Saturday, May 20, 2006

Week-end rumination

My colleague is away for a couple of days (back tomorrow evening), which means that some of our readers will ignore this blog till he returns. Which, in turn, means that I am free to ruminate and not post about toys at all.

Possibly predictably my thoughts return to the subject of my previous posting – the need for a set of British values – and the comments on it. I was intrigued to see that my insistence that learning one’s language, its grammar and punctuation was either ignored or greeted with some hostility.

Let me, quite unusually, tell a personal story. (No, it is still not about toys, though I do know what a tank looks like having seen them roll down streets as a wee child.)

On my family’s arrival to the UK (yes, sorry guys, we did come in and ask for political asylum but then, I expect, many of our readers’ ancestors did as well) I was sent to the local grammar school. It was a very ordinary grammar school in north-west London and the parents of most of my class-mates had not been educated beyond the age of 14.

So, the fact that they had passed the 11-plus (I admit that one can argue about that particular exam) and were receiving a first class education, most of them heading towards some kind of college or university, did not mean that they were rich. Quite the contrary.

I am making this point because in his latest pronouncement, David Cameron, the Boy-King of the Conservative Party, proclaimed himself and his party to be against any kind of choice and selection in education as that would benefit only the rich. No-one seems to have told him that the system as it exists, with complete control by the state either centrally or through local government, benefits nobody but those who can afford to opt out. But I digress.

For some reason, my grammar school had a hang-over from a previous system, whereby at the end of the third year we all took a set of Lower School Certificate exams. They made no difference, except maybe to one or two people, but gave an indication.

At the end of the exams, the top results were as follows: first came a girl whose parents were refugees (or, possibly, economic migrants) from Cyprus and could barely speak English. (All three children went to good universities.) Second came a boy from an Indian family, who were also first generation immigrants. I came third.

What astonished me even then was the reaction of at least one of my classmates’ parents. She went home and told them about the results, making the point that the three top places were taken by people whose native language was not English, who were, in short, foreigners. She was then told by her father that naturally, they would come top, precisely because they were foreigners. She repeated this piece of wisdom to me, clearly agreeing with it, and using it to warn me against too much swank.

In some ways, I suppose, attitudes have remained the same. We (times have changed and I am no longer a foreigner, except maybe to one or two of our readers) still accept it as given that foreign students will know our language better than those educated here.

The fact, that there are differences in English usage around the world, each with its own set of rules, is used as a good argument for not learning our own rules. It is sad. The English language is, let me repeat, one of the great treasures of world culture. Its literature, which is read more and more attentively in other countries, is possibly the richest in the world.

By sheer coincidence, the Wall Street Journal, which runs a Saturday series of “five of the best” today listed the five “top books” on the history of the English language, as perceived by David Crystal, himself a prolific writer on the subject.

Of course, one can argue about his choice and any other choice. But there can be no real argument in my own mind about the excellence of two of the books he mentions: “The Oxford English Dictionary” and “Roget’s Thesaurus”. I inherited several versions of the first from my father, who used his incessantly, and my mother, herself a lexicographer; and the Thesaurus, also inherited, is, alas, falling apart from over-use.

I should, however, add another book to that list, without which life is immeasurably duller: Partridge’s “Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional Language”. Oh yes, there is Fowler’s “Modern English Usage” – incredibly useful in settling ferocious debates. And for all matters American, Webster’s Dictionary. There I shall stop and not even mention the various dictionaries of quotations as they are not really about the history of the language. How's that for self-control?

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