Tuesday 14 December 2010

On being a champion of - what?

Several correspondents, having read Michael Rosen's generous piece about me in this week's Guardian, have asked what I think about being called, as the headline put it, 'the champion of the English language'.

Well, my first thought was: not just English. If I try to champion anything, it is language, and specifically languages, and most specifically, endangered languages. English is a language, so it gets championed. It also happens to be the language which I chose to specialize in, years ago, so in that sense I guess I'm identified with it more than any other. But I'd be sad if anyone thought to interpret the headline as if it meant that I was supporting English at the expense of other languages. In fact I probably spend more time these days making the case for the importance of modern languages, and trying to get endangered languages projects off the ground. The Threlford lecture I gave a few months ago to the Institute of Linguists, was entirely on that subject, for example, as will be a lecture to the British Academy next February. And we are still a long way from the goal of having 'houses' of language(s) presenting global linguistic diversity in all its glory. The first to open, as regular readers of this blog know, will be the 'House of Languages' in Barcelona (see the website at Linguamon) - a project I know very well, as I've been chair of its scientific advisory committee from the beginning. I've tried, and failed, twice, to get a similar project off the ground in the UK. One keeps trying.

Another first is the event with which Michael ended his piece: the 'Evolving English' exhibition at the British Library. This is indeed an amazing exhibition, and it was a privilege to be associated with it. It is like having the history of English brought to life. A significant number of the important texts always instanced in histories of the language are in the same room. You are greeted by the glorious Undley bracteate. You find yourself within inches of the Beowulf manuscript. In one cabinet you can see, side by side, the Wycliffe Bible, the Tyndale fragment, the Book of Common Prayer, and the King James Bible. The curators have been ingenious, not to say cheeky: in another cabinet you will see the first English conversation, Aelfric's Colloquy; next to it is a manuscript of Harold Pinter. Everywhere you look there are headphones. A visit is not just a visual experience. The Library has an excellent collection of sound recordings, and great efforts have been made to provide an analogous audio experience for the texts of the past. If you are passing through London between now and 3 April 2011, visit this exhibition. There won't be another for a long long time.

I was the lead consultant for the exhibition - not the curator, as some online sources have put it (the three curators are British Library staff) - and wrote the accompanying book. This isn't, incidentally, a 'catalogue' of the exhibition, as some reports have suggested. It did begin as an attempt to reflect what would be in the exhibition, but it had to go to press some six months before the exhibition opened, and in the interim other decisions were made about what it was practicable to show. There were some very large display items that it would have been silly to try to fit into a book (World War I posters, for example); and conversely, there were some items that worked well in a book but which were simply too fragile to put on public display. Also, none of the audio items could go into the book - though several are available online, in the Timeline section of the Library website. There's about a two-thirds overlap in content between book and exhibition.

What's really noticeable, when you enter the exhibition, is the lack of a single chronology. Rather, what you see is a series of themes - the evolution of Standard English, local dialects of English, international varieties of English, everyday English, English in the workplace, English at play. The message is plain: there is no one 'story' of English, there are many, each of which has its own validity. It is the driving force behind my The Stories of English, which I used as the guideline for my initial proposals to the Library as to what should be in an exhibition, when the project was first mooted three years ago. What I hope, more than anything else, is that the exhibition will, through its physicality, demonstrate more than any textbook could, the way the language thrives through its multifaceted character. We see Standard English strongly represented - the prestige dialect of the language, the criterion of linguistic educatedness and the means of achieving national and international intelligibility, especially in writing. At the same time, we see regional dialects and other varieties of nonstandard English strongly represented - the varieties which express local, national, and international identity, and which are actually used by the vast majority of English speakers around the world. The atmosphere in the Library is one of mutual respect.

It would be nice to think that this atmosphere will remain after the exhibition is gone, and perhaps it will, through the book and the website. Linguistic climate change there still needs to be. The comments that followed Michael Rosen's article clearly indicate this. There is a great deal of mythology still around - for example, the unfounded belief that linguists say that 'anything goes', when it comes to language teaching in class. Readers of this blog with very long memories will recall that this was something John Humphrys said about me. He eventually apologised, in The Spectator, saying that he was only a journalist, and the role of the journalist was to simplify and exaggerate. But such simplifications and exaggerations do a great deal of harm. So, for the record, once again, and hopefully for the last time: I have never said that 'anything goes' when it comes to language. Read my lips. I have never said that 'anything goes' when it comes to language. Nor do I know of any linguist who has said such a thing. The whole point of sociolinguistics, pragmatics, and the other branches of linguistics which study language in use is actually to show that 'anything does not go'. The only people who use the phrase 'anything goes' are prescriptivists desperately trying to justify their prejudices.

If people want to find out about my educational linguistic philosophy they will find it expounded, for example, at the end of The Stories of English and in various chapters of The Fight for English. It can be summarized as follows. It is the role of schools to prepare children for the linguistic demands that society places upon them. This means being competent in Standard English as well as in the nonstandard varieties that form a part of their lives and which they will frequently encounter outside their home environment in modern English literature, in interactions with people from other parts of the English-speaking world, and especially on the internet. They have to know when to spell and punctuate according to educated norms, and when it is permissible not do so. In a word, they have to know how to manage the language - or to be masters of it (as Humpty Dumpty says to Alice in Through the Looking Glass). And, one day, to be champions of it - all of it.


setAD7 said...

Greetings from Sweden!

Thank you for all the hard work you put in. Rosen made an excellent choice.

Barrie England said...

I have recommended this post on my blog, and in the Facebook groups to which I belong, as a corrective to all the ill-informed and prejudiced comment about language and linguists on the web and elsewhere.

Bethany Cagnol said...

I recently visited the 'Evolving English' exhibition at the British Library and I have to admit, I got teary-eyed as I stood in front of the Beowulf manuscript, Pygmalion, and the Canterbury Tales. This exhibit is, quite frankly, the Louvre of the English Language. And admirers shouldn't spend minutes, but hours, (no, a day!) soaking in everything this exhibit has to offer.

In parks, there's usually a sign: take only photos, leave only footprints. Well, at the 'Evolving English' exhibition, leave your own vocal footprint by recording your voice for the accent database. I did my best to slip back into my Virginian accent while reading "Mr Tickle's Adventure".

David, you write, "There won't be another for a long long time." I never thought I'd say this, but I do hope you're wrong.

Wouldn't the data collected at the exhibition be more than enough for a sequel? I had fun listening to the accents on the UK map. But that's only the tip of the iceberg. And the place was packed with men, women and children, native speakers and language learners! Surely there's hope for this gem of an exhibition to continue.

DC said...

I hope so too!

Anonymous said...

I am delighted to read the comments you have posted in this Blog. I totally agree with you that language education has to be done in school and should not be left for parents to do that, unless they are English Language teachers themselves.

Teaching our students to be masters of language sure is important. I love to see the sparkling eyes of my students when they are masters of the language I teach them. Reading their wonderful writings give me many opportunities to teach them, both standard English and the varieties of it.

English is really an amazing language to teach.