Language Rant

It is common in every generation to believe that one’s language has been debased or polluted. The French worry endlessly that their language is being contaminated by English; no doubt the English after the Norman invasion, when they were not bemoaning their loss of wealth and power, shed a tear for the debauching of their native tongue, not realising that it would eventually re-arise, strengthened and reinvigorated.

In Britain, there is sometimes an understandable resentment of the powerful influence wielded by US English. Some aspects of US English are, indeed, hard to defend - can anyone seriously believe that Noah Webster’s reformed spelling was an improvement, for instance? Does ‘labor’ or ‘color’ more accurately represent the pronunciation of any anglophone than ‘labour’ or ‘colour’? On the other hand, no-one, surely, can fail to appreciate the beauty which some American writers have brought to even the humblest genres. I am thinking particularly of Raymond Chandler. Perhaps his English education, at Dulwich College, gave him a new perspective on American vernacular.

A worrying development in recent years has been the concept of ‘European English’. It is surely only a matter of time before the European Union appoints itself arbiter of our language. Nonetheless, the biggest threat to British English is not, I think, influences from the US, the EU or elsewhere, but sheer stupidity. It is almost impossible to order a hamburger in this country - you have to ask for a beefburger. Do they (whoever ‘they’ are) think that hamburgers are made from ham? Do they think that the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg or its New York State namesake are founded upon cured pork products?

Another intense irritation (much promoted by the British Broadcasting Corporation) is the totally alien idea of using hundreds instead of centuries along the Italian model. In one history programme after another, presenters talk not of the mid nineteenth century’ but ‘the mid 1800s’ to mean around 1850. To me, ‘the mid 1800s’ means about 1805. This modern usage is stupid, sloppy and misleading. Equally annoying is the use of BCE and CE instead of BC and AD. As an atheist, I find this political correctness far more offensive than the traditional terms. If someone doesn’t want to use AD or BC, I certainly don’t want to force them to do so, but why should we have these new terms forced upon us?