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25/09/2009

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And, likewise, I have certain (small) differences from both of you but not sufficiently large to make common cause impossible.

I rather like whom, and would not like to see it disappear; at least, not until I do!

I agree that one of the main concerns is the relationship of speech to thought and the worry that woolly speech is a sign of woolly thought. This woolliness does not occur only as a result of carelessness or ignorance: there are groups that deliberately practise (sic) it in order to seem to say more than they are actually saying. Read the advertisements of alternative medicine practitioners, for example, or the babblings of big business with its empty jargon - not to mention politicians who have honed the art of meaningless pronouncements nearly to perfection.

I strongly oppose the formation of an Academy of the Language. No matter how liberal, how far-sighted, how deeply thoughtful such an institution, it can only strengthen the hand of pedants who will use its results as authority against the rest of us.

Language has a natural anchor in its continual race to change: mutual comprehension. Language must remain universal within its community. The problem is that English speakers do not form a community but many communities. We must accept that certain communities will become incomprehensible to others; new languages will form. I note that already today, social networking sites and many softwares offer the user a choice between "UK English" (do they think there is only one?) and "US English" (ditto), which suggests a growing awareness of our creeping separation.

I believe that in India and Pakistan, where several related languages co-exist, Hindi is used as a lingua franca understood by all. Does the family of English languages need its own analogue of Hindi? It might, but such an entity is impossible because there would be no way in which to create it. "Standard English" is a British invention unlikely to gain acceptance in other communities.

This is one of those discussions that can never lead to a final answer. The arguments will continue. It is best to respond with understanding and good humour, not with anger and a fistful of fiats.

Thought-provoking letters, both.

Peter Harvey

I agree that there is always scope for argument but my view is that language should be as simple as possible, free from all unnecessary complications. I have come to this conclusion partly as a result of teaching English. Why should someone have to waste time and effort learning that the noun is practice and the verb is practise? Or that whom is used optionally as the objective case pronoun in certain cases but is never used in others? If ever anything was ridiculous, that must surely be it, especially when I compare it with a language that has consciously been ‘cleaned’ of very many (though not all) of its illogicalities; the motto of the Royal Academy of the Language is precisely that: ‘It cleans, fixes and gives splendour’ to the language.

I realise that this wouldn’t work in a country where vanity continually drives many people to show how much cleverer they are than their peers, but in other countries an Academy is accepted as a guide to how to use the language so that it is accessible equally to as many people as possible throughout the world. And the present status of Spanish as the second international language, spoken by 400 million people and the medium for an important literature, shows that the existence of the Academy does to encourage dumbing-down. The same goes for French, though its international status is not now what it once was. I repeat that it is a guide. It has no particular authority other than the respect that it engenders. It does allow for alternative forms in some cases, and in others it is widely ignored; everyone writes whisky instead of güisqui.

The problem with woolliness is not new. Orwell described it in 1946 it in
his essay on Politics and the English Language.

As for English as a lingua franca, it already exists. It is called International English. It is comprehensible worldwide. It is English but not as we know it.

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