Sunday, October 7, 2012

On the use of the Queen’s English.

Jonnie Comet
30 May 1997

  There have been some who question my use of British Commonwealth English, claiming that, for an American-born writer and scholar living in the late 20th C., and especially as an educator in language arts, I of all people ought to be embracing the usage of modern American English.  The fact is that for purely academic reasons I have been adhering to this usage almost exclusively since about 1972, except in those forums where Americentric instructors and those unable to recognise the Queen’s English forbade it (I have had PhDs in English literature ask me why I’d misspelt this way, not realising it might have been deliberate). Though it may leave me vulnerable to heated debate, particularly from anti-Anglo Americans, I can and do set forth my rationale in honest, reasonable terms.
  The first is that the English invented the language. Swift once advocated a ‘language police’ to correct errors and enforce spelling and mechanics, an idea upon which Dr Johnson obviously leaned in compiling his first English Dictionary in 1755. I confess I sort of like the idea– well, consider the alternative, which smacks of linguistic relativism. But then, openly despising all things English or European, Emerson advised his friend Webster to concoct an American dictionary in the early 19th C, in which all vestiges or Anglo- or Eurocentric usage would be ‘corrected’. In this heavy-handed anti-Anglo anti-dogmatism, itself hypocritically dogmatic, the idea of a deliberately deviant form of the language emerged. I would therefore submit that this typically Romantic (and American) rebellion has caused more confusion than good, and my next few points will support that.
  Next, the use of Commonwealth usage represents a more enlightened world view. Only the culturally ignorant would refer to British spellings and usage as ‘wrong’ and the American ones as ‘right’, when the United States is the only English-using society which deviates from the established English usage materially, such as in prescribed rules of grammar, spellings and pronunciations. If we are ever to unite this world by a common language, that language ought to be English, and not American English but the real thing. Consider, dear Reader, before you claim that America somehow outweighs England in all things considerable, that the largest English-speaking populace in the world is neither America nor England itself, but the Commonwealth Republic of India; and the Indians use British English. In numbers alone the original form must take precedence; for in fact, the total population of the world using British English in everyday discourse, occupying every continent of the globe, in writing as well as speech, outnumbers the Americans three to one.
  I may be American by birth and Italian at heart, but I am English by choice. My sensibilities are English, not American. Like a pre-1770s Colonial I see things through English precedents and do not subscribe to Emerson’s proud boast that the United States is somehow entitled to be culturally and linguistically superior to and insulated from England. For my life I cannot see how any thinking person can claim that. The British have been America’s staunchest ally, culturally, financially and militarily, since the first third of the 1800s and still own more real estate in America than any other foreigners. Further the entire institution of the American nation is predicated on English common law and the forerunners of English history, culture, architecture and philosophy. Refusal to accept this is akin to denying the genetic primacy of a parent. To contend that the United States could somehow exist entirely independent of England is rash, unenlightened and possibly even an indication that one is feeling ideologically threatened.
  The last justification is the most strongly held of all and hearkens back to Swift’s point. In all my pedagogical studies, especially in the English content areas, the gravest concern of the instructors and textbook authors seems to be the inclusion of what are known as ‘multicultural’ influences. The modern stated mission for liberal language educators in America is to tolerate, absorb, and in some cases even teach ‘nonstandard’ variations of English.  I submit that this is woefully anti-literate and anti-intellectual. These deviations tend to come from people whose education in standard English is below the desired ideal, as defined by the schools themselves– in other words, the people who deviate from standard English do so because they are ignorant of it, not because out of poetic licence they have opted to use something else for some kind of effect. My argument is this: if we are expected to accept alterations to a dynamic language from undereducated elements of society, then why must I be considered ‘incorrect’ to insist that the language could and should likewise be affected by higher-educated elements of society, even– and mark this point very clearly– from the most enlightened and highest-educated elements of all, those who are aware that American English is not the definitive form of the language?  If we are ever to be better people, and a better society, we must be upwardly mobile in our aspirations. Rather than accepting inferior linguistics, we should be fostering superiority in our communication. For my part, then, I shall adopt the language of kings and nobles, use it well and encourage all in my sphere of influence to do likewise.

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