English, and the Language Politic

Something is happening to the present participle in England.  The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, says something along the lines of “The Government is bringin’ in a bill outlawin’ the traffickin’ of travellin’ people seekin’ asylum while fleein’ persecution in…”

This tendency to place the tongue behind the superior dentition, rather than occlude the posterior oropharynx, is akin to other recent evolutions in English wot she is spoke.  For example, the “you” sound is vanishing from English English.  Frank Sinatra sang “Noo York Noo York!” (It took me long enough to realise that the first NY was the city, the second the state) “It’s a helluva town!”  But the Beatles sang “You’ve got me going now, just like I knew you would…”

“…like I knew you would whaaaa!”

But now, particularly in London, “knew” or “new” is “noo”.  Notice that, analogous to the decay of the present participle, a narrowing of the posterior oropharynx is being pushed forward into the aperture of the lips.  Listen to, say, Jonathan Ross, or Steve Wright (in the afternoon).  If Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend should become an audio book, I think it should be read by Jonathan Ross.  From Chapter 2:

Mr. and Mrs. Veneering were bran-noo people in a bran-noo house in a bran-noo quarter of London.   Everything about the Veneerings was spick and span noo.  All their furniture was noo, all their friends were noo, all their servants were noo, their plate was noo, their carriage was noo, their harness was noo, their horses were noo, their pictures were noo, they themselves were noo, they were as nooly married as was lawfully compatible with their having a bran-noo baby…

Simultaneously, the “th” sound is going.  I think this is profoundly significant.  Consider that the Anglo Saxons of West Mercia devoted two orthographic symbols to the “th” sound – the thorn and the eth.  And it is vanishing.  Somethin’ is goin’ on wif our yoof, an’ it aint bootiful.  Rather than obstruct the occlusion of the dentition with the lingua, you approximate the upper dentition to the lower lip.  That is to say, instead of sticking your tongue between your teeth, you jam your upper teeth against your lower lip, and create what is known as a “voiceless fricative”.

Then there is the glottal stop, otherwise known as the glo’’al stop.  To produce the glottal stop, you omit the “t” sound in the middle of a word and replace it by a kind of spasm of the vocal cords.  This used to fall, almost exclusively, within the gift of the burgers of the City of Glasgow (Ci’y ah Cul’ure).  No longer.  I first noticed its appropriation by the ruling classes when I heard the then Chancellor George Osborne (I guess trying to be a man of the people) deploy it: “Tha’’s jus’ ti’’le ta’’le!”

Another even more profound example of linguistic migration is that the language of the English street is becoming syllable-timed rather than stress-timed.  You don’t say:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness

…you say:

Seas-on-of-mists-and-mell-ow-fruit-ful-ness.

Everything is stressed.  Ratatatatatatatat!  It’s the juggernaut lingo of a rapper.  Who knows, we may hear later today (at time of writing) in the Queen’s Speech to open Parliament:

“Ma guv’men’s doin’ nuttin’ pendin’ ugh Genral Lekshun…”

There’s a piece of received wisdom abroad about language that argues that, much as we still assign people to a specific class on the basis of the way they speak, there is nothing inherently inferior, or superior, about any specific accent or dialect.  I first heard this argument from Professor Michael Samuels, the Professor of English Language in the University of Glasgow, brother of the actress Miriam Karlin, back in the 1970s.  Prof Samuels himself spoke faultless RP but he happened to be a fantastic mimic and could authentically reproduce any accent extant within the British Isles.  So his “taster” lecture for the course in English Language was very amusing.  That was before we got embroiled in Beowulf.

But is it true?  Is one mode of expression just as good as any other?  I go to a gym in the Stirling Highland Hotel.  There are a couple of guys there in the locker room, Stirling guys, into whose conversation I sometimes eavesdrop.  Can’t understand a bloody word.  And mind, I’m a Glasgow boy; I come from 25 miles away.  If they include me in the conversation, they very kindly modulate their registration, in order to render themselves intelligible.

So I reckon this notion of a standard language (at least one, but by all means more) is very important, if a nation is going to be able to function as a nation.  I was conscious of this thought the other day when I chanced to be in conversation with a young lady on a help desk while I was trying to sort out a glitch on a domestic appliance.

“A ra’’le? Wo’ ra’’le?  How noo’s your App? ‘Ang on, putin’ you on ‘old…”

I said, “I beg your pardon?”

But I was on hold.

In the last 50 pages, or so, of War & Peace, Tolstoy gives a rather jaundiced view of history, in which he disses the idea of “the great man” and proposes that events are a grand amalgam of all sorts of untraceable causes and effects, over which we have little control.  I think of that when I think of the fact that, when I got in touch with a help desk south of the border, I could barely understand what was being said.  We think that the constitutional arrangements of these islands are all about the economy, or our relationship to Europe, or a sense of “identity”, or even “blood and soil”, but I have this notion that Scotland will become an independent nation simply because the Home Secretary is droppin’ her Gs.

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