those abroad who had radios would listen eagerly and copy.

Later, regional accents became acceptable which is fine so long as they can be understood by all anglophones including learners. More recently, grammar has become optional.

I have taught English as a foreign language. I found that I had to warn pupils about the BBC: they too had heard that BBC English was the standard, and would say ‘But I heard it said like that on the World Service’, and I would have to tell them (what they found hard to believe) that the people on the radio now have never been taught grammar or diction; that they probably know in fact rather less about their language than, say, a Greek child studying for the Cambridge Proficiency exam.

Grammar can be considered a branch of logic. To speak ungrammatically is often to make  little or no sense. Today’s rant was in fact provoked by something a BBC presenter said this morning, and whose meaning I am still trying to work out: she was talking of how useful something or other would have been had it been available after a recent disaster:

‘Twice as many lives might not have been lost,’ she said.



I must apologise for the picture above: the newsreader (Frank Phillips)
 has had the temerity to remove his jacket and appear in his waistcoat.

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