Wednesday 25 January 2012

On falling in love (with a language)

A correspondent - in this case, the author of several well-known books on bilingualism, Fran├žois Grosjean, has sent me a link to his latest blog post. (Incidentally, his blog, 'Life as a Bilingual: the reality of living with two (or more) languages', is a splendid resource on this subject.)

The film Julie and Julia made him think of other people who had fallen in love with a culture and a language. I'm intrigued by the reasons for doing so. Sometimes it's the culture that provides the initial attraction; sometimes it's the language. In my case, I've experienced both.

I can still remember my first French lessons in secondary school, and falling in love with nasalized vowels. It was only much later, on my first visit to France, where I worked with a youth group (called Concordia) building a bridge in the mountains in Haute Savoie, that I realized there was a culture behind the language. Or rather, cultures. At the camp were several Algerians, and they lost no time putting me right about French, much to the disgust of the Parisians who were also there. It took some time for me to realize that I needed to supplement my Algerian colloquialisms with a different variety if I wasn't going to attract funny looks along the Left Bank.

Soon after, I saw an English-language film documentary about France, voiced by Orson Welles. I remember just one line from it. He said: 'Everyone has two homes; his own, and France'. I felt that way too.

The opposite situation took place when I first visited Brazil, for the British Council, in the 1960s, to teach on a summer school. It was February (think about it) and just before Carnival in Rio. I've talked about it in my Just a Phrase I'm Going Through, so I won't go into it here, except to say that in this case I arrived in Brazil with no knowledge of Portuguese at all. However, after a period of immersion in samba schools and the hit songs of the day, and meeting some wonderful people, I became virtually a native-speaker of musical Portuguese in three weeks. I still have a fine collection of vinyl records from that decade, and some of the songs have stayed with me. It was my primary motivation to get to grips with Brazilian Portuguese. I find the intonation patterns of the language, and especially of the Carioca dialect, hugely appealing. And the nasalization. (What is it about nasalization?)

So now I was in love with two languages. At the same time. The metaphor doesn't quite work in such cases. This was a new love-affair - but that metaphor doesn't seem right either, for I hadn't fallen out of love with my previous amour. I was equally in love with both.

And actually, now I think about it, both would in any case have been jealous of an even earlier love-affair - with Welsh, a language I had left behind when moving to Liverpool in the 1950s, but with which I was becoming intimate again after getting a job at Bangor in Wales.

It has been like that ever since. I guess being a linguist means one falls in love with every new language one has the opportunity to explore. They're all beautiful. I can't conceive of an unattractive language. I fell in love with Shona, on my first visit to Zimbabwe. And here the encounter with language and culture was pretty simultaneous. I suppose, if anything, the culture had come first, as I was there as a result of editing John Bradburne's poetry. (I tell that story here.) But that was an introduction to the culture through someone else's eyes. It's a very different experience when you visit yourself.

One's mother-tongue (or tongues) is an interesting case in point. I spend most of my life working on English. Am I in love with English? Yes, but it's different, in some indefinable way, from the feelings I have towards other languages. Maybe that's natural. Can one retain the same level of passion for the language(s) one lives with longest?

It's a commonplace to say that linguists love languages. But what kind of love is it? The analogy is not so much with married or unmarried love, it seems to me, for the associated terminology of flirtations and love-affairs doesn't fit very well. Rather, it's more like the love of a parent towards a child. Somehow, new additions to the linguistic family don't diminish the affection already felt towards the other members.

Then there's the other side of the coin. No wonder people can get so upset when a language dies.

Saturday 21 January 2012

On the rising demand for elocution

Another week in which the phone hasn't stopped ringing. Accents again, this time. During the week a private tuition company ( issued a report headed 'Elocution in the new Britain', in which they told us that they were receiving more requests for elocution lessons than for any other subject, and that demand had doubled. Inevitably, this was translated into media headlines about 'soaring demand' and 'death of accents'. I did a handful of radio interviews. The general attitude of the presenters was that they were appalled - reflecting the current BBC ethos that regional accents are a very good thing. They were certainly surprised - as indeed was I.

And saddened, for two reasons. The report highlights quotations from some of the enquirers which showed that there is still a great deal of national antagonism towards some regional accents, especially in the West Midlands and Birmingham. And it showed a woeful misunderstanding of what elocution is all about.

