I’ve been having run-ins with the Queen’s English Society since the early 1980s. Now they have raised their head again with the setting up of an English Academy, which the Society will run, and which is intended to be on a par with the French, Spanish and Italian Academies.
I’m all in favour of children being taught to write clear English, and even for them to be taught English grammar, but the question arises: what are the rules of English grammar which they should be taught?
The Queen’s English Society believes it knows the answer, but all the evidence I have is that its members each simply have their own prejudices. A former President, Godfrey Talbot – well-respected BBC journalist, by then long retired – gave a long speech at one of the Annual General Meetings of the Society in which he inveighed furiously against the intrusive ‘r’, all the while blissfully ignorant of the fact that he was constantly using it as he spoke. Others complain that the use of a double negative is “illogical”: “We ain’t got no tomatoes” is not usually misunderstood to mean “We have tomatoes”, and anyone whose response was “Good, I’ll take two pounds, please” would be likely to get an unwelcome answer! Spanish, meanwhile, regularly doubles the negative as reinforcement: “No hay nada” means “There’s nothing”. Does this make Spanish ‘illogical’? Language is not logical in a mathematical sense and cannot be made so.
The Queen’s English Society web site states “English is becoming corrupted in the age of mass communications, the text message, e-mail and the like”. Yet the society claims to accept that languages change through time: “English will evolve over time, but the QES exists to watch for and to resist changes that are detrimental to its impact and clarity”. I should be interested to know which changes its members see and hear happening today that they would consider not to be ‘detrimental’. The Appendix Probi, probably written in the 3rd century, gives a list of frequently mis-spelled Latin words (mis-spelled because ‘mispronounced’). The speakers of the day ignored these strictures and continued with their corrupt practices, until they created those well-known abominations of so-called language now known as French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian …
King Canute knew that he could not turn the tide, and proved this to his courtiers at Bosham. Who will prove the futility of the Queen’s English Society’s efforts to its members?