English Language in Peril?

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Regular readers know that I get stroppy over what I perceive to be degradation of the English language. I’ve ranted over the disappearance of ‘whom’; the substitutability of ‘I’ and ‘me’; and the use of ‘bacteria’, ‘data’ and ‘phenomena’ as though they are singular nouns. Mrs SG gets equally stroppy when she hears someone pronounce the letter ‘H’ as ‘haitch’.

But I’ve just read an article by David Shariatmadari in the admirable Guardian Weekly, pointing out that the language has always been a work-in-progress and many of today’s spellings and usages would have been considered quite wrong only a couple of hundred years ago. Mr Shariatmadari mentions that ‘an apron’ evolved from ‘a napron’ and ‘horse’ used to be ‘hros’. He considers people like me to be pedants.

To an extent I accept what he says. After all, I never use ‘thou’, ‘thee’ or ‘thy’ unless I’m on stage; or ‘hast’, ‘hath’ or ‘dost’ for that matter. Perhaps I am prejudiced against people who seem to misuse the language out of ignorance or laziness, or as a deliberate ploy to avoid precision, or in the act of hijacking a word (such as ‘gay’, ‘community’ or ‘like’) for their own ends. But dammit we must have some rules! If everyone thinks they can repurpose words and make up meanings at will, the result can only be miscommunication.

Home-Grown Fruit and Stroppy 2019

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Nectarines

Today’s my birthday and therefore the day to announce the winner of this year’s Stroppy. But first I make will make another announcement: Mrs SG and I have harvested our nectarine crop! It amounted to 7.2kg after cutting off the rotten bits. St Bernard’s Market is selling yellow nectarines A$2.99/kg at the moment, giving our crop a retail value of A$21.50. Mrs SG wondered aloud whether that would cover the cost of watering the tree for a year.

I was reminded of an email circulated recently by my old friend Ron Allan. It was a picture of lots of tomatoes with the caption “Growing your own tomatoes is the best way to devote 3 months of your life to saving $2.17.” Well, Ron, even if that’s US$2.17, we did much better than that!

That curtain-raiser is little more than an excuse to display a colourful picture of our nectarines. Now to the main business. The winner of the 2019 Stroppy Award for Meaningless Drivel is … drumroll … the South Australian Academic Health Science and Translation Centre, for this passage from a report to the state government agency SA Health:

“What we can deduce from our work is that it is possible to generate a narrative around the experience of multiple stakeholders, going through a large-scale system change, in ways that both acknowledge the limitations of the data but support the emerging themes from the data, and from other (realist) literature reviews.”

A worthy winner! Thanks are due to Brad Crouch, the Advertiser’s Medical Reporter, who drew this to my attention.

Stroppy 2019

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“. . . here will be an old abusing of God’s patience and the king’s English.” The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act I Scene IV

A reminder . . . The next Stroppy Git Award for Meaningless Drivel (aka The Stroppy) will be awarded on 17 January 2019. Nominations will close at 2359 UTC/GMT on Sunday 13 January.

The English language is under unrelenting attack from those whose ends are served by ambiguity and the re-purposing of words – and from an army of the ignorant and lazy, it must be said. The word ‘whom’ has all but disappeared. ‘I’ and ‘me’ are becoming interchangeable. ‘Phenomena’ and ‘bacteria’ are following ‘data’ on a slide towards singularity as their parents ‘phenomenon‘ and ‘bacterium’ look on helplessly, aghast at the prospect of their own demise.

The award each January of The Stroppy is an attempt to use public ridicule as a weapon in defence of linguistic rigour. Feel free to join this noble cause by submitting a nomination.

Foot-In-Mouth Syndrome

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An Australian federal politician, Fraser Anning, has just made his maiden speech in the Senate, in which he called for a return to the White Australia Policy and a ban on Muslim immigration. Just to make sure he had everyone offside he talked of this being the ‘final solution’.

When it was pointed out to him that the very phrase ‘final solution’ was indissolubly linked in everyone’s mind to Hitler, Nazism and the attempted annihilation of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and other undesirables, he said his words were taken out of context.

