Alexander Pope was right

As the master of the English language said, a little learning is indeed a dangerous thing – specifically in the area of the English language. That observation was true then, and it’s even truer now.

These days every little bit of learning comes wrapped in ideology. An article by Oliver Kamm, the self-appointed language guru, is a case in point.

Having written many subversive articles on vocabulary and grammar, he has now turned his attention to phonetics. Ollie’s chief premise is Panglossian: anything people say and any way they say it is wonderful.

First he treats us to the profound observation that, objectively speaking, there’s no such thing as a more or less beautiful language. The judgement that, say, Italian, sounds better than, say, Dutch is subjective because all aesthetic judgements are.

This betrays ignorance of many disciplines, from aesthetics proper to physiology. A simple experiment could show that things aren’t quite so simple as they appear to young Ollie.

Lead someone who has never heard any classical music to the piano and play the basic triad first, then just put your fingers on the keyboard at random. The subject will unerringly say that the first is more beautiful than the second.

Repeat the experiment with any number of people, and the result will be the same. This hints at some objective criteria of beauty that are physiological and innate rather than cultural and acquired.

Having applied egalitarian principles to various languages, Ollie then narrows his focus specifically to English dialects. Here he leavens his notion of aesthetics with that of class struggle, with disastrous results.

Some people base their judgement of phonetic beauty or ugliness on “social connotations”, which Ollie thinks is wrong. Even as all languages are equally beautiful, so are all dialects.

“The word paint in cockney is the same sound as the word pint pronounced by a toff,” he writes, betraying his class-warrior’s mindset. For one doesn’t have to be a ‘toff’ to enunciate the difference between a pint of beer and a pot of paint.

One simply has to be sufficiently educated not to make what phoneticians call ‘relevant mistakes’, those that distort the meaning of a word. In any case, a cockney’s ‘paint’ doesn’t sound exactly the same as ‘pint’, but then Ollie’s tin ear is the aural reflection of his mind.

He goes on to explain why the social significance of accents is “a destructive myth. Some people who speak less-favoured dialects (say, Norfolk or Geordie) are embarrassed by their speech. They shouldn’t be… We should celebrate linguistic diversity rather than imagine our arbitrary tastes are established truths.”

It has to be said that the linguistic diversity of English is staggering. These rather small islands boast 50 major dialects and God only knows how many minor ones.

Moreover, some rural accents are so different from urban ones that people living in cities may have trouble understanding country folk from five miles away. For example, my wife, who grew up in Exeter, remembers a farmer from whom her family bought apples. Neither she nor her brother could understand a word he was saying, though the amiable intonation was unmistakable.

This diversity springs from England’s political and social history. However, the social and cultural significance of phonetic variants has changed over the centuries.

For example, when Dr Johnson came to London from Lichfield, he spoke with a Staffordshire accent, which he kept until death. Clearly he was under no social pressure to change his pronunciation to agree with some received standard.

Yet the situation changed in the very next century, when modernity vanquished decisively. One of its distinguishing features is a tendency towards political centralisation followed by general uniformity.

Hence regional accents became not just a geographical differentiator but also a social and cultural one. The Received Pronunciation reflected the upper middle class speech cultivated at public schools. The aristocrats added a few touches of their own, but these were minor. As were the phonetic differences separating the alumni of Eton from those of, say, Rugby.

In Victorian times, the regions became as marginalised phonetically as they were politically. The language of the cultural elite became the standard. Any deviation therefrom began to act as a social and economic brake.

Thus Shaw’s Edwardian girl Eliza Doolittle had to take elocution lessons because her cockney accent prevented her from getting a job at a flower shop. GBS’s art imitated life: people all over the country were getting rid of their iffy accents. Received Pronunciation became a social hoist.

How one feels about that development depends on how one feels about modernity. Political centralisation run riot is ultimately a factor of tyranny, and the same argument can be plausibly made about phonetics. Modernity destroys traditional, organic diversity in everything, certainly language.

However, we must deal with things as they are, not how they used to be. We may deplore our centralised society, but we can’t deny it exists. Moreover, political centralisation, its begetter, not only isn’t abating but is getting stronger, imposing uniformity of every other kind.

Given these conditions, lamentable as they may be, most educated Englishmen speak the same way regardless of where they come from. Most doesn’t mean all, and in fact one of the most educated men I know speaks with a Yorkshire accent. But by and large dialectal speech betrays a deficit of culture and education.

Modernity welcomes this: it abhors and tries to expunge not only tradition but also culture. Thus what used to be a celebration of genuine linguistic diversity has become yet another battering ram of modernity – precisely the politically correct flummery Ollie claims it isn’t.

If Dr Johnson came from Lichfield today, he wouldn’t speak with a Staffordshire accent – cultured people tend not to these days.

The neo-diversity Ollie defends isn’t traditional and therefore organic but ideological and therefore artificial. To the likes of him not only all accents are supposed to be equal, but also all tastes, all opinions, all judgements. No absolute standards are allowed to exist; to Ollie all standards are arbitrary.

His hailing of regional accents wouldn’t have been out of place in Pope’s time. Today it’s ideological waffle showing very little learning.


2 thoughts on “Alexander Pope was right”

  1. However, we must deal with things as they are, not how they used to be. We may deplore our centralised society, but we can’t deny it exists. Moreover, political centralisation, its begetter, not only isn’t abating but is getting stronger, imposing uniformity of every other kind.

    Does that mean we will just have to put up with corporate (duck) speak or the tortured lingua franca of Euro English? And the French will have to emulate us by loving plastic cheeses?

    1. It doesn’t. It only means that in a society gravitating to uniformity it’s unavoidable that one accent will be accepted as the cultured standard. When our society was diversified, this wasn’t necessarily the case. Now it is, and has been for almost two centuries. Claiming, as Kamm does, that all accents are equal today is thus exactly the PC flummery he claims it isn’t. That’s like saying that all people are equally cultured, if in different ways.

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