Elocution is not about replacing regional accents. As the report concluded:

'Today’s elocution teachers are responding to these trends not by seeking to take their students back to the days of The King’s Speech. Most people who come to them for help no longer wish to acquire a cut-glass accent or learn to speak like the Queen. On the whole they wish to retain their accents but to develop a clearer, softer, or more authoritative voice.'

That's the point. There are all sorts of reasons why people feel they need voice help. In some cases it's speed of speech that is the problem: they need to slow down. In others it's a desire for a different voice quality - a softer voice, for example, or one that is less breathy or creaky. (Some quite famous politicians have gone down that road.) In others it's anxiety over speaking in public, which is far more than a purely linguistic matter. In others it's a need to sound more confident, which again is not solely a linguistic matter. In others it's the need for better breath control. And in some cases, yes, it's a worry - real or imagined - that their accent is holding them back in their career.

The point has to be made, loudly and clearly, that all these problems affect all accents - Received Pronunciation included. Even RP can be a handicap in some circumstances, being perceived as too posh, distant, or customer unfriendly. And it's perfectly possible for an RP speaker to lack confidence, speak too fast, or be phonetically unclear. If you want examples, turn on Radio 3, where the infamous 'dropped intonation' at the end of a sentence is often heard obscuring a critical part of the information focus:

'That was piano concerto in D by .......'
'The programme will be repeated next Thursday at .......'

Or listen to some of the RP voices on PA systems in airports, ferries, and railway stations. I spent some weeks once training the people who made the announcements on Stena ferries. Almost without exception, they spoke too quickly - regardless of the accent they had.

Voice training can be enormously helpful in these respects. However, despite the hype, it's worth noting that in all of this, we're not talking about thousands of people. The report refers to 'over 500' enquiries only. That's a tiny tiny fraction of the population. But, from the comments quoted in the report, it's clear that there is still a cause for concern. For whatever reason, far too many people are still being made to worry about their accent.

Friday 13 January 2012

On Waterstone(')s

Another day when the phone doesn't stop ringing, and (once again) all because of the apostrophe. Waterstone's has decided to become Waterstones. In the end I did a short piece on 'Front Row'. I also wrote the following piece for the Mirror, but as they only used 200 words of it, here's the full version, with a couple of extra points added following the chat with Mark Lawson. If you recognize some of the examples, you're right: they appeared in my By Hook or by Crook, making the point that there's nothing new about this story at all.

The apostrophe was one of the last punctuation features to come into English orthography, and it has never settled down. In writing from around Shakespeare's time we see people beginning to experiment with it. It's used to show a missing letter and to mark posssession, but it's also used for plurals and third person singulars in verbs. In the first printing of his plays we find such spellings as fellow's, how fare's my lord, and dilemma's.

Even as late as Dr Johnson, in the 18th century, the system was still developing. There are no longer any plural apostrophes after a consonant, but there are several after nouns ending in -o or -a. In his dictionary we find him allowing such spellings as grotto’s, innuendo’s, and echo’s as well as comma’s, opera’s, and toga’s.

In the 19th century, printers attempted to standardize the system, but they didn't do it very well. They applied the rule about possession rigorously to nouns, but forgot about pronouns, so that his, hers, its, ours, yours, and theirs don't have an apostrophe, even though they do express possession. They banned the apostrophe from plurals, but allowed a number of exceptions, such as after numerals (the 1860's), abbreviations (the VIP's), and individual letters (P's and Q's).

People found it difficult to apply the rules consistently, right from the start. And proper names posed one of the greatest problems. There was a great deal of inconsistency around the end of the 19th century as to whether it should be St Pauls or St Paul's, or Harrods or Harrod's. The fuss over Waterstone's has its parallel a century ago.

To begin with, Charles Henry Harrod was perfectly satisfied with his grocer's apostrophe, when he opened his shop in Knightsbridge in 1849. An advertisement in 1895 for a sewing-machine tells readers that it can be bought from the first floor of 'Harrod's Stores, Brompton'. But as the century progressed, variation crept in. Manufacturer marks on metalware products made for the firm show a mixture of Harrod's and Harrods. By the early 1900s, the apostrophe had largely disappeared. An advertisement in The Times for 9th December 1907 says: '15 acres of Christmas gifts at Harrods'.

The trend affected other firms. Around the same time, Lloyd's Bank became Lloyds Bank. And in 1890 the US Board on Geographic Names made a far-reaching decision, which is still in force: 'Apostrophes suggesting possession or association are not to be used within the body of a proper geographic name.' Why? 'The word or words that form a geographic name ... change from words having specific dictionary meaning to fixed labels used to refer to geographic entities. The need to imply possession or association no longer exists.'