Either he doesn’t know what the ‘final solution’ is in historical terms, in which case he may be considered too ignorant to be a useful member of the legislature; or he’s too lacking in sensitivity, political savvy and common sense to be a useful member of the legislature. Either way . . .

Mind you, Mr Anning is not alone in his choice of infelicitous words. How often, even now, do we hear politicians and activists claiming to be on a ‘crusade’?

Yes, I know, in in our nice liberal secular democracies the word ‘crusade’ just means a passionately executed campaign – nothing to do with the repeated Christian assaults on the so-called Holy Land in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries. But to a great many Muslims, even today and even in educated circles, the word is still burdened with its original meaning. Its casual use only confirms the suspicion that The West has hostile intent towards Islam and its followers.

Forty Thousand!

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No wonder the Sun has been an object of worship! Today our solar panels reached another meaningful milestone: meaningful to us roundists, anyway. Forty is a special number: forty days and forty nights, life begins at forty, the roaring forties, Ali Baba and the forty thieves, forty winks… But raise it by three orders of magnitude, and you have something grand!

And I remember a popular song from the forties – or maybe the fifties, but it fits my narrative better if it was the forties. The song was about 2-year-old Johnny Brown’s impressive cockney utterance: “Faw’y Fahs’nd Fevvers on a Frush!”

Billy Cotton delivering his trademark “Wakey-wakey!”

I knew about feathers and thrushes, and I knew about big numbers, but for some reason I always heard ‘frush’ as ‘brush’ and assumed that bristles could also be referred to as feathers.

The song was written by Paul Boyle and Eddie Carroll, of whom I know in no other context, and was popularised by the great Billy Cotton in the equally great Billy Cotton Band Show on the BBC Light Programme.

Lucy Zelić’s Pronunciation

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Here in Australia we have a public TV station called SBS (Special Broadcasting Service), designed to cater for the needs of minority ethnic groups. Among its multilingual staff is a sports presenter called Lucy Zelić (pictured). I don’t know enough about sport to know how good she is in that role, but other people say she’s pretty good. In particular she knows how to pronounce sportspeople’s names correctly.

Incredibly, that skill has attracted trolls. Some people prefer foreigners’ names to be pronounced as though they were English. I don’t know if that’s some kind of linguistic imperialism, preference for the familiar or just laziness, but it puts me in mind of a story by Jerome K Jerome that I read when I was about 9 years old. I was in hospital for a couple of weeks and, having come close to choking with laughter over ‘Three Men in a Boat’, I took a book of JKJ’s short stories to read in my hospital bed.

The story was set in the First World War, in which he served as an ambulance-driver for the French Army, having been turned down by the British because of his age. I forget the name or the main theme of this particular story, but in it a young officer is berated for pronouncing Ypres as ‘Eepr’ instead of ‘Wipers’ like his fellows. Ever since then I have made an effort to pronounce foreign words and names in the same way as their linguistic owners. So I salute you, Lucy!

Nomination for the Next Stroppy

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Here in the State of South Australia the Labour government (recently replaced) introduced radical reforms in the health sector. These reforms were labelled Transforming Health, and according to the letters to the local newspaper about it, they were deeply unpopular. SA Health, the responsible government agency, commissioned a study by an organisation glorying in the name ‘SA Academic Health Science and Translation Centre’.

The study’s findings generally supported the views of the letter-writers, but the report was criticised for omitting important aspects of the reforms and for such passages as this:

“What we can deduce from our work is that it is possible to generate a narrative around the experience of multiple stakeholders, going through a large-scale system change, in ways that both acknowledge the limitations of the data but support the emerging themes from the data, and from other (realist) literature reviews.”

I am indebted to Brad Crouch, the Advertiser’s Medical Reporter, for drawing this to my attention. I am treating it as a nomination for the next Stroppy Git Award for Meaningless Drivel (popularly known as the Stroppy).

There’s no relevant picture to go with this story, so I’m reproducing a totally unrelated but amusing graphic that my old friend Ron Allan forwarded to me.