The revolutionary potential of the Queen’s English

It isn’t only old farts who should stand up for standard English. So should those of us who want to understand the world, and change it.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Why has there been so much glee over the demise of the Queen’s English Society? No sooner had these posh warriors against txtspeak and for standard English announced that they were calling it a day than the press was effectively saying: ‘About time, too.’ There were the inevitable slangish headlines. ‘OMG! Queen’s English Society announces that it is to close cos no one cares about speaking proper no longer’, said the Daily Mail. And then there were the follow-up comment pieces, informing us that no one speaks the Queen’s English anymore (not even the Queen) and that we should stop the ‘cultural policing’ of the English language.

This dancing on the grave of QES is about more than getting one over on annoying ladies with red pens, who write letters to Starbucks pointing out that it doesn’t know how to use the words ‘fewer’ and ‘less’ (it’s true, it doesn’t) and harangue shopkeepers whose signs have the apostrophe in the wrong place. More fundamentally, the ha-hahing at the folding of QES speaks to a society which is increasingly allergic to the idea of a standard language, and to standards themselves, and which prefers to encourage people to prattle on and spell words however they please. QES-bashers present their dislike of top-down standards as radical and liberating. But it is their relativism which makes prisoners of us, while learning standard English has the potential to liberate.

The manner in which QES ended tells us a lot about our times. It crumbled, effectively saying: ‘We can’t be bothered.’ Or perhaps ‘bovvered’. After 40 years of trying to protect the English language against poor spelling and grammar, against the rise of new forms of patois and jargon, QES decided to abolish itself after only 22 people turned up to its Annual General Meeting last month. In a very well-written if terse message to members, the society’s chairman (not chairwoman) Rhea Williams said: ‘I have to inform you that QES will no longer exist… all activity will cease and [QES] will be wound up.’ In the face of a society uninterested (or is it disinterested?) in the correct way of speaking and writing, QES threw in the towel.

The response of commentators is revealing. Alongside the mickey-taking (rhyming slang: ‘Taking the Mickey Bliss’, as in ‘piss’), there have been serious arguments about why it is bad to try to enforce linguistic standards. Margaret Reynolds – a professor of English, no less – argued in the Guardian that the ‘cultural policing’ of English is ‘always dangerous’, because it says: ‘I am right and you are wrong.’ Blimey, when even a prof is reluctant to say ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’, which is kind of her job, you know standards are in a parlous state. Reynolds’ outlook echoes the arguments put forward by an academic in the Times Higher Education Supplement in 2008, where it was argued that university teachers should stop losing sleep over students’ misspelling of words and instead embrace their ‘variant spellings’. So ‘truely’ wouldn’t be wrong, just a variant of ‘truly’.

As a young person might say (probably with the blessing of his university lecturer): OMFG. That even higher-education practitioners no longer feel comfortable correcting bad spelling and spasticated grammar speaks volumes about today’s cult of relativism. Apparently there is no proper way to write or spell, just endless variations of word-use that are all equally valid. Or perhaps vapid (that’s my variant spelling of valid, so don’t judge). Today’s discomfort with standard language is summed up in the slurs that have been invented to attack those who defend it: they are always ‘spelling fascists’ or ‘grammar police’ who, in the words of The Times (!), are leading a ‘pedants’ revolt’ against txtspeak.

Of course, defending standard English doesn’t mean defending a narrowly prescriptive idea of how one should sound or demanding that everyone be linguistically formal at all times, even when gassing with a mate on the blower (see what I did there?). No one is saying you must pronounce off as orf (piss orf!) or never again say the phrase ‘me bollox’. But in order to engage with society, with its public life and politics, you need to fully understand its language. You need to know that the sentence you just read contained a split infinitive, and that some people frown upon those while others think they are okay. You need to know how words are spelt and how they should be arranged in order to achieve both clarity and clout; you need to know what punctuation is for; you need to know what is the best way to write things down in order for them to be understood by the maximum number (not amount) of people. When it comes to language, the rule is that the more you know the rules, the more you can play around with them and twist them for effect, if you like. But you need to know the rules. And it is this knowing of the rules that is called into question these days, by people who think we should stop telling 19-year-old muppets at university that they have spelt things wrong and who even think it’s problematic to say: ‘I am right and you are wrong.’

When people doll up declining linguistic standards as ‘cultural diversity’, they’re really making a virtue out of dumbness, turning illiteracy into just a variant form of literacy. Some say we shouldn’t look down our noses at the urban patois now spoken by British youth, especially black youth and ‘chavs’, nor sneer at the ‘variant spelling’ and ‘academic differences’ such patois allegedly gives rise to. But this is doubly insulting. It is insulting to assume that young people, especially poor young people, are incapable of mastering standard language, of conquering English and all its glorious complications, and so instead must be allowed to write ‘potatoe’ instead of ‘potato’. The real driving force here is the education establishment’s unwillingness to uphold standards, and its utter lack of faith in the academic capabilities of youth. The elite’s low expectations of the young are dressed up as ‘celebrating linguistic diversity’.

Moreover, it is insulting to say: they have their own language – their own wonderfully weird formulations and spellings! – so let’s leave them to it. Often, patois and slang emerge within the most marginalised groups, among those who feel cut off from society and who consequently develop their own coded speech. Indeed, the most marginalised groups of all – newly arrived, often unemployed immigrants – often don’t speak English at all. In this context, to celebrate difference is really to celebrate people’s isolation, to applaud their remove from society, to congratulate them on their exclusion from public life. Those of us who seriously want everyday people to play a role in shaping society, in determining what the future should look like, have a very clear interest in promoting a standard language through which we can all clearly communicate and argue the toss over our ideals and beliefs.

The refusal to uphold a standard language is really a refusal to be universal. It is the promotion of parochialism at the expense of public engagement, and introversion over expanding one’s horizons. I want to speak the Queen’s English not because I want to be like the Queen, but because I want to get rid of her, and to make numerous other changes to the society we live in, and I recognise that the starting point to that is that we are able to understand each other and engage with each other. There is revolutionary potential in having everyone adhere to the same linguistic rules; there is only the dead end of division and parish-pump platitudes in the promotion of a linguistic free-for-all in which eevn spleling doens’t matetr.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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