The Decline and Fall of the English Language

I was going to blog last month about how a BBC2 documentary found that 80% of Britons cannot recite a single verse of poetry. This is not helped by the fact 58% pupils never study poetry in school. Not a line. The ones who do read Carol Ann Duffy, the Scottish lesbian who was just named the new Poet Laureate. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with Miss Duffy’s poetry, but reading a single living poet does not constitute a sufficient literary education.

Like I said, I was going to blog about it, but I’d just be whinging once again about the state of education in this country. Then yesterday I was having a conversation with a couple of 14-year-olds. It start with me telling off one of them for using a participle that is an inappropriate term derived from an innocuous noun. He had no idea what a participle is. Okay, that’s not a big surprise. I probably didn’t learn about participles until at least the 9th grade, maybe even the 10th.

The disturbing thing is that neither he nor his friend knew what a noun is. This is something I learned well before the 5th grade, because by then we were parsing sentences. Now with the average 14-year-old, I have trouble getting them to write in sentences. I had a 16-year-old who handed in an entire 1500-word coursework without using a single mark of punctuation. I’m not exaggerating. But back to the boys in Year 9. . .

They had heard the term “noun” before. They just couldn’t agree on what it was. One of them thought it was a “doing” word. The other thought it was a “describing” word. He contended it couldn’t be a “doing” word, because that was an adverb.  These were not pupils in the bottom English set. They were not pupils with special educational needs. Because I was teaching a mixed-ability group, there was a top-set girl who actually knew that a noun was a “naming” word.

No poetry, no grammar. Is it the end of the English language or the end of civilisation?

One thinks of Eliot. . .

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends

No, wait. That would be trite  to anyone who has seen this over-used reference to Eliot.  And on the other hand, clearly it would be lost upon anyone with a secondary education in Britain in the last decade. I believe the general response would be, “T. S. who?”

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Fancy Words

The state of the English language in England is now so poor that local councils have started banning Latin phrases and abbreviations. Staff are not allowed to use them in written or verbal communication. As reported in The Sunday Telegraph:

Bournemouth Council, which has the Latin motto Pulchritudo et Salubritas, meaning beauty and health, has listed 19 terms it no longer considers acceptable for use.

This includes bona fide, eg (exempli gratia), prima facie, ad lib or ad libitum, etc or et cetera, ie or id est, inter alia, NB or nota bene, per, per se, pro rata, quid pro quo, vis-a-vis, vice versa and even via.

Sadly, I can understand that they might have to contact some people who might not be unfamiliar with quid pro quo, but e.g., i.e., and etc.? Will motorists in Bournemouth not understand that they are being diverted via St Paul’s Road? Or that the speed limit is 30 miles per hour? With so many council jobs not full-time, how will they explain that the salary quoted in newspaper ads is pro rata?

Such fancy words and abbreviations are now considered elitist.

Language Barrier

“Sir, can I work with someone else?”

“With whom?”

“Huh?”

“With whom would you like to work?”

“Huh?”

With whom would you like to work?”

“Whaddya mean?”

“What do you mean, ‘Whaddya mean?’ You asked if you could work with someone else.”

“Yeah. Can I?”

“It depends. With whom would you like to work?”

“Huh?”

“What’s the problem? I’m not going to let you work with just anyone.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“So with whom would you like to work?”

“Whaddya mean ‘whom’?”

“I mean, with whom would you like to work?”

“What’s ‘whom’? I don’t know that word.”

“Ah, I see. ‘Whom’ is the objective case of ‘who’.” The declension of pronouns is clearly beyond his grasp. The despair of the inevitability of having to end a sentence with a preposition begins to weigh upon me. “Who do you want to work with?”

“Sam.”

“Fine.”

A fourteen-year-old boy, very intelligent for his year group according to standards of the day, looks back at me like I’m some kind of idiot. He mutters sarcastically to whomever will notice as he walks away, “What’s he on about? Whom. Why doesn’t he just speak English?”

Learn the Language

I’m on the mailing list for FAXDC and ALIPAC and probably other US-based anti-immigration sites.  I have commented on immigration as a social issue occasionally. Recently, the Unnamed Woman came across a cartoon from xkcd.com which expresses my sentiments accurately.

Benefits of Swearing

For students who feel they might be short a few marks on English GCSE exams, they can always add a few obscenties. In fact, the only thing a student needs to do is write some obscenties.

The largest exam board, AQA, gives marks for f**k off, as according to the chief examiner, Peter Buckroyd, “It would be wicked to give it zero, because it does show some very basic skills we are looking for – like conveying some meaning and some spelling. It’s better than someone that doesn’t write anything at all. It shows more skills than somebody who leaves the page blank.”

An AQA spokesperson tried to distance the board from the chief examiner’s remarks. The only thing is that it is the chief examiner who writes the exam and trains the other exam markers. So the AQA office can meaninglessly distance itself all it wants.

The Government has a regulatory body responsible for all the exam qualification, Ofqual. They don’t want to get involved. Their spokesperson said, “We think it’s important that candidates are able to use appropriate language in a variety of situations but it’s for awarding bodies to develop their mark scheme and for their markers to award marks in line with that scheme.” Who creates the mark scheme? The chief examiner, of course.

The student who wrote the exam answer used by Mr Buckroyd to train markers did not get full credit for “f**k off” because he did not include punctuation. “If it had had an exclamation mark it would have got a little bit more because it would have been showing a little bit of skill. We are trying to give higher marks to the students who show more skills.” According to The Times, with an exclamation mark it would be worth 11% of the marks on the GCSE paper.

Just Like It Sounds

Last night the wife and I were shopping as saw that a local supermarket had whole salmon for £10. The sign on the fish counter said “Whole salmon – £10. Place your order now.” This fit into the wife’s menu for Boxing Day.

The girl behind at the counter, a product of the British education system and undoubtedly with a GCSE in English, took our order. When we told her what we wanted she dutifully wrote in the order book, “Hole Samon”. We walked away shaking our heads.