More reasons for not needing an Academy of English


Unusually, I am posting a kind of PS to my earlier post about the setting up of an Academy of English  because I have come across a lovely piece of blustering by someone enthusiastically supporting the idea. Gerald Warner is an ‘author, broadcaster, columnist, polemical commentator’ and linguistic ignoramus. You can read his full Daily Telegraph piece here, if you want to:

It’s the usual stuff: English is going to hell in a handcart so decent people have to mount a defence soon or all will be lost. Our children know nothing about grammar because teachers are useless. He throws in a jibe at modern art for good measure, then graciously concedes that languages do ‘evolve’ (his inverted commas) but says unguided evolution leads to nihilism, by which he might mean anarchy. 

So here are my answers to this nonsense:

English has been left to fend for itself at a time when it is under unprecedented attack.

 Dear Gerald, you clearly know nothing of the history of English so get yourself a good book on the subject. Your native tongue has survived a massive loss of word morphology between the 9th and 12th centuries, a massive loss of native vocabulary to French borrowings between the 11th and 14th centuries, and a tidal wave of Latin and Greek terms in the 16th  and 17th centuries. What’s happening now that surpasses that?

The advent of texting has had a disastrous effect on literacy,

Wrong. There is not the slightest evidence for texting having such an effect. Read the science.

and the mass media are complicit in bastardisation of language.

I don’t even know what this means unless you are one of those people who go through the newspapers looking for split infinitives. People in the media do not always speak or write beautiful English, but there is no evidence that this threatens anything.

Then there is the omnipresent, nightmarish gibberish of management jargon.

I don’t like it much either, but it is not omnipresent and the stupid bits will not get a toehold in the language. Jargon is ephemeral, so just wait for it to pass.

 The worst problem, however, is the collapse of literacy within our education system  

What is your evidence for this? Some children do not learn to read and write as well as they should; this is true and this is sad. But a ‘collapse’? Come on. Aren’t you playing fast and loose with the meaning of this word?

Instead, laissez-faire attitudes towards spelling, grammar and syntax, encouraged by trendy educationalists, have created a situation in which illiterate pupils have now been joined by a generation of largely illiterate teachers.

You find me one teacher in the UK, just one, who is largely illiterate. And by ‘largely illiterate’ I mean ‘largely unable to read or write’. Really, Gerald, if you want to have a sensible discussion about language you should not need to resort to meaningless exaggeration. But I see you describe yourself as a ‘polemical commentator’ so perhaps you like that kind of thing. It does rather weaken an argument, though.  I know there’s little point giving you a fact to counter your ignorant assertions, but I am going to anyway: all children learn the morphology and syntax of their native language implicitly, perfectly and irresistibly before they get to school. (Oh, by the way, syntax is a part of grammar, not something additional to it.)

The “inclusive” mania to embrace the lowest common denominator has left the language of Shakespeare fighting for survival.

You are surely not suggesting that our children start learning English from the late Elizabethan period?

The universal misuse of apostrophes recently provoked the writing of a best-selling book; its success suggests there is still a desire among the bulk of the population to understand and employ correct usage, but abuses are proliferating.

I think the success of Lynne Truss’s book is largely down to people being afraid of the opprobrium heaped upon them by the likes of you when they get an apostrophe wrong. The apostrophe is a pointless invention of the 17th century. Let’s get rid of it entirely.

The inarticulacy of young people’s speech is not something that will necessarily correct itself with maturity, as optimists rashly assume: where there is no understanding of the basic structures of our language, self-improvement can only be a hit-or-miss effort.

Now, listen carefully. All humans without serious brain damage have a complete understanding of the basic structures of their language. This is NOT the same as being articulate .

Aggravating the current crisis is state-sponsored illiteracy, with central and local government promoting politically correct Newspeak, such as “chair” for chairman, and innumerable hideous neologisms such as “spokesperson”, which are additionally offensive in patronisingly attributing infantile insecurity to women.

You have so far shown no evidence whatsoever for the current situation to be called a ‘crisis’. Picking on a couple of neologisms you don’t like is not much to build a case for one. Have you any idea of how much English is spoken, written or read every day in the UK? At 20,000 words per person (a conservative estimate) it’s more than 1,000,000,000,000. Spokesperson or chairwoman is not making much of a dent in that.

We live in an age of aggressive Philistinism. Modern “art” is a sick joke, imposed on the public in the absence of courageous opponents denouncing the Emperor’s new clothes; it is no coincidence that its iconic artefact was a urinal exhibited in 1917, as the old world that had produced so many glories of true art was dissolving.

What has any of this got to do with language? Are you one of those people who thinks civilisation will come to an end if you allow children to split an infinitive?

In this climate of anti-aestheticism it is unsurprising that even an attempt to preserve the beauty and coherence of the English language should meet with opposition by those who claim that it needs to “evolve” unimpeded.

Well, if that’s me you are talking to here, I would point out that beauty and coherence in English have been around for as long as there have been English speakers, so the language has successfully evolved ‘unimpeded’ for sixteen hundred years. It will not benefit by being put in aspic by twentieth century pedants .

There is nothing wrong with a language evolving –

Thank you

– English has always done so; but what is happening now is not evolution but nihilism.

Rubbish.  What is happening now is that your variety of English is changing into another one very very slowly. You have picked on the tiny number of changes and railed against them without the slightest justification. In doing so you have slagged off millions of young people and their teachers. If I could resurrect Chaucer for a couple of hours I would like to listen to him telling you that your version of English is the most appallingly ugly mangling of the beautiful tongue he left behind in 1399. He’d be wrong about your English, but I would enjoy seeing you on the receiving end of that kind of bollocking.

 It must be resisted and the Queen’s English Society is to be congratulated on its initiative. All champions of literacy will wish the society success in establishing a much-needed Academy of English.

I am a champion of literacy. But unlike you, I do not equate being literate (or articulate) with using only the kind of English prescribed by a bunch of self-appointed guardians of the language who see all change as bad. Fortunately, I can be perfectly sure that any Academy of English will have zero impact simply because it will not be able to dictate the way people speak.


So Gerald, put aside your spluttering  and ignorant assertions, accept that languages are perfectly good at self-regulating, and stop equating eloquence or literacy with late 20th century standard English grammar. Go and read Jonathan Swift’s 1712 Proposal for Correcting, Improving, and Ascertaining the English Tongue in which he calls for an English Academy to stop the changes he had noted and didn’t like. You’ll be surprised how many of these  now form part of your beloved and beautiful language.  There’s ‘unguided evolution’ for you.



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