One of the text extracts that I linked to in this post, was a piece called In Defence of Good Grammar, written by James Innes-Smith for The Critic website, which bills itself as a "monthly magazine for politics, ideas, art, literature and much more".
The language pieces on there are not very frequent but, when they do appear, seem to me to be a mixed bag. Some of them recycle quite common prescriptive positions. So there's this one from April 2023 which starts off by complaining about supposed Americanisms in the English language before firmly aiming its fire at just Americans more generally. It even manages to include a language discourses greatest hits in this paragraph:
Turn on the wireless at any hour, and you may think this country has been infected by a linguistic virus. Words and phrases that were once regarded as intrusive Americanisms have become commonplace. Curveball (what’s wrong with bouncer?) and stepping up to the plate (taking a fresh guard?) are daily horrors which merit six firm strokes of the cane.
Then there's this one which focuses on language and class through the lens of Angela Rayner's non-standard grammar. But then you also see a few others - like this one on accommodation, class and downwards convergence - which are a bit more linguistically descriptive in their outlook.
But it's the other article on Angela Rayner and language 'standards' that I want to focus on here, so what follows is an attempt to offer a few things: a bit of analysis, some discussion of some of the techniques and language choices being used and a couple of suggestions about where this article and some of its ideas might sit within wider discourses about language.
You can probably tell that I've taken quite a critical stance towards it but you may well want to look at it from other perspectives and see if some of its arguments can be supported linguistically or if they might be seen as being more coherent and well-supported than I thought. Towards the end, there are also a few suggestions for other extracts in the article that you could analyse and evaluate. Anyway, here goes...
Title immediately suggests a discourse of conflict: a defence is being made against some kind of attack.
The standfirst presupposes that Angela Rayner is torturing our language
and the only question up for debate is why she needs to be stopped.
Interesting choice of verb in ‘torturing’: language is being represented as the victim of a painful process.
Who is the ‘we’ in ‘our language’ and why has this possessive determiner been chosen? What might be the implications around the portrayal of those who are not part of the 'we', 1st person plural, group?
The image (from 1954) is in black and white and presents an elocution lesson.
Is this the era the writer wants us to return to? A post-war utopia where people were happy to be taught how to speak ‘properly’? A simpler time when rules were rules and everyone followed them?
- What is the language issue and how is it being represented here?
- Interesting modifiers in this noun phrase: clear, educated English. Why choose these?
- And what do we make of these choices of abstract noun? class division, snobbishness and elitism
…and yes, I do believe “speaking well” has value however unfashionable that may sound.
In the UK there remains an underlying sense that speaking well is the sole preserve of a posh elite, which may explain the lack of educational rigour when it comes to teaching the language.
You may have noticed the extent of adolescent inarticulacy when listening to school leavers struggling to construct a coherent sentence without having to fall back on verbal ticks such as “like”, “innit” and “you know what I mean?” Yet this pummelling at the foundations of communication is by no means limited to the less well educated.
Instead of lowering standards to meet ideological whims and cultural and class sensitivities we should be lifting young people out of the prison of low expectation and equipping them with the tools they need to live a rich and communicative life.
What language deconstructionists fail to acknowledge is that without these vital literacy skills, children will always struggle to find purpose and meaning. By allowing language to become part of the culture war we deny children access to the great works of literature as well as limiting their chances of gainful employment.
Angela Rayner may have lucked out but millions of working class people remain trapped in systemic disadvantage brought about by a lack of will on the part of teachers and parents to instil a love of language.
...without fluency of language, they will remain trapped in a cycle of ignorance and poverty...