English Language in Peril?


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.



About 30 years ago I was listening to the radio and heard an alarming news item. Mental hospitals were to be closed and the patients were to be cared for in the community. “Holy cow!” I thought. “Mrs SG and I have no training in caring for mentally ill people, nor inclination to do so! And anyway, since the boys have their own bedrooms we don’t have room for any!”

I was really expected someone with a clipboard to come to the door and ask how many deranged people we’d like, and what sort. Then it dawned on me, after hearing the issue dealt with in interviews and chat shows, that being cared for in the community just meant putting people in suburban houses and flats, procured for the purpose, and having professionals look after them there. ‘In the community’ didn’t mean ‘by members of the community.’

But it made me think: What is a community nowadays? The word ‘community’ suggests to me a group of people who have some kind of affinity, some interest in one another’s welfare, even some sense of responsibility for one another. Just living in proximity to someone is surely not enough.

There are places where geographical proximity and affinity do go together. My sister has lived for 35 years in a 13th century Italian village called Anguillara Sabazia. She knows everyone, everyone knows her, and when anything happens to anyone it is a subject of conversation in the streets, shops and cafés. An old lady died while I was visiting my sister. A poster advertised news of her death and details of her funeral, and the buzz was all about who would look after her cat and who would give her cleaner a job.

Newsreaders often say things like “A community is in shock following the death of a Bungaroo fisherman at sea yesterday,” or “Leaders of the Muslim community affirm their opposition to extremism.” They conjure up images of people coming onto the streets to share their feelings, huddling over beers and coffees or feverishly texting one another in an echo-chamber of agreement.

But it’s not like that where Mrs SG and I live. Is it like that where you live? Do you belong to a community? Does it have a physical boundary or is it a reality only in cyberspace? Do share.