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Does Anyone Speak the Queen’s English?

October 11, 2010

Speaking and writing are different. Different rules apply. An article in yesterday’s Independent made me aware of how strongly I feel about this. I have a great deal of respect for the author, Dr Lamb, and referred to his observations in a blog about overseas students. His comments in God Save the Queen’s English are well made for the most part but even he seems to confuse the criteria that apply to speech and writing.

Dr Lamb says:
‘The standard form of a language is the one which all people should be able to use and understand, wherever they come from, although they may prefer local variants for local communication, such as regional and ethnic versions.’
I find that he has damaged his own point by sounding snobbish and condescending. Dr Lamb was probably brought up in a household where he learned the Queen’s English, more or less, at his mother’s knee. He is lucky then. People need to learn the Queen’s English only if they wish to communicate outside their own local area and ethnic group. Many don’t.

Dr Lamb complains elsewhere in his article about glottal stops (as in ro’en rather than rotten). I know few people who do not use glottal stops in speech; I certainly use them myself. I don’t write them though. The written language does not represent the spoken language very closely in anybody’s dialect. There is no ‘r’ sound in ‘under’ for most of us and who pronounces the whole of ‘chocolate’?

Rather than complain about people misusing the language, let’s rejoice in the richness and variety of it. We are lucky to have imports from America, India, Africa and all over the world that keep our language changing and adapting to modern needs. We are extremely lucky to have been born speaking the world’s most useful language. Let’s not criticise people who speak it in a different way from our own.

When it comes to the written language, I am far more sympathetic to Dr Lamb’s point of view. Written English changes relatively slowly and has to do its best to be useful to everyone from Glasgow and Liverpool to Oxford. There are rules to be learned, particularly if the writer wants to be taken seriously by employers, customers or professionals.

On the other hand, the best writers adapt to their target audience, and if you are writing for the fan club of Bon Jovi, you had better not write like Dr Lamb.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 11, 2010 10:14

    My letter to the Independent on this subject was published this morning – 11 Oct 2010 – as one of three under a heading ‘How the Young Communicate’. That wasn’t really what it was about but I am happy that they decided to publish it nonetheless.
    Jane Penson

  2. Miss Alexandrina permalink
    January 26, 2013 14:29

    Whilst I don’t think it’s appopriate to criticise those who may speak differently or with variations in their own grammar, I happen to be peticular when it comes to glottal stops as part of my own speech. Yes, I’m one of those people who says the whole of chocolate and pronounces the two rs in library.

    • January 28, 2013 09:50

      Good for you. I admire you for thinking about your speech and making conscious decisions about how you pronounce things. Glottal stops certainly mark out a way of speaking that sounds ‘lazy’ to some people. Do you say chocolate with three syllables (choc-o-lat) or two (choc-lat)? I say it with two and have noticed that most people who say it with three tend to be speakers of English as a second language. But I look forward to you proving me wrong!

      • Miss Alexandrina permalink
        January 30, 2013 17:10

        Yes, I say ‘chocolate’ with three syllables. I think I probably have done for most of my life. That’s interesting, as English is my first language. The only other affecting factor I can think of is that I have studied a great deal of Latin, which has helped me appreciate traditional English a lot more.

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