You might have thought that would settle the matter. But no. There are hundreds of names with apostrophes in the official US repository, the Geographic Names Information System. These exceptions are administrative names, such as schools, churches, cemeteries, hospitals, airports, and shopping centres. Such names, the Board concluded, 'are best left to the organization that administers them'. That's the crucial point, which we need to bear in mind when talking about the Waterstones case.

The English writing system in Britain today is full of apostrophe anomalies. Lord's Cricket Ground but Earls Court. McDonald's but Starbucks. A website in London has a big heading: King’s Cross Online. Immediately underneath is the heading Welcome to Kings Cross Online. You can see it here.

But even the firms which insist on apostrophes have to bow before technology. The website of McDonald's restaurants is The search engines like their URLs to be as simple as possible. Type mcdonald's into Google with an apostrophe, and you'll probably get 'page not found'. A percentage symbol (%) replaces an apostrophe if it's absolutely necessary.

The Board on Geographic Names identified a crucial point: the rules governing everyday usage no longer apply. Such things 'are best left to the organization that administers them'. That feels right. You can spell your own name or your house name or your shop name however you want, and that's your democratic right. Is it Humphrys or Humphreys? McDonald or Macdonald. It's up to you. If someone came up to me and says my name should be spelled Crystall rather than Crystal I would tell them to mind their own business. And if the name happens to contain an apostrophe, that's a matter of personal choice too. Mr D'Amico can call himself Damico if he wants to.

So if Waterstone's wants to become Waterstones, that's up to the firm. It's nothing to do with expressing possession or plurality or anything to do with meaning. It's simply an identity marker. I hear that the CEO of Waterstones has tried to defend the change on two grounds. He says that dropping the apostrophe suggests plurality - there are lots of the stores. That's definitely not a good defence, for there are not lots of Harrods. He's on much stronger ground when he cites motivation from the constraints of the Internet. Or refers to the trend to make public print less cluttered in appearance - a trend which goes back many decades, and began with the dropping of periods in Mr, BBC, and the like.

It's important to realize that whatever Waterstones does has no immediate bearing on the way we use the rest of the language. An apostrophe is still required in standard written English - whether we like it or not - to make such distinctions as it's vs its, and boy's vs boys', and enough people consider that to be critical to mean that there's still a lot of life in this punctuation symbol. On the other hand, when a prominent firm makes a decision like this, it does reinforce a climate of change, so those whose life depends on the use of the apostrophe are right to feel threatened.

It's impossible to say how long the apostrophe will last. For almost a thousand years of its history, English writing did very well without it. During the 19th century it came to be seen as obligatory, and the rules governing its use were formed. But during the 20th, its role became questioned. Was it really needed? It was sometimes useful in distinguishing meanings, but it seems it could be left out without causing ambiguity most of the time. The electronic revolution provided the evidence, as people voted with their fingers in emails, blogs, instant messages, texts, and tweets, and omitted the apostrophe all over the place without causing any breakdown in communication. The context was generally sufficient to make it clear what the writers meant - and if it wasn't, then an apostrophe was always available to make the point clear.

It's been an awkward time for teachers, who have the task of pointing out to their inernet-savvy students that this is a transitional moment. The old order still rules, and has to be respected. Omitting an apostrophe may not cause a problem in a text message, but it can cause a huge problem in essays, job applications, and other kinds of formal writing. Not because it makes meaning unclear, but simply because it goes against what society considers to be acceptable English. Students have to be taught how to manage this situation, so that they know what's expected of them.

It's the same with spelling. There's never a problem of meaning if we write accommodation with only one c or one m. But it's not acceptable to do so. Standard written English evolved to aid national and international intelligibility. And the rules that guarantee this intelligibility are essentially rules of spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Society judges people in terms of the language they use, and if they break these rules, they must be prepared for a reaction.

But over time, attitudes change. Most of the issues of English usage that caused a furore a hundred years ago have died away now, and the language has changed. It's likely that as the amount of written language on the Internet increases, and becomes more central to our everyday lives, so its norms will become increasingly adopted elsewhere. Punctuation and spelling are likely to simplify, and this may happen to the apostrophe too. This sort of change doesn't happen overnight. Or even over-decade. But over-century, yes.