My first instinct, when I heard that the Queen's English Society had decided to set up an academy on the lines of the Académie Française in order to prevent declining standards in the use of English, was to laugh and jeer. First, because the whole idea of an Academy of that sort betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the way that language works. It's like putting King Canute in charge of the Government committee on rising sea levels. But I was also contemptuous of the Society themselves, their competence and their motives. Viz.:
- Despite the occasional nod to the idea that change in language is inevitable, it's fairly clear that their idea of correct English is that spoken and written in public schools, circa 1900. This seems, shall we say, an arbitrary choice. Why not fix on 1600, when Shakespeare was at his peak, and Spenser only partially decomposed? Better Oor Wullie than, say, John Galsworthy, surely?
- They are, frankly, snobs, using phrases such as "low-class" and "working-class" as terms of opprobrium.
- There's something rather unappealing - and, indeed, un-British - about this 1000-strong group of self-appointed language vigilantes calling themselves an Academy and telling the rest of us how to speak. The words "tin Hitler" spring to mind. (Does anyone else still use that phrase? I can't bring myself to drop it.)
- As a visit to their web site reveals, they can't write very good English themselves, even by their own standard of what counts as good English. The site is riddled with out-of-place hyphens, superfluous (or missing) commas, spellings such as "publically" which are only very doubtfully called the Queen's English (as opposed to President Obama's), inappropriate capitalization (the putative head of the Academy learned English "at his Mother's knee"), and so on. On the radio yesterday, the Society's chairman (oh yes, chairman, none of that trendy feminist nonsense), Rhea Williams, was foolhardy enough to use the word "myriad" and came woefully unstuck.
Having said that, I do see that from their point of view I'm part of some great trahison des clercs. If the professional academics won't set up an academy to keep an eye on the language that is their proper charge, if they keep spouting relativistic stuff about how Dizzee Rascal and Dickens are really much of a muchness, and doing whatever else it is they do in those ivory towers at the taxpayer's expense, how should a group of language lovers respond? Let's do the "No!" right here! Though I think they're wrong on almost every count, that feeling of disenfranchisement and powerlessness is one with which I feel a kind of visceral sympathy, and when I see myself through their eyes, sneering de haut en bas (oh, how they hate French phrases!) at their attempt to save the language, and thence the world they love, I begin to hate myself.
Okay, "hate" is too strong a word. But I do think I should get on with some work.