They fill the airwaves, and whirl around our breakfast, lunch and dinner tables… those legions of words that pour from the radio and the television hourly, daily – every second. And they get crunched, munched and bunched by their utterers, perhaps caught on the hop on a live microphone, or maybe who’ve made the mangling of the English language a life’s work. John Prescott, for one, was famed for his outspokenness and the interesting grammar with which he articulated it.
‘Speaking proper’, as the celebrated Colloquy by the monk, Aelfric – one of the earliest records of what medieval spoken English may have resembled – shows, has been a nagging preoccupation since the year 1000. “We would like you to teach us how to speak properly, for we are ignorant and badly spoken” says a pupil to his teacher. Oh dear.
But, today, when we’re so annoyed that we want to throw something, there’s nothing so tempting as a nice, available aunt-sally. And for the linguistic purist, the BBC is Aunt Sally Number 1. As a young Radio 4 producer, I found myself caught up on the frontline of these linguistic battles, as the armies of righteous Prescriptivists assailed the Corporation, like Henry V’s archers, with deluges of letters – and, more recently, emails – of complaint about a misplaced stress here or a wrongly pronounced word there: “Everybody knows it’s not pronounced like that!” Well, clearly not quite everybody…
But then again, even a dyed-in-the-wool Descriptivist like me finds myself wincing as journalists on the telly, so eager to show themselves ahead of the trend, adopt non-standard Brit-speak pronunciations for lovely old concepts that we’ve rubbed up against like purring cats for generations. Take ‘leverage’ for one. Yes, I know, it’s a banking term, and as such it’s been imported with its US ‘levverage’ pronunciation. But just because we’ve talked a lot about finance over the last 5 years, that doesn’t mean to say we have to adopt a new way of talking about influence, or indeed about how to move something without too much direct force: for me, that’s still ‘leeverage’.
And I’m left tut-tutting with the best of the Prescriptivists. And don’t get me started on elevators. But then again, wasn’t it that beautiful Italian invention the ‘balcony’ that, when first imported to these shores, arrived with its Roman pronunciation intact: ‘bal-coney’? Nowadays, if you started talking about a hotel room with a lovely bal-coney, the Prescriptivists would be on it in a trice: “don’t you mean ‘bal-cunnee’?
So, a love of the Old? Or the thrill of the New? Well, it’s always been a matter of – er – controversy. Or was that controversy?