Not for the first time (nor, one suspects, the last) BBC Radio Four’s flagship news programme Today has indulged in a silly and uninformed debate about language. You can listen to it here:
John Humphrys is a professional radio journalist. He is generally known for his aggressive interviewing style, though to me he is more renowned as a classic bad linguist; he has little knowledge of the subject, very strong opinions and easy access to the mass media. His two books about the mangling of English (Lost for Words and Beyond Words) are collections of personal bugbears about other people’s language, coupled with gloomy predictions about English going to the dogs. The usual nonsense.
Prompted by a couple of comments/questions on a previous post (thank you), I have been to the Queen’s English Society website to look at their save-the-subjunctive campaign.
They explain here that the indicative form of the verb is for stating ‘facts’, while the subjunctive is for stating things which are suppositions or wishes or commands. I’m not sure about the ‘fact’ criterion. I can use the indicative perfectively legally for ‘King Canute lives in a retirement home in Norfolk’ and fool no-one. Still, to express this as a wish, I do need the subjunctive: ‘Would that King Canute lived in a retirement home in Norfolk!’ Continue reading
Sometimes there is an easy answer to the question, “What defines a language?” For example, it’s not controversial to say that the language called French is made up of a standard variety and many regional varieties (i.e. dialects) which are all more or less mutually intelligible.
However, it’s not always that neat, and often it gets emotional. Flemish and Dutch are mutually intelligible and they are often indistinguishable, but the national boundary between them means that no-one in either country wants to calls them dialects of the same language. They call them two separate languages. This is exactly the same in the case of Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, or of Serbian and Croat. National boundaries tend to trump other definitions. In China, where eastern and western forms of speech are mutually unintelligible, it is nevertheless commonly asserted that there is one Chinese language. This is the same as claiming that modern Romanian and Spanish are the same language even though someone from Bucharest and someone from Madrid are not able to have a chat.