05 December 2010

Whither English?

The British Library has been doing well with its exhibitions of late; last year's Henry VIII-fest was good and I enjoyed Magnificent Maps earlier this year, although I could have done with a longer visit (Strange Maps does not satisfy all of my cartophilic needs). And now they have an exhibition called Evolving English, for which I've been waiting eagerly for several weeks.

Susie Dent, Peter Gilliver, Vicky Coren,
Philip Gooden & Simon Heffer
Alongside the exhibition, the BL are running a series of talks and events and today, I attended the English Language Question Time, along with a couple of friends. On the panel were: Susie Dent (of Countdown and OED fame), Peter Gilliver (of the OED), Philip Gooden (who has written books about the English language), and Simon Heffer (Telegraph hack and author of the Torygraph's style guide). Vicky Coren (whom I met over 10 years ago when she came to do a small session about feature writing with a few girls from my class) was chairing the discussion.

We had the opportunity to submit questions for the panel in advance but because I forgot I was going to the event until late last night, I failed to do this. As the average age of the audience was about 75, several questions in, I was worried that the whole 90 minutes were going to be filled with complaints about the shocking state of the English language today from Disgruntled of Tunbridge Wells and colleagues. "Isn't it very annoying that everyone pronounces KILometre as kilOMeter?" demanded one man, who was really quite angry. "Why do people insist on overusing absolutely when a simple "yes" or "I agree" will do?" was another. "Can the panel pronounce the words consume, presume and assume?" (This last question concerned the "dreadful" pronunciation of assume as aSHOOM rather than assYOOM.)

The OED faction of the panel emphasised that their role is to describe the language, not to prescribe (preshcribe?), although the questioners received more support from Heffer. Fortunately, however, more interesting questions were selected:
  • Should English be simplified for non-native speakers and if so how? (Dent was working on a German dictionary at the time of the German spelling reforms and said although simplifying English spelling would help learners, she was against doing so because you would lose some of the history and richness.)
  • Will txt spk encroach on English to further domains and is this a bad thing? (Dent pointed out an example of a 19th century postcard with the abbreviation "gr8" for great, suggesting that such abbreviations are not just a recent innovation; no once mentioned this but the use of the ampersand for and does the same trick and no one would blame the iPhone for that).
  • Do the panel think Blair and Cameron had de-poshing elocution lessons (delocution?) to try to convince people they were down with the kids (with their t-dropping and glottalising, for example)?.
  • Which features of the panel's own idiolects draw most disapproval? (Most of them thought their language was too long-winded and too pedantic; Coren defended a Grauniad sub-editor, who was derided at his leaving do for his overly pedantic emails but Coren came down in his favour, saying that his job required it.)
  • Which examples of "management speak" most irritate the panel? (Heffer hates "to grow a business"; Gooden doesn't like "wake-up call" or "limited edition"; and Dent dislikes verbing ("bandaiding" or "solutioning," for example), although she added that Keats was a common culprit.)
Personally, I would have enjoyed the event more if each panelist had spoken about one aspect of contemporary English for ten minutes, followed by 20 minutes of questions from the chair and discussion, and then, in the final half-hour, questions from the audience. If the audience had been populated with current or former linguistics students or researchers and/or readers of Language Log, the general Q&A format would have entertained me more. It was still an interesting event, however, even if the questions weren't as diverse or original as I would have liked.

Afterwards, we went into the exhibition but only had time for a quick scan of the exhibits. I will definitely be back, not least because I need to record myself reading Mr Tickle for posterity; after all, the voices of generic, 20-something, Southern Standard British English girls are bound to be in short supply...

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