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27 February 2007

How could I have forgotten to include English, my native tongue? And then again, why am I including English, when it's not a language I tried to learn as I did the others? First, my main interest in these pages is the business of learning languages, consciously or not. Second, I've come to a point where I wonder about the English I have learnt.

There was a time when I complacently took it as read that I was acquiring a good standard of English. I was relatively well educated, and in those days, though I wasn't aware of the term, Received Pronunciation was the prestige dialect. To the point where it wasn't considered a dialect. If you spoke RP, people said you "didn't have an accent"! And I didn't pick it up and supplant anything else; our family on both sides had moved around a lot, in Government Service, and middle class RP was all I ever heard.

So far, so good. I read a lot, and despite being nonplussed by language lessons while I was at school, I had a feeling for words, and you can see on these pages how that eventually led to an interest in languages. I didn't really become aware of other kinds of English until student days. And I've lived in Northern England ever since. Short 'a's creep into my speech at times, and the very occasional local word. To me, this is very limited, and I still speak RP. But I can remember going home ie. down South and once or twice getting a derisory chorus of "trouble at' mill" or something like that, when one of those short 'a's slipped out. I don't pretend to be anything other than a Southerner, but I know some people who meet me, who if they think about it at all, think I'm merely 'well spoken' in some way. I wish I was. I think my speech is somewhat mongrel now.

All sorts of factors lead me to being less 'sure-tongued' in finding the right register these days. Situations and contexts can be less clear cut, and social boundaries are more vague. The language is developing and changing very fast, and we find ourselves facing new language coming from at least three directions: first, there is the new jargon deriving from technological innovation; second, there's youth and street talk, which has always been the major generator of new language, as yoof seeks for its own codes distinct from its parents. Finally, there's American English, which has been influencing us for a couple of hundred years, but which we're now swamped by thanks to globalised distribution of tv and film and internet and celebrities and 'lifestyle' - God I hate that word - and our media's fawning addiction to all of it. Our own tv etc. seems to be seen as second rate now, even in our own broadcasting. And yoof seems to watch nothing else, immediately taking to any new expressions heard on hit US shows. We have no impulse to put a bit of distance in there, no apparent sense of cultural integrity. I suppose I sound like some sort of Little Englander or Grumpy Old Man, but I'm merely telling you what I hear. You would find that in my normal speech I use some American tv speech myself. Can't be helped, we're surrounded by it. When I hear about French defensiveness on the language issue, I laugh, because they're nowhere near the situation we find ourselves in. I've argued with intelligent friends about this. I hope they're right and I'm wrong. But I fear they're influenced by the sounds they hear, which are the distinctive accents of regional British speech, especially in the North. My belief is that the range of things which make British English separate, in syntax, spelling and usage, is evaporating fast. "So it goes" (Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favorite, sorry favourite, authors, an American). Do you care?


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