None so deaf as those who won’t hear their own language

It is a matter of long-standing convention that someone making peremptory statements on language should himself use it well.

This, along with other long-standing conventions, no longer applies to the columnists regaling readers of The Times with their prose, and Oliver Kamm is a case in point.

He sets his store early, with the very title of his article Just Because a Phrase Is American Does Not Devalue It. Perhaps not, but any comment on the use of English by someone capable of writing such a sentence certainly is ipso facto devalued.

The phrase to whose defence Mr Kamm springs is ‘I’m good’ in response to ‘How are you?’.

“There’s nothing wrong with the grammar or semantics of I’m good, and to object to the phrase on the ground that it’s an Americanism is odd,” he writes.

What is even odder is for someone who takes it upon himself to comment on such matters not to know that this usage isn’t just American, but illiterate American. A cultured American would say I’m well or I’m fine, just as we would.

Such a hypothetical individual may say I’m good only to establish his populist credentials, which many cultured Americans so annoyingly feel they have to do.

This is their way of perpetuating the myth that their society is classless, whereas it is in fact more rigidly stratified than any other I know, and certainly more so than supposedly class-ridden England.

Using demotic language, sporting baseball caps (ideally worn backwards), wearing ghetto clothes, serving proletarian food at dinner parties are all aspects of cultural slumming in which many Americans indulge unthinkingly.

Thereby they send to the general masses Mowgli-like semiotic signals saying “We be of one blood, ye and I”. It’s the password they use to gain admittance to true Americanism.

The subcutaneous purpose of this elaborate and multifaceted charade is not only to assert but also to negate, to define America apophatically as something she is not, namely European.

“Repudiation of Europe,” the novelist John Dos Passos once wrote perceptively, “is, after all, America’s main excuse for being.” He was absolutely right, and this repudiation takes a variety of forms, most of them imperceptible to outsiders. 

Mr Kamm is clearly deaf to such transatlantic codes, which is understandable, forgivable and even commendable. What is neither understandable nor forgivable nor commendable is that he is similarly deaf to the nuances of the language spoken in his own country.

Otherwise he would stop to think why an Englishman, specifically the supposedly literate journalist he mentions, would wish to choose the contentious phrase in preference to the customary I’m well.

One can think of only two possibilities: either he draws most of his knowledge of English usage from American films (and those Englishmen who, like him, are weaned on such films) or he wants to ingratiate himself to those for whom ‘cool’ isn’t just a comment on temperature.

In the first case he is a cultural savage; in the second, a tasteless hypocrite. Surely Mr Kamm, who I assume must have received some sort of formal education, has to be aware that there is more to language than just grammar and semantics. There is even more to it than simply communication, for language proclaims a man just as clothes do, and in more varied ways.

For example, the sentence “I believe John Lennon is as good as Beethoven, if in a slightly different way” is lexically and grammatically irreproachable. But it communicates cultural savagery as surely as would the use of disinterested in the meaning of uninterested, masterful instead of masterly or willy-nilly instead of at will.

Not only is the phrase I’m good jarring culturally, but it is also ambiguous semantically. Mr Kamm is aware of this because he has read the book Simply English by Simon Heffer, which he quotes as saying “To many Anglo-Saxon ears this [I’m good] still sounds like a profession of one’s moral condition…”

“I doubt that anyone in practice misunderstands the phrase I’m good in the way that Heffer fears,” comments Mr Kamm.

But Mr Heffer fears nothing of the sort. Similarly I’m convinced he doesn’t think that saying I be good, bro would cause much misunderstanding either. Nor does he fear that a break in communication would necessarily occur if a semiliterate Englishman were to say he is disinterested in classical music.

It’s just that, as a cultured man without a populist chip on his shoulder, Mr Heffer knows that ambiguous phrases ought to be avoided even if one’s interlocutor can be confidently expected to be able to decipher their intended meaning.

He also knows that language conveys so much more than just the bare bones of communication, which knowledge is manifestly denied Mr Kamm – whose own shoulders are weighed down not just by chips but by boles in their entirety.

“If you want a ‘pure’ English, you’ll need to go back at least a millennium, before the Normans invaded,” concludes Mr Kamm with his by now well-established ignorance.

Such a long retrospective journey is unnecessary. It would suffice to go back but a few decades, to the time when The Times was a respectable paper that kept the likes of Mr Kamm a swearing distance away from its pages.



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