Learning English as first language

As I write this, our papers are bursting at the seams with encomia for Gareth Southgate, the England manager.

These are largely merited, although my preference would be to tone them down a bit. After all, it’s only football, not a breakthrough in the treatment of cancer.

But I generally keep such misgivings to myself, realising that no treatment of cancer would ever cause such a riot of mass hysteria. Panem et circenses, and all that.

When I say that the encomia are largely, as opposed to totally, merited, I specifically have one praise in mind, that Southgate is a refined, cultured individual.

It would be amply appropriate if qualified with “…for a footballer”. With that relativist proviso, Gareth is indeed a paragon of culture.

He sports sharp three-piece suits in fashionable colours (although, and this is unforgivable, he wears a belt rather than braces under his waistcoat), sports no visible tattoos, speaks in a comprehensible accent and manages to string words together without linking them with the f-word and its derivatives.

Actually, it’s possible for a man to be cultured and still swear a lot. I’d go so far as to say it’s a prerequisite, but here I may be influenced by the Russian quip “even though he swore a lot, he wasn’t a man of culture”.

What is absolutely impossible for a cultured man to do is commit the kind of solecisms that abound in Southgate’s speech. I do mean the kind of solecisms, not simply misusing words every now and then.

Show me a man who claims he never misuses a word and I’ll show you a self-obsessed boaster. We can all get careless and use a wrong word (mea culpa, although I can always use my accident of birth as an excuse).

But only a linguistic lout will ever misuse a word because he wants to sound ‘posh’ (using this word without at least implied quotation marks isn’t posh). This is a dead giveaway of an ignoramus with pretensions of upward cultural mobility.

Asked before the World Cup how his players would respond to racial abuse from the crowd, Southgate replied, “The idealistic response would be to walk off the pitch…”

He clearly thinks that ‘idealistic’ is the ‘posh’ version of ‘ideal’. It isn’t. The two words are cognates, but then so are ‘dish’ and ‘disk ‘or ‘shirt’ and ‘skirt’. They do mean different things though.

That wouldn’t be worth mentioning if this minor matter didn’t reflect a major sociocultural trend: compulsive, increasingly compulsory, egalitarianism. In this, language is only an indicator, but a reliable one.

When I worked in advertising, I used to take notes of my colleagues’ solecisms and malapropisms – and bear in mind we’re talking about professional communicators here.

I heard (and saw) them use ‘erstwhile’ for ‘esteemed’, ‘appraise’ for ‘apprise’, ‘risqué’ for ‘risky’, ‘simplistic’ for ‘simple’, ‘a priori’ for ‘in advance’, ‘effect’ for ‘affect’, ‘masterful’ for ‘masterly’, ‘complimentary’ for ‘complementary’, ‘eminent’ for ‘imminent’, ‘cryptic’ for ‘short’ – well, I don’t intend to burden you with my whole list.

These aren’t careless errors of cultured men. It’s linguistic and cultural louts stealing words that belong to others and then triumphantly flaunting them in front of the rightful owners.

Occasionally, pedant that I am, I’d point out that, say, ‘masterful’ isn’t the same as ‘masterly’. This invariably ran into an indignant response: “What difference does it make? Language is just a means of communication.”

Well, language is a means of communication, but it isn’t just that. I wouldn’t raise that point though, knowing I’d lose my audience – and probably my job.

Instead I’d say: “Precisely. That’s why words should be used in their real meaning, to make sure communication isn’t misleading. In this case, a presentation can be masterly and it can be masterful. I don’t know which you mean; your communication has misfired.”

This would have earned me the reputation of a stuck-up w*****, except that I slyly protected myself by being good at pool and swearing with some creative neologistic flourishes each time I missed a shot.

Because I couldn’t drink five pints of lager at lunch, that didn’t quite make me one of the lads, but at least it offered some social protection.

In the past, cultured people spoke in a cultured way and uncultured people spoke in an uncultured way. For there’s only one way to learn a language properly, whether one is born to it or not: voracious reading of good books over a lifetime.

Cultured people did that, and linguistic precision came as a bonus. Uncultured people, which is to say the majority, didn’t do that, and bad usage came as a consequence.

Lexical and grammatical properties were clearly signposted, and little trespassing ever occurred: the uncultured masses (with notable and welcome exceptions) felt no need to better themselves culturally. In fact, they looked down on toffy-nosed speakers, a sentiment that truly cultured people didn’t reciprocate.

Then, with the advent of compulsive egalitarianism, came the misapprehension that all people are created equally well-spoken and endowed by their creator, that is Darwin, with the inalienable right to mangle English as they see fit.

There are noticeable differences of course, but different no longer means better and worse. Any way of speaking is deemed to be as good as any other.

Anything people say is correct because they say it. This has become the linguistic ideology preached by even supposedly educated commentators on language (Oliver Kamm of The Times is a bright example).

Actually, this isn’t so much an ideology per se as an ideological subset, part of the systematic and deliberate  lowering of cultural standards to the lowest and commonest of denominators. This tendency is sometimes described as ‘prole drift’, though I wouldn’t dare use such an elitist and discriminatory term.

Having got this off my chest, I’m going to join 30 million other British fans in cheering Gareth’s team on in the World Cup semi-final tonight, screaming “Ingerland!!!: at an unresponsive TV screen.

Idealistically, we should win the whole f***ing thing.

P.S. At least Gareth isn’t as bad as French football commentators, who insist on using phrases like grosso modo, a priori and in extremis every two minutes. This has an opposite effect to the one desired.

3 thoughts on “Learning English as first language”

  1. Encomia. There’s a fine word I’ve never heard of before, but I may consider using it now I know what it means. I once tried using the word ‘Armageddon’ in my vocabulary, but I don’t know what it means. Still, it’s not the end of the world…

  2. ” Language is just a means of communication.”

    ONLY as long as someone understands what is being said. Ya’ know what I’m saying??

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