The other day Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, asked Prince Charles what the weather was going to be like this month.
HRH responded with alacrity: “Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote the droȝte of March hath perced to the roote and bathed every veyone in swich licour, of which vertu engendered is the flour; when Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth…”
“Are you quite off your rocker?” interrupted the duchess. “What’s that gibberish you’re spouting?”
“What’s the matter, wench?” said HRH. “Don’t thou understand Middle English, thou modern ignoramus?”
This dialogue is imaginary, but it’s plausible. For, as we’ve found out, Prince Charles favours fifteenth-century usage over Johnny-come-lately modern English. Or at least that’s what his staff claimed to ward off accusations of HRH’s crypto-Americanism.
The accusations surfaced in response to the letter of condolences HRH wrote to Manny Macron, in which he spelled words like ‘realise’, ‘agonising’ and ‘civilisation’ with the American ‘z’, rather than the British ‘s’.
Everybody is too quick to criticise [sic] the royal family, but this time the criticism was ill-founded, according to HRH’s staff and the experts drawn in to provide support. Don’t you know that the -ize suffix comes from Old Greek, which Prince Charles speaks with the fluency of an agora orator?
Moreover, the prince is so engrossed in England’s glorious past that he routinely prefers Middle English usages. So don’t be a royal pain.
The conservative in me rejoices. For, betwixt you and me, now that our monarchy has been divested of executive power, its main function is to provide a sturdy axis around which England’s past, present and future revolve in unity.
Alas, so far HRH has manifested his commendable linguistic conservatism only in choosing -ize for -ise. And, even though his amanuenses claim this usage is “correct”, it isn’t. It was correct in the fifteenth century; in the twenty-first, it’s American.
It’s just that the first Anglophone settlers had arrived in America before the shift from -ize to -ise and other evolutionary changes occurred in the mother country. Hence some American usage and much of American pronunciation come from the time between Chaucer and Shakespeare, not between Kingsley and Martin Amis.
I doff my hat, or would do if I wore one, to any manifestation of conservatism, no matter how eccentric. It’s important, however, not to overstep the line separating conservative from obscurantist.
For sometimes it’s good for even reactionaries like HRH and me to make concessions to newfangled locutions, or as HRH would doubtless put it, “forthi good is that we also in oure tyme among ous hiere do wryte of newe som matiere”.
That way educated people earn the right to put a stamp of approval on some usages, while denying it to others. True conservatives resist only unnecessary and subversive – not any – change.
(Speaking of education, the only exam I ever had to re-sit at university was History of the English Language. I got hopelessly confused by the Great Vowel Shift, which the examiner pointed out with scorn.)
At this point, the conservative in me steps aside, and the cynic takes over. For I don’t really believe either in HRH’s affection for Middle English nor, if truth be told, in the depth of his classical education.
Assuming it was he, rather than his speechwriters, who wrote the letter in question, its orthography is more likely to reflect HRH’s urgent desire to come across as modern and upbeat, not at all lah-di-dah.
Since America is the reference country of modernity, the use of Americanisms is supposed to deflect any suspicion of upper-class snobbery. However, affection for Americanisms transcends class barriers.
Thus the word ‘kid’ has all but replaced ‘child’, for all my protestations that, in order to produce a kid, one has to have sex with a goat. Even then success is far from guaranteed – after all, all those Welsh shepherds have so far failed to sire a lamb, haven’t they?
Contrary to what many Americans, and now some of their British imitators, seem to think, ‘momentarily’ means ‘for a moment’, not ‘in a moment’.
‘Guy’ is a poor substitute for ‘chap’ or, if you will, ‘bloke’. ‘A penny for the Guy’ is the only acceptable use of that word in Britain, and then only on a single night in a year.
Contrary to so many speakers, ‘amount’ is used only in reference to uncountable nouns, such as ‘beer’, while ‘number’ is the proper way to refer to countable nouns, such as ‘pints – although, if my former colleagues are anything to go by, pints can be uncountable too.
And so forth, ad infinitum. This isn’t to say that all popular solecisms come to us from the US. The British themselves are perfectly competent at mangling their own language. They are, however, so good at it that they don’t need outside help, thank you very much.
Actually, if I wanted to find fault with the prince’s letter, I’d concentrate on other parts of it. For example, he addresses Manny Macron in French as Cher Monsieur le Président and signs off as Très cordialement à vous.
Everything in between is in English, which brings to mind Mark Twain’s brilliant travel book The Innocents Abroad that chronicles the first voyage taken by American tourists to Europe.
One of the ‘innocents’ was dismayed not to find any soap in his French hotel room, which feeling he expressed in a letter to the owner (I’m quoting from memory): “Monsieur le proprietor, Sir: Pourquoi n’avez vous pas du savon in your establishment? Est-que vous pensez that I’m going to steal it?…”.
That innocent traveller (who also thought that the French for it was travailleur) didn’t know better, but perhaps HRH should have done. It’s best to avoid an epistolary Babel and write either in French or in English, but not in a mixture of the two.
All in all, HRH’s speechwriting staff seems in need of freshening up, so that it myhte not in such a wyse expose the prince to mockery. I’m not volunteering my services; however, I did fail an exam in Middle English, and if that isn’t a proper qualification, I don’t know what